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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Culture, Context & Crossing Borders

Please welcome back guest blogger Brittany Browne as she reflects on communicating across
borders, and what those boundaries might actually be:

Communication issues are inevitable, especially when it comes to cross-cultural interactions. At times, among my very own inner circle, I struggle with cultural context, appreciating differences and adapting to preferred communication styles. Sometimes this depends on my lack of understanding for their previous background experiences or vice versa. Although we don’t often admit it, most of the time, we come to “the table” with our preconceived notions regardless of our good intentions.

I used to believe that crossing borders and traveling the world was the ultimate way to truly become connected with culture. A year ago, I found myself living in Geneva, Switzerland promoting internationalism and those who were of other ethnicities outside of the United States, as if they were superior to those who were American. This thought originated because I realized that for a while I resented the American culture due to the borrowing of other cultures that our country so often has taken on while passing them off as our own. I would often think “who are we to know anything about culture.” Therefore, I would add on to this thought that culture, true culture, needed to be experienced abroad.
Michelle LeBaron, professor at UBC law and author of Bridging Conflict: A New Approach for Changing the World wrote an essay in 2003 titled Cross Cultural Communication. In the first paragraph, she writes a few sentences that are worth reflecting upon:
“All communication is cultural -- it draws on ways we have learned to speak and give nonverbal messages. We do not always communicate the same way from day to day, since factors like context, individual personality, and mood interact with the variety of cultural influences we have internalized that influence our choices.”
Hearing these words, I wonder if my lack of understanding has sometimes been attributed to what LeBaron suggested in saying that our communication draws on ways we have learned to speak and give non-verbal messages. However, my question then becomes, “Can we use day to day factors, moods, and individual personalities as a valid reason for our lack of communicating effectively when it comes to cross-culture communication among others?”

My experiences abroad taught me a great deal about what culture, context and communication can look and feel like, how openly embracing these natural realms of diversity can give way to new perspectives and how they are not always a positive experience as well. But, it was not until I arrived back home in the U.S. that I was able to see those thoughts manifested in reality as I understood deeper that culture does not have to cross borders. In my everyday interactions, almost immediately from my arrival back home, I saw how the definition of culture shaped people’s responses to breaking news. Shared beliefs, values, goals, and practices of a particular group of people should not offend us or draw us away. As quoted by Stephen Covey by way of St. Francis of Assisi, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” It is the living out of this quote through faith that culture and context come together.
I have had my fair share of traveling across the world with plenty more to explore. On those future journeys, I am sure that I will be met face-to-face with more cultural contextual situations that help me to realize that because you have not crossed borders does not mean that the culture is the same. In fact, crossing borders can be symbolic for simply crossing different sides of town sometimes. Along those same thoughts, every person in a particular culture does not posses the same characteristics all the time. Therefore, it is wise to count every individual, even within a particular culture, as a unique creation of God.

In the end, if we genuinely want to be more conscious about our interactions among other cultures, and truly want to meet people where they are within their context, we can start by taking a look at ourselves and the ways we learned to think, act, speak in our own cultures the way I had to take a look at my inner circle and interactions. Ultimately, this will give us a good understanding of what differences exist that make us uncomfortable and point us in the opposite direction from our cultural biases. The best part about learning in this realm is that you don’t need to necessarily hop on a plane to experience, understand and apply your results.

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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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