Personal Experience Case
One free afternoon, a friend asked me to accompany her to the clinic for a checkup. As far as I could tell, she was not sick, and I asked her what the problem was. She looked at me, smiled and looked away. After a brief silence, she told me it was kind of personal and that even if she wanted to tell me, she lacked the words to explain it. I made several guesses, including pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection. However, considering that my friend is of an Islamic background, I ruled these possibilities out given Islam’s strict position on sex between unmarried people. The walk to the clinic was occasioned by awkward moments whenever our eyes met. She was silent most of the time, and I changed the subject to make her feel at ease.
At the clinic, we found a male receptionist. When he inquired what our problem is, she said she wanted to talk to the doctor. The receptionist said that he needed to know her problem so that he could direct her to right department. However, she insisted that she could only talk to a doctor. The receptionist shrugged it off and asked us to wait. A few minutes later, a doctor came in and the receptionist explained the situation regarding my friend. The doctor came over and inquired what her problem was. Again, she refused to talk, saying that she can only talk to a female doctor. The doctor was evidently angered, perhaps because he has never met a patient who did not want to speak to male doctors. Getting impatient, he said, “Look here miss, we are kind of busy here, with several patients to attend to. If you are so lucky as to choose whether you’re served by a male or female doctor, you are in the wrong place.” She kept silent, and the doctor cocked his head leaned crosser and said with a conspiratorial smile, “Oh, I see. Is it an abortion you want? In that case the person to see is doctor…..” he did not finish his statement. She flinched immediately the doctor leaned closer and her face turned pale. For a moment she looked like she will faint. When she regained her composure, she pulled her veil tight to cover her face and stormed out of the clinic. All this time, my mind was preoccupied guessing her problem, because knowing her and where she comes from I was sure pregnancy was out of the question. Startled by her behavior, the doctor turned to me and said, “I’m really sorry about your friend, and it seems that I rubbed her the wrong way. Do you know what her problem is?” I said no, left the reception room and hurried after her.
I found her in her room, and after asking her as gently as possible and promising not to tell anyone, she told me what I considered to be so normal that I found her reluctance to talk about it openly a little strange.
“How can he talk to me like that, it is not right!” she complained. “It is not something a woman can openly talk to a man about. Perhaps we Arabs are a bit backward and traditional as westerners like to think, but I cannot just change overnight. And what was he thinking when he leaned towards me so close? That I’m a whore she can hold and kiss like I see Americans do in the streets? I cannot shed the values and norms of my culture in a blink of an eye just because I need help. In any case, it is not anything serious that can give me sleepless nights. I’ll wait until the holiday and go for checkup back at home. It can wait.”
“It is okay, Amina,” I said. But it might get worse if you wait that long. Whatever it is, it needs immediate treatment. Just tell me, I’ll help you where I can. And I won’t tell anyone, I promise.” After fingering her hands for a while, she looked down and said,
“It is my periods, something is wrong.”
“Yeah,” I encouraged her on. “It is a normal process in a female’s body. What is the matter?” She inhaled, and then said.
“First, I want you to know that I’m not pregnant. I cannot get pregnant before marriage.”
“I know that,” I said.
“Well, I have missed my periods for the last two months.” She looked away and said, “I’ve never had sex, you have to believe me on that.”
After doing my best to convince her that she was fine and there was no need to be worried, I took her to a female friend who is a nurse. After listening to her problem, she referred her to a female gynecologist, who prescribed medication for her. Two months later, she surprised me in front of our friends.
“Chi,” she addressed me by my nickname. “My periods are normal again. Thanks for your help. And before I forget, I’m sorry. I was just a silly girl who cannot find the right words to say she feared she was pregnant even if she had never slept with a boy.” Everyone else laughed heartily, except me. I was still unsure whether Amina had really said that. In the end, I just smiled and said, “Welcome to America, the land of the free.”
The term cross-cultural communication refers to the ability to effectively “form, foster, and improve relationships with members of a culture different from one's own” (Arnold & Boggs, 2003). It involves having knowledge about the other culture’s social norms, cultural practices, traditions and values that dictate the behavior of its members. These behaviors are manifested in social and business contexts, and a lack of knowledge on the way they come into play and their significance will hinder effective communication. Considering that today’s business and workplace contexts are a merging of different cultures, it is vitally necessary to understand how to communicate or manage in culturally diverse environments.
From this incident, it is clear that many aspects of cross-cultural communication are at play. Unfortunately, the situation could be said to have been mismanaged because the involved agents, particularly the receptionist and the doctor failed to recognize these factors and respond accordingly.
The world has become so much globalized that it is impossible to ignore the influence of other cultures upon our own. This is especially the case in corporate practices, whereby multinationals operate across international borders. Business managers are no longer regional representatives, but global actors who corroborate across international borders. Consequently, it is crucial for business leaders to understand the cultural values and norms that dictate the behavior and actions of people in different cultural settings. In relation to the above case, however, it is clear that cross-cultural communication does not come into play only when people go outside their own cultures, but also when people from outside cultures come into their own. Accordingly, effective communication requires the ability to anticipate and deal with cultural diversity at all times, regardless the place where the different cultures meet.
The first step toward achieving effective cross-cultural communication is detecting useful hints from non-verbal cues. In my experience with Amina, I failed to relate her silence and uneasiness to talk about her problem to the social values that govern a Muslim woman’s behavior. Islamic teachings encourage keeping of distance between females and males, especially in public places. Their dressing style, such as the covering of women’s faces with a veil, emphasizes the physical separation of men and women. This practice goes beyond the keeping of physical distance, and includes the observation of certain etiquette manners when speaking with members of the opposite sex. This is especially the case when discussing personal and private matters such as one’s menstrual cycle. In this case, I should have detected the sensitivity of the issue from her reluctance to talk. Accordingly, I should have intervened at the clinic to ensure that she talked to a female doctor. Considering the nature of her problem, she would have been more comfortable discussing it with a female doctor than a male one.
The incident with the doctor at the hospital reflects the connection between non-verbal communication and cultural values. Among Muslims, physical contact between males and females in public is usually kept at the minimum. Where possible, contact is avoided altogether. This is evidenced by practices such as not shaking hands with a man when greeting each other and having separate halls for prayers during worship. Not surprisingly, the doctor’s closeness must have come as a shock for someone not used to such situations. From her cultural point of view, it is indecent and inappropriate. It goes against the norms she has been brought up with. On his part, the doctor might have considered closeness as a show of concern. Indeed, in the western culture it is considered rude, cold, or lack of interest when someone keeps distance during conversations. It is common to see people leaning towards each other to keep privacy, or to console an aggrieved person by patting/touching them on the shoulder. This contrasts with the Arab world view on personal distance, where getting too close may view it as being aggressive, pushy, or disrespectful. The respect accorded to the female body among Muslims is evidenced by Amina’s anger at the doctor’s getting close to her. In this regard, cross-cultural communication requires skills to integrate the values of different cultures without antagonizing each other. In corporate practices, managing across cultural borders requires leaders to understand the importance of the local cultures and their manifestation in people’s behaviors and actions. For instance, it would be outrageous for a condom marketer to advertise its products on TV in Saudi Arabia or any other conservative country. Thus, it is necessary to respect the culture of the target audience in all forms of communication.
Dr. Milton Bennett, co-founder of the Intercultural Development Research Institute (IDRI), has formulated a theory to guide cross-cultural communication. His concept, known as the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity, provides a framework for understanding the way other cultures function, and therefore the need to use communication approaches that recognize cultural diversity (Landis & Bennett, 2004). As the model’s title suggests, it involves being sensitive to the importance of other cultures in a multicultural setting. The theory identifies six stages that individuals undergo in their encounters with new cultures. The first is denial, whereby people show little interests to learn about other cultures. Amina and the doctor showed this quality in their ignorance of the cultural differences between them. The second stage is defense, characterized by the tendency to consider other cultures as inferior to their own. This is exemplified by Amina’s criticism of the doctor’s behavior (getting too close). In her view, westerners lack manners in public places because the hold and kiss in full view of strangers. She evidently misunderstood the doctor’s action as an intimate gesture. She did not understand that in the western culture people show concern and interest by keeping a close distance when talking. In the third stage, minimization, individuals start to realize that some values are common across cultures. For instance, be caring is a universal value, although different cultures show it differently. Misinterpretation of non-verbal cues might lead to misjudgments and misunderstandings, such as the doctor’s actions. The fifth stage is acceptance, whereby individuals begin to recognize and accept cultural diversity. Amina realized that the western culture is different from her own, but not inferior. In this way, she was able to reconcile her worldview with her circumstances. The fifth stage, adaptation, involves gaining the ability to interact with people from other cultures freely. It involves changing one’s behavior to fit in a new culture. Amina’s courage to talk about her personal life freely shows a degree of adaptation into the western culture. Finally, integration occurs after long term interaction with other cultures, especially among expatriates working in foreign countries.
In conclusion, cross-cultural communication skills are necessary for effective communication in multicultural environments. For business managers, it is necessary to adapt to various cultural environments to ensure effective communication. This involves understanding the norms and values of the local communities. In cases where people from other cultures come into their own cultures, it is necessary to be sensitive to the differences that exist between the two cultures. This will help them to show appropriate behaviors and responses, which will in turn promote effective communication and understanding. The incident at the clinic could not have happened if the doctor had had knowledge of Amina’s cultural background.