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Author: Mark Wellington
Intercultural Communication
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To broach a topic such as culture is to find oneself in an "epistemological1 band" of
debates that may not produce any deductive logic. In fact the concept of culture is so
dynamic that there is no fixed definition upon which all theorizing cannot be successfully

In essence, we may best approximate culture to signify those symbols, language and
other gestures that are understood by a group of persons to mean the same thing. In fact,
such cultural affiliations are the facilitators of communication2 between/among human

It is therefore not hard to deduce, why communication between two (2) persons or among
a group of persons of the same culture would be easier than communication
between/among groups of persons of different cultures. Since communication does not
only include the dissemination and the use of language (with feedback) then other
variables of culture as mentioned above may interfere with effective communication.

Robert Heller in his book; "Communicating Clearly" pointed out that "good
communication is the lifeblood of all societies." He went on to highlight that
communication takes many forms. He included speaking, writing and listening as
essential variables of communication (1998;P.6). He also went on to point out that
effective communication hinges on people understanding your meaning and replying in
terms that move the exchange forward. Implied in Robert Hellers argument is the fact
that meanings must be understood by all parties to the communication process to mean
the same thing. If that is not the case then miscommunication evolves and no foundation
for growth in any form can be achieved, be it social, political or economic.

Inter-cultural Communication would denote communication between cultures. It must be
understood from the outset that culture is experienced and identified in many forms and

1 That which is philosophical and constitutes repetitive theorizing.
2 Interactive transference of meanings between intelligences.


at many geographical locations across the globe. Hence to say "inter-cultural3" does not
necessarily mean the populace of Jamaica being able to communicate effectively with the
populace of Canada for example, but would signify communication between or among
indigenous cultures of Jamaica itself. The point to be made here is that intercultural
communication is solely entrenched in meanings and not necessarily geographical

Why is Intercultural Communication important?
We communicate to get things done, pass on and obtain information, reach decisions,
achieve joint understanding and develop relationships. Hence communication covers the
social, the political and the economic aspects of life in any society. Since information
technology now seeks to achieve one global culture, then such technology must also be
capable of unifying language, symbols and gestures to achieve a true global culture. It is
considered a fact that information technology cannot capture all variables of true
communication effectively and so we are still challenged with the hypothesis of such
technologies being able to provide us with "one world order."

We live in a world that promotes free trade as the vehicle for economic growth. Free
trade captures all goods and services of all societies of the free world/democratic
societies. With such a benchmark our terms of communication to foster relationships
(political, economic and/or social) must be created on the basis of shared meanings. If
such exchange cannot be achieved then there will always be inequities in trade and
relationships nationally and internationally.

Communication and culture ­ merged variables
John Fiske in 2000 highlighted that "communication is one of those human activities that
everyone recognizes but few can define satisfactorily" (2000;P.1). It is not surprising that
this assertion was made because in a new world order where the owners of technology re-
defined communication based on the abilities of the technologies over what the
technologies actually do, make it difficult for us to have a unifying definition of

3 Between cultures and sub-cultures alike.


communication. However to keep this paper in context, we shall agree from the outset
that communication must always denote "the interactive transference of meanings among
intelligences." If "meaning" becomes our operational term, then information
dissemination cannot become an active or true definition of communication.

Let us take a look at Culture
Culture as defined by Aggrey Brown, is "that dimension of interaction (communication)
that defines a particular group of people and incorporates symbolic, technical and social
phenomena adopted and understood by such groups (1995;P.14). At the outset we can
agree that culture is created and sustained through instrumental and social arrangements
of people. As highlighted in Aggrey Browns work, technologies are both manifestations
of culture as they are the means through which culture is created and expressed. That
being the case, technologies have found themselves on both ends of the debate: 1.
Technology is a form of culture and 2. It assists in creating or re-defining cultures. Its
latter characteristics may help us to better understand how Inter-Cultural Communication
may be achieved. Hence, technological advancements modifying cultures may in fact
unify some cultures facilitating inter-cultural communication and distort others by
dissemination information but not facilitating the exchange of meanings. Hence, we may
agree to disagree on the point of intercultural communication as in some instances
intercultural communication is achieved and at other times communication between or
among cultures become thwarted. Intercultural communication must therefore be
characterized by shared meanings.







Communications "bridging gaps" in cultures globally
Where cultures are similar, communications4 have the ability to amalgamate such
cultures for purposes of common goals and outcomes. Where cultures are dissimilar,
communications have the ability to disseminate information and the additional task of
providing the avenue by which unified meanings may be adapted and sustained. The
question therefore arises: Can information technology modify cultures universally to
achieve such global harmony needed to create and sustain what is now called a global
culture? It is obvious to a number of us that this global trend is not yet achieved and it is
also obvious that barriers of language, symbols, customs and norms are not easily
modified by technology in order to create one global culture.

William J. Martin puts the term information into perspective. He pointed out that; "When
considering the nature and role of information, from what ever perspective, meaning
becomes central" (1995;P.22). He made it clear that the concepts of information and
meanings had distinct and separate characteristics [1995;P.22]. Information he said is an
intrinsic property of various systems that exist irrespective of whether any human or any
forms of intelligences perceive it or utilize it. The above assertion brings "home" the
point we have been trying to explicate thus far ­dissemination of information does not
constitute communication all the time! Hence, it may be deduced that disseminated
information is sometimes understood in a socio-cultural context and if the culture on
either side of the equation were dissimilar then communication would not have occurred.
A word in a foreign language say, possesses information, however, this word may have
no meaning to the listener if the listener has no prior knowledge of that language. The
example may be extended to include symbols and other norms not shared by those who
disseminate information and those who receive it. It is therefore easy to conclude that
communications can only effectively bridge gaps in cultures where information is
interpreted and operationalized on the bases of similar meanings.

William J. Martin therefore offers us a concise definition of communication. He states
that; "Communication is the process through which individuals in relationships, groups,

4 The technologies used to facilitate the process of communication.


organizations and societies create, transmit and use information to organize with the
environment and one another" (1995;P.26). In such an event, we can better amalgamate
our political, social and economic imperatives for the true development of a state or

The Use of Language in Cyber-Space
Technologies have converged in so many different forms and structures that now we can
safely say that we have created a world evidenced in which there is what I choose to call
Artificial Intelligence. Artificial Intelligence would seek to connote the fact that
Information Technology (IT) can perform some human tasks in a way that replicate
almost seamlessly the intelligent activities of human beings.

William J. Martin points us to the fact that; "the integration of the voice and data
communications continue unabated with digitally coded data being exchanged on the
basis of established protocols and standards" (1995;P.65). The above point is evidenced
in Cable Networks, Satellite, Microwaves, Mobile Networks and Asymmetrical Digital
Subscriber Lines. All this continues to be very complicated for the "ordinary man" to
explicate. However, one thing we can appreciate is that a single cable line is capable of
transmitting voice, data and graphics in real time. In such an event, we are saying that we
can, process data, involve ourselves in verbal communication and visualize individuals
simultaneously, regardless of where on the globe such persons are. In other words, we
are operating in Cyber-space5.

What then is Cyber-Space?: Cyber-Space is that broadband of space (global space) in
which human beings operate in real time. So for example, one can sit in his house and
"visit" Hollywood!! During that time of interconnection a kind of virtual reality sets in
and persons can literally move across the globe mentally through Cyber-space. This is
where proponents of the term "virtual reality" have their greatest strength in terms of
making the claim that "virtual reality" is not reality. However, the great debate will

5 Digital technology amalgamatiing social, political and economic transactions through high speed
transmission of data in space.


never end as most aspects of operations in Cyber-space have produced socio-economic
and political advancements, never before experienced without convergence of

The Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) offers considerable potential for the
delivery of video on demand at home. Williams sensitized us to the fact that computer
applications and demands for such would increase thus making room for greater
bandwidth in the years to come. In fact, Williams was writing in 1995 and we can
confirm today that his vision and predictions have come true! The fact is that we all have
Broad Band Internet Services [BBIS] to our disposal in the Twenty First Century.

Hence, the world has now seen and is experiencing networks which are really circulatory
systems which provide mechanism for moving data and messages from one computer to
another, from one mobile phone to another and information include voice and graphics.
Once human beings "log into" those networks we avail ourselves of and become co-opted
into Cyber-space. The growth in such technological investment grew in 1992 from
74million dollars and by the end of 1997 was more than US $ 2 billion. Today, it is a
multibillion-dollar industry. We also have the Integrated Services Digital Network
(ISDN) and the Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) of technologies. ATM has been
described as ... the definitive technology for high-speed digital networks. ATM is
capable of sending large quantities of data, voice and video conferencing simultaneously
over networks [Williams; 1995]. This phenomenon certainly explains how our ATM
machines installed by our banks for example, work. Since the technology has the ability
to interconnect with other networks, we are able to avail ourselves of Internet banking for
example. This and other examples make the realities of Cyber-space "real" and not
"virtual reality" and so our modified cultural approach to Cyber-space continuously
amaze us but nonetheless, those of us who can are locked into Cyber-space in real time.

We may summarize the above by highlighting three (3) broad categories of value added
benefits derived from (IT). Williams highlighted them for us;


1. Enhanced Communication Services: electronic mail, messaging, managed data
network services, tele and video conferencing.
2. Transaction Services: electronic data interchange; electronic funds transfer at
point of sale, home banking (ATM), teleshopping, ticket reservations etc.
3. Information Services: Online databases, electronic publishing services.

He pointed out that this list is not in anyway exhaustive but he highlighted that the above
are "already established" services (1995;P.78).

Against the concepts stated above, which are factual, we are fully cognizant that our
world has changed or is changing as to some degree technologies must be communicated
to cultures through language for its effective and widespread use! It then follows that
language and economic barriers can sometimes affect the widespread use of such nascent
technologies capable of associating and integrating us in Cyber-Space.

The Role of Language
To put a global slant on Cyber-space, we are confronted with some harsh realities. We
are aware that the world is composed of various and varying cultures, languages and
attitudes. If we consider all the languages of the world and all cultures (natural and
indigenous alike) we can deduce via common sense that IT built predominantly on the
English Language would lack the scope to effectively reach those of us who speak other
languages. This is not to say that there are not translations of the Internet from English to
some other language, however, the universal scope of its "reach" is substantially limited.

We must recall who physically own websites! They are the sole possession of
transnational organizations6 that set up their business on the World Wide Web and we
access such websites by connecting to the mainframe computer containing the data we
require. Since we already know of North Americas ownership of technologies and E-
commerce, we find most of these websites advertised in English. What about people who
speak Hindu, Arabic, Japanese, and creoles of different nationalities? Is the Internet so

6 Profit entities so designed to utilize technologies as a means of selling goods and services.


designed to reach them? Or is it that they would require a translator/translators for their
connections to Cyber-space? Considering the stated questions, we my want to agree that
if the Internet to a large degree is American owned and the principal language used for
information dissemination is English then we might not be experiencing the global
communication of which some communication philosophers speak. Again we are co-
opted into the realm of epistemology as we sometimes define the globalization of
communication in different ways and different contexts.

Language is the principal recipe of culture. That being accepted, we can further posit that
communications cannot be effective in its global reach if it is skewed negatively towards
most other languages but English. It is often said that English is the Universal Language!
Is this true? Who created such prominence for English? Our best suspicions would lead
us or cause us to believe that a large percentage of the worlds population maybe exempt
from this adoption of new IT due to the barrier of language. I may want to relate a simple
yet applicable story to this discourse. I became a resident of Canada in September of
2004: I have also been a licensed driver for over 15 years. On entering Canada, I had to
do a written Road Test in order to secure a Canadian Drivers License. The fact is that, I
failed the written exam 3 times. The most troublesome part of the exam had much to do
with interpreting accurately what the road signs signify. Even though we were working
in the same cultural context of language [English], signs used in Jamaica for driving
purposes were to some degree different in the Canadian context and so I found myself on
a "steep learning curve" almost to the point of frustration. The point I am making is that
culture, entrenched in language, symbols and norms has to be harmonious, to foster
relationships. Hence, intimacy with new global technologies must be built first and
foremost on the uniformity of languages, symbols and norms.

More on Language and Technology
Williams J. Martin points us to the fact that communication networks and the information
flow that they support, have enable companies to completely reconceptualize their
operation, facilitating new forms of functional structure. The operations he said operate
both intra-organizational and inter organizational in order to facilitate a range of alliances


among companies (1995; P.190). Now this fact is not unfamiliar to us as we very well
know that the spread of global communications have much to do with (Center-Center &
Center-Periphery7 connections of global communications. What is of central concern to
this discourse is the dynamic ways in which transnational industries are modifying their
business policies and by extension the working policies of their human resources, without
the individuals (in some instances) being able to conceptualize such changes. We are
therefore saying that the language barriers and other cultural variables maybe streamlined
by transnationals across the globe for the purposes of commerce. However, those who
fall directly in their employ are sometimes confused and frustrated by policy changes that
affect them so negatively as their "technological capabilities" become hindered by
cultural differences. Hence, the majority of our global societies living on the periphery of
"peripheral" and "center" societies are left "out there" as technophobes. Diversification
of the language of the technologies as well as affordability i.e. the cultural and the
economic would to a large degree shrink the gap between those Neil Postman describes
as technophiles8 and those who are technophobes.

Structuralism, Language and Semiotics
According to John Fiske Semiotics is a form of structuralism for it argues that we cannot
know the world on its own terms, but only through the conceptual and linguistic
structures of our culture [2000;P.115]. In that same chapter he quoted Saussure who
defines semiotics as that concept that examines the cultural specificity of representations
and their meanings by using one set of methods and terms across a full range to signify
gesture, dress, writing, speech, photography, film, television and so on. [2000]. The
central theme of his argument is that signs create meanings and such signs may create
varying meanings depending on the culture of context in which signs exist. Signs then
move from the signifier to the signified. The signified is the mental concept referred to
by the signifier. So for example, the word "tree" will not necessarily refer to a specific
tree, but to a culturally produced concept of ,,treeness." In this context semiotics put
cultural meanings to language and other signs. Semiotics then becomes apart of the

7 The connections between Industrialized countries and developing countries i.e., The Global North and
The Global South.
8 Those who fear technologies.


vocabulary for cultural studies. Hence we can conclude that culture constitutes language
as well as symbols.

Fiske as has explicated structuralism as being that ideology that refers to systems,
relationship between systems and formal structures that create and enable the production
of meaning [2000;P.115]. With such a definition, we can see that structuralism was not
seen as a theory of culture but a theory of language. Hence, Fiske points to Saussures
assertion on the theory of structuralism. Saussure claimed structuralism to be the starting
point of understanding and creating culture. Hence, language becomes the principal
recipe of culture. Saussure pointed out that there is no inherent connection between a
word and an object. It has more to do with what we take such a word to mean. This kind
of model of language poses some difficulties for communication technologies. This is so
because words in different cultures can have different meanings. In such an event,
varying interpretations of such meanings may pose difficulties in light of our stance on
what communication means. Hence, the way we see the world is determined by cultural
conventions through which we conceptualize the images received.

When Saussure insists that the relationship between a word and its meanings is
constructed and not given, he is directing us to the cultural and social dimensions of
language. Language then is cultural, not natural and so are the meanings it generates.
This ideology of language poses the greatest threat to technologies (even though
interactive) providing true global communication, as the technologies will not be able to
capture all cultures and unify meanings.

According to John Fiske, Saussure divided language into 2 categories; (a) Langue ­ all
Parole ­ specific utterance composed by the selection from the Langue [2000;P.123]. He
therefore highlighted that language is the signifying system that can be seen to be closely
ordered, structured and this can be rigorously examined and ultimately understood.
According to him, language is also seen as a means of expression that is not entirely
mechanistic in its functions but allows for a range of variant possibilities.


Hence, such possibilities pose the challenge for communication using communications.
Evidently, there are diverse interpretations of the realities of the Internet. Due to the
interactive nature of the technology, diverse feedbacks are received each day. The
feedbacks/responses to advertised Internet content will give the owners of the technology
some insight into how differently various cultures interpret the disseminated information.
Hence, the Internet, we may agree is capable of "global reach", however, to achieve
global communication to the extent of achieving "one world order" is a challenge for the
distant future.

Culture ~ Communication ­ Communications ­ Conclusion
Communication depends on the variables of culture and communication, environments in
which its meaning can be truly operationalized. Since culture incorporates variables of
language, symbols and norms, its manifestations are different nationally and
internationally. Hence, it becomes an "up hill" task to create communications capable of
facilitating global communication. Here, we make a distinction between information
dissemination and communication. Again we focus on the central role of "interactive
transference of meanings" in the communication process. We have also come to the
realization that communication may not be able to unify all cultures and sub-cultures to
achieve the communication spread its philosophers purport it to be capable of achieving.

Culture has also incorporated in it the concept of Semiotics (that which deals with signs)
and language. Hence uniformity of symbols i.e. to ensure their uniformity of meanings
across cultures would be a necessary "yard stick" by which true global communication
may be achieved.

Intercultural communication therefore may be a myth to the degree that unified meanings
of information is not achieved. However, since culture constitutes language, the
symbolic as well as the technological, we can/may agree that there exists some level of
intercultural communication even by virtue of a common language. Therefore, a nascent


global culture may be in the making, however, as it evolves we may experience its true
maturity through many generations!!!



1. Brown; A. in Dunn; H. S. (ed); Globalization, Communication and Caribbean
Identity; Ian Randle Publishers Ltd.; 1995.

2. Fiske; J.; Introduction to Communication Students; Routledge, 11 New Fetter
Lane, London, EC4AP 4EE; 2000.

3. Heller; R.; Communicate Clearly; DK Publishing Inc., 275 Hudson Street, New
York, NY 10014; 1998.

4. Martin; W. J.; The Global Information Society; Aslib Gower Publishers, Gower
House, Croft Road, Aldershot, Hampshire, GU11 3HR, England; 1995.

5. Saussure; F.; in Fiske; J.; Introduction to Communication Studies; Routledge,
New fetter Lane, London, EC4AP 4EE; 2000.


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