Sincronía Spring 2005

The Challenge of Crossing Cultures


Universidad de Guadalajara





Nowadays, people in general have much more media exposure to different cultures as well as more communication with people from countries around the world. Thus the need for understanding and mutual respect across cultural boundaries is imperative. Implicit in the achievement of understanding and respect is the successful interchange among human beings that we call communication. Language is, of course, a key component of communication, and although the accurate use of linguistic forms is necessary for effective communication, in most communicative situations, the communicators do more than simply talk to each other in grammatically well-constructed sentences, that is to say, there has to be familiarity with the culture of the language being used by the communicators. As Seelye (1998), states: "To know another’s language and not his culture is a very good way to make a fool of one’s self".

Fortunately, at present we can deal with cultural information more easily than before because of the increased emphasis on cross-cultural understanding encouraged by educational programs in order to fully develop spirit of inquiry about other cultures and other ways. However, this is not an easy quest and requires all of us to become fully aware of our own cultural conditioning and fully cognizant of the assumptions and values that lie outside our awareness but influence every part of our conscious lives. It also requires that we build some skill in developing and maintaining relationships with people from cultures different, sometimes dramatically different, from our own.

Because of the many embarrassing situations faced when people from different cultures meet, the purpose of this article is to address important criteria that people should have in mind when they need to deal with "The Challenge of Crossing Cultures"


I. Definition

When we talk about "CULTURE", What are we really talking about? To define Culture as "a shared background resulting from a common language and communication style, customs, beliefs, attitudes and values", would not be as a complete definition as all we would expect. Seelye (1998), states that most of the argumentative discussions over the definition of culture have been colossal wastes of time because a precise common denominator was not found. Thus instead of defining the term, he suggests, we should spend our time operationally observing and describing all aspects of human life since culture is seen to include everything people learn to do. However, this is not as simple as it would appear because culture has some aspects that can be easily understood but many others that can lead us to misunderstandings.

Levine (1993) has compared culture to an iceberg, represented in figure 1, most of which is hidden underwater. Like the iceberg, much of the influence of culture cannot be seen. The part of the culture that is exposed is not always that which creates cross-cultural difficulties; the hidden aspects of culture have significant effects on behavior and on interaction with others. Culture hides more than it reveals, and strangely enough, what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants. Language, Food, Appearance are aspects clearly visible for us. However, Communication Styles, Beliefs, Attitudes, Values, Perceptions, etc. are beyond the scope of our eye, interacting among them and leaving us at the shelter of awareness.


Fig. 1: Culture bears comparison with an iceberg.


II. How to learn to communicate cross-culturally

Cross-cultural communication, a very important skill to develop, is the process of sharing meaning through verbal and nonverbal behavior among people from different cultures which influences people’s reactions and responses to each other. Communication in new situations, particularly when there is a new language involved, can be frustrated and ambiguous. It often requires creating some new ways of conveying meaning.

The point is that language and culture are linked together and that communication, even between two people speaking the same language can be difficult if there is a cultural difference between the two speakers. So that, if the problem with other cultures is that the people do not behave the way they are supposed to, that is like us, the solution to this difficulty is to stop expecting them to behave as they do.

Perhaps, for the average person, a complete assimilation of a second culture may be even more difficult than speaking with flawness grammar and accurate pronunciation. What may be more realistic and valuable than striving for total assimilation of the target culture is the development of an awareness of culture and the intercultural skill that one develops on the way to cultural awareness.

We might wonder why people behave the way they do. Well, five hundred years before the birth of Christ, Confucius observed that by nature human beings are nearly alike, though by practice they get to be wide apart: "All people are the same. It’s only their habits that are different". We are by nature alike because we share the same basic needs. We all need to eat and to make friends, for instance. The different ways we go about doing this frequently puzzle and sometimes alienate people who are looking in from outside.

We speak of cultural adjustment, but in fact it is not culture per se that one must adapt, but to culture as manifested and encountered in the behavior of individual foreigners. It is because we are not expecting particular behaviors in particular situations that, as a result, we don’t know how to respond. The reason we are not expecting the behaviors that so confound us is that our conditioning – the sum of our experiences of the world – has taught us (as it teaches people everywhere) that everyone behaves more or less as we do. We do not only assume this to be true, we depend on its being true. When we go abroad and discover it is not so, we are not merely surprised, we are also threatened. The resulting agitation provokes us to withdraw from and avoid the culture around us. Behavior, then, is what we have to observe.

It would be impossible to draw up a list of behaviors of a target culture, ranging from those that are desirable to those that are taboo. Besides, the classification of behavior as desirable or taboo endows it with misleading objectivity. Behavior is ambiguous: the same action may have different meanings in different situations, so that it is necessary to identify the context of behavior and the contingencies of the action before jumping into judgmental conclusions. As Pusch (1981) once said: "To have your eyes widened and your organ of belief stretched". When you have submitted to looking about you discreetly and to observing with as little prejudice as possible, then you are in a proper state of mind to walk about and learn from what you see.

Cultural awareness can be seen as the recognition that culture affects perception and that culture influences values, attitudes and behavior. The development of this awareness can be described as the process of sequential stages leading ideally toward toleration and appreciation of cultural diversity. However, the doubt whether cross-cultural training should be "culture-specific" or "culture-general" prevails. That is, should training focus only on a particular country, or should it be designed to help students develop skills useful in any intercultural situation? . The unstated assumption is that the two approaches are mutually exclusive. Fortunately within the practice including both approaches has shown to be beneficial. It has become common practice to start with culture-general material and exercises, then turn to the culture of one’s own country, and finally, to include a country-specific phase that concentrates on the country to which the participants are going.

Literature, songs, videos, films, etc,. are good material to get acquainted with a target culture, however, a very productive exercise to learn how to develop skills to communicate with people from different backgrounds is to use the following framework, figure 2, formed by seven goals sufficiently detailed which would enable a teacher to focus on the reason for using most cultural illustrations. This framework is a modification from the one provided by Ned Seelye (1989).


Cultural Goal


The student should indicate some awareness ....



1. Food

2. Love

3. Family

1. Food

2. Love

3. Family

1. Food

2. Love

3. Family

1. Food

2. Love

3. Family

1. Food

2. Love

3. Family

1. Food

2. Love

3. Family

1. Food

2. Love

3. Family

Fig. 2: Goals and objectives of Culture Study.

As we can see from the framework above, the same cultural topics can contribute to achieve different goals.

Let’s take the inviting topic of "LOVE" for exemplifying the use of this framework. As we can assume, the topic of love is too broad. It would include the manifestations of love to: a friend, a parent, a pet, etc. That is why, in this exemplification we will narrow this topic to the aspect "Love: as manifested to a person you are in love with". Then we will focus on some observations to be made in order to better identify the Cultural Goal the presented activities will reach.


Topic: LOVE

Aspect: As manifested to a person you are in love with

Goal 1 What behavior patterns are associated indirectly with love:

(e,g, "blind dates", "living together -married and/or unmarried-", "standing closer than usual", "suffering", "dating", etc.)?

Goal 2 How do (young, older) people express love? At what age people start dating?

How would a typical loving relationship be?

Goal 3 What are some phrases one uses to express love?, What are the rituals accompanying marriage?, How people dress up to meet their love ones? How do people express grief after breaking-up?
Goal 4 Do any of the expressions used for love figure in common jokes?

Do people consider the people of X city to possess any special loving attribute?

Goal 5 Is any given statement about love sympathetic or ethnocentric?

How much evidence does it seem to be based on? Are variables and social class taken into consideration?

Goal 6 How aptly can a student locate information concerning love in the target culture?

How does the student relate his report to significant issues?

Goal 7 How much interest does the student show to continue learning about love in the target culture?

Following the same procedure we can identify the goals of other tricky and touchy aspects of culture.

III. Principles of Cross-Cultural Learning

According to Levine, Deena & Adelman, Mara (1993), a complete understanding of the following Principles of Cross-Cultural Learning will enable students to develop cultural awareness which would ease the difficulty to cope with people from different cultures.

Culture versus Language

Culture, unlike language, is not comprise of fixed rules to all members of one culture. The cultural generalizations are descriptions of commonly observed patterns, they may not hold true for every member of a given culture.


Generalizations versus Stereotypes

Cultural generalizations are different from stereotypes. The latter are applied to all members of a particular culture and tend to limit, rather than broaden, one’s views of other cultural groups. Stereotypes are exaggerated images and beliefs. Generalizations are more likely to provide insight into learned behaviors often demonstrated by many people of a given group.


"Rights" versus "Wrongs"

There are no absolute "rights" and "wrongs" , only cultural differences. What is appropriate in one culture may be inappropriate in another culture.

Ideal Values versus Behavioral values

There are two levels of observation in order to approach cultural values: 1) all cultures have values and ideals that their members ‘say’ are true, and 2) people’s behavior may not always reflect those values.


Culture versus Behavior

Culture does not explain all behavior. It does greatly influence behavior, but so too do: an individual’s personality, age, gender, economic and educational levels, life experiences, relationships, and specific situations.


Egalitarianism versus Ethnocentrism

Egalitarians who say, "We are all alike; we are all humans" deny the shape and flavor that cultures contribute to individual development. Ethno centrists who state, "We are so different that we must stay separate" create harmful barriers by closing their eyes to what is common to every human being.

One’s Culture versus Other’s Culture

Learning about culture is enriching. The more one learns about others, the more one sees one’s own culture more clearly. By learning about contrasts, we can better understand how culture influences individuals and their communication with others





This article aimed to provide readers with an opportunity not only to learn more about a target culture, but also to build an attitude of intelligence and liberated respect for cultures, about their own and others. It also aimed to provide a general set of skills and attitudes that readers will carry over into future intercultural experience, whether in a target culture or in the culture yet to be encountered in the future. Finally, keep in mind that we, as individuals, not only respond differently to what we are doing, but also we progress at different rates as human beings adjusting to and assimilating a new culture.




1. Levine, Deena & Adelman, Mara (1993). Beyond Language, USA: Prentice Hall Regents.

2. Pusch, Margaret (1981). Multicultural Education, USA: Intercultural Press Inc.

3. Saville – Troike, Muriel. (1984) A Guide to Culture in the Classroom, USA: National Clearing House for Bilingual Education.

4. Seelye, Ned (1988). Teaching Culture, USA: National Texbook Company.

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Sincronía Spring 2005