This in-group/out-group distinction provides us with the basis for ethnocentrism, which is the tendency to interpret and to judge all other groups, their environment, and their communication according to the categories and values of our own culture. We are guilty of ethnocentrism when we hold that our view of the world is the right one, the correct one, and the only one.
We are all familiar with stereotyping, which is one of the most serious problems in intercultural communication. Our tendency to hold beliefs about groups of individuals based on previously formed opinions, perceptions, and attitudes is often a defense mechanism, a way of reducing anxiety.
There are many other causes of cross-cultural misunderstanding: lack of trust, lack of empathy, and the misuse of power. All of us know what they are about and the turmoil that they cause. But, how can we do a better job at communicating among cultures?
The same skills that we need to communicate in general apply to cross-cultural communication. Lets look at some of those skills:
Know yourself: Identify your attitudes, your opinions, and the biases that we all carry around. Identify your likes, your dislikes, your prejudices, and your degree of personal ethnocentrism.
Take time: Listen to the other person and allow him or her to accomplish their purpose. Don't jump to conclusions. Some times we finish the thoughts and ideas of the other person before he or she has finished talking. Some cultures non-verbal styles call for periods of silence and long pauses.
Encourage feedback: Feedback allows communicators to correct and adjust messages. Without feedback we cannot have agreement. First we must create an atmosphere where others are encouraged to give us feedback. Again, don't be afraid of silence. It could be the appropriate feedback at times.
Develop empathy: The grater the difference between us and others, the harder it is to empathize. To develop empathy we must put ourselves in the other person's place. By becoming more sensitive to the needs, values, and goals of the other person, we overcome our ethnocentric tendencies.
Seek the commonalities among diverse cultures: Despite our cultural differences we are all alike in many ways. We need to seek that common ground to establish a bond between ourselves and the rest of humanity.
Although our own ethnocentrism might have hindered us from getting to know people from other cultures, let us be more than ever committed to help ourselves and others overcome the barrier that culture creates. Let us endeavor to minimize the occurrences of cross-cultural misunderstandings as we develop the attitudes and the skills that are needed to communicate cross-culturally.