Intercultural communication theories

Hall (1966) explains the differences in roles and rules between cultures on the basis of communication patterns. In high-context cultures like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, most information in a message is encoded in the physical context or in a culturally prescribed catalog of rules, roles and status. High-context cultures are generally more formal; communication tends to be less direct and more ambiguous. For example, exposing the sole of one’s foot while seated in a public area is considered an insulting gesture in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia based on cultural rules that define the action as a sign of disrespect. In a low-context culture like America, where most of the information in a message is contained in the explicit or verbal message, these types of behaviors are usually not assigned meaning.

Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck (1961) identified areas around which all societies appear to develop the values that influence day-to-day interactions. Two areas are key to understanding Kuwaiti and Saudi culture: the importance of time and the relationship of the individual to society. In these cultures change is not necessarily associated with progress and high-value is placed on tradition. In contrast, Americans tend to equate change with progress; traditions have limited value for a future-oriented society.

Concerning the individuals’ role in society, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are considered to be collectivist cultures. That is, the group is elevated over the individual and group harmony is sought over individual needs. The focus is on the extended group, such as a racial or religious group. America is an individualistic society that values individual autonomy; the rights of the individual are pre-eminent.

Understanding the importance of traditions and group harmony in Kuwaiti and Saudi culture also helps to explain the difference between the role and status of women in those countries and in the United States. For example, women are not allowed to vote in either Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, and women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. But this is not problematic in cultures that have decided women should play a submissive role in the interest of group harmony. In the same way, individuals abstain from alcohol consumption for religious group identity, hence alcohol is illegal in both countries.

These cultural differences pose significant challenges that can, as noted above, cause stress and anxiety. This research project proposes theory-based interventions to alleviate the problems caused by intercultural differences. The following section explains the role of intercultural training to prepare people for assignments in foreign cultures.

Intercultural training programs

Since the mid-1960s, researchers have come to accept intercultural training as a useful method to prepare people for work in other cultures (Bhawuk, 1998). Rapid growth in international business and a corresponding growth in the intercultural training industry has led to the development of various training tools available to organizations during the past 10 years, such as videos, briefings, and fully developed orientation programs (Copeland & Griggs, 1985).

Black and Mendenhall (1990) identify several types of intercultural communication training programs that have been effective. One applicable to this study is culture specific training, and is provided to people who will live or work in a culture different from their own. This training provides information about a particular culture to give the sojourner some knowledge about common rules, roles, values and interpretive patterns. This knowledge will make the sojourner more able to understand the reasons for events and behaviors in the foreign culture. A search of the Internet using the keywords "intercultural training" found many of the websites offering intercultural training programs use culture-specific training (Appendix C).

Much intercultural training is designed for business organizations that send their employees to work for several years in parts of the organization that are located in countries with significantly different cultures. These employees interact closely with members of the foreign culture, and the objective of these programs is to achieve a high degree of cultural assimilation in order to maximize business performance (Tung, 1981). However, as the following section shows, intercultural training for military personnel may not require such a degree of assimilation. Next

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