Communication in a Global Village
Nearing Autumn 's close.
How does he live, I wonder?
These lines, written by one of the most cherished of haiku poets, express our timeless and universal curiosity about humankind. When they were written, nearly three hundred years ago, the word neighbor referred to people very much like one's selfsim~lar In dress, in diet, in custom, in languagewho happened to live next door. Today relatively few people are surrounded by neighbors who are cultural replicas of themselves. Tomorrow we can expect to spend most of our lives in the company of neighbors who will speak in a different tongue, seek different values, move at a different pace, and interact according to a different script. Within no more than a decade or two the probability of spending part of one's life in a foreign culture will exceed the probability a hundred years ago of ever leaving the town in which one was born. As our world is transformed, our neighbors increasingly will be people whose lifestyles contrast sharply with our own.
The technological feasibility of such a global village is no longer in doubt. Only the precise date of its attainment is uncertain. The means already exist: in telecommunication systems linking the world by satellite, in aircraft capable of moving people faster than the speed of sound, in computers which can disgorge facts more rapidly than people can formulate their questions. The methods for bringing people closer physically and electronically are clearly at hand. What is in doubt is whether the erosion of cultural boundaries through technology will bring the realization of a dream or a nightmare. Will a global village be a mere collection of people or a true community? Will its residents be neighbors capable of respecting and utilizing their differences or clusters of strangers living in ghettos and united only in their antipathies for others?
Can we generate the new cultural attitudes required by our technological virtuosity? History is not very reassuring here. It has taken centuries to learn how to live harmoniously in the family, the tribe, the city-state, and the nation. Each new stretching of human sensitivity and loyalty has taken generations to become firmly assimilated in the human psyche. And now we are forced into a quantum leap from the mutual suspicion and hostility that have marked the past relations between peoples into a world in which mutual respect and comprehension are requisite.
Even events of recent decades provide little basis for optimism. Increasing physical proximity has brought no millennium in human relations. If anything, it has appeared to intensify the divisions among people rather than to create a broader intimacy. Every new reduction in physical distance has made us more painfully aware of the psychic distance that divides people and has increased alarm over real or imagined differences. If today people occasionally choke on what seem to be indigestible differences between rich and poor, male and female, specialist and nonspecialist within cultures, what will happen tomorrow when people must assimilate and cope with still greater contrasts in lifestyles? Wider access to more people will be a doubtful victory if human beings find they have nothing to say to one another or cannot stand to listen to each other.
Time and space have long cushioned intercultural encounters, confining them to touristic exchanges. But this insulation is rapidly wearing thin. In the world of tomorrow we can expect to livenot merely vacationin societies which seek different values and abide by different codes. There we will be surrounded by foreigners for long periods of time, working with others in the closest possible relationships. If people currently show little tolerance or talent for encounters with alien cultures, how can they learn to deal with constant and inescapable coexistence?
The temptation is to retreat to some pious hope or talismanic formula to carry us into the new age. "Meanwhile," as Edwin Reischauer reminds us, "we fail to do what we ourselves must do if 'one world' is ever to be achieved, and that is to develop the education, the skills, and the attitudes that men must have if they are to build and maintain such a world. The time is short, and the needs are great. The task faces all men. But it is on the shoulders of people living in the strong countries of the world, such as Japan and the United States, that this burden falls with special weight and urgency."'
Those who have truly struggled to comprehend other people even those closest to and most like themwill appreciate the immensity of the challenge of intercultural communication. A greater exchange of people between nations, needed as that may be, carries with it no guarantee of increased cultural empathy; experience in other lands often does little but aggravate existing prejudices. Studying guidebooks or memorizing polite phrases similarly fails to explain differences in cultural perspectives. Programs of cultural enrichment, while they contribute to curiosity about other ways of life, do not cultivate the skills to function effectively in the cultures studied. Even concentrated exposure to a foreign language, valuable as it is, provides access to only one of the many codes that regulate daily affairs; human understanding is by no means guaranteed because conversants share the same dictionary. (Within the United States, where people inhabit a common territory and possess a common language, mutuality of meaning among Latino Americans, European Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, to say nothing of old and young, poor and rich, proestablishment and antiestablishment cultures, is a sporadic and unreliable occurrence.) Useful as all these measures are for enlarging appreciation of diverse cultures, they fall short of what is needed for a global village to survive.
What seems most critical is to find ways of gaining entrance into the assumptive world of another culture, to identify the norms that govern face-to-face relations, and to equip people to function within a social system that is foreign but no longer incomprehensible. Without this kind of insight, people are condemned to remain outsiders no matter how long they live in another country. Its institutions and its customs will be interpreted inevitably from the premises and through the medium of their own culture. Whether they notice something or overlook it, respect or ridicule it, express or conceal it, their reaction will be dictated by the logic of their own rather than the alien culture.
There are, of course, shelves and shelves of books on thecultures of the world. They cover the history, religion, politicalthought, music, sculpture, and industry of many nations. Andthey make fascinating and provocative reading. But only in thevaguest way do they suggest what it is that really distinguishesthe behavior of a Samoan, a Congolese, a Japanese, or an American. Rarely do the descriptions of a political structure or religious faith explain precisely when and why certain topics areavoided or why specific gestures carry such radically differentmeanings according to the context in which they appear.
When former President Nixon and former Premier Sato metto discuss a growing problem concerning trade in textiles between Japan and the United
States, Premier Sato announced thatsince they were on such good terms with each other the deliberations would be "three parts talk and seven parts haragei."2Translated literally, haragei means to communicate through thebelly, that is, to feel out intuitively rather than verbally state theprecise position of each person.
Subscribing to this strategyone that governs many interpersonal exchanges in his culturePremier Sato conveyed without verbal elaboration his comprehension of the plight of American textile firms threatened by accelerating exports of Japanesefabrics to the United States. President Nixonsimilarly abidingby norms that govern interaction within his culturetook thiscomprehension of the American position to mean that new export quotas would be forthcoming shortly.
During the next few weeks both were shocked at the consequences of their meeting: Nixon was infuriated to learn that thenew policies he expected were not forthcoming, and Sato wasupset to find that he had unwittingly triggered a new wave ofhostility toward his country. If prominent officials, surroundedby foreign advisers, can commit such grievous communicativeblunders, the plight of the ordinary citizen may be suggested.Such intercultural collisions, forced upon the public consciousness by the grave consequences they carry and the extensivepublicity they receive, only hint at the wider and more frequentconfusions and hostilities that disrupt the negotiations of lesserofficials, business executives, professionals, and even visitors inforeign countries.
Every culture expresses its purposes and conducts its affairsthrough the medium of communication. Cultures exist primarilyto create and preserve common systems of symbols by whichtheir members can assign and exchange meanings. Unhappily, the distinctive rules that govern these symbol systems are far from obvious. About some of these codes, such as language, we have extensive knowledge. About others, such as gestures and facial codes, we have only rudimentary knowledge. On many othersrules governing topical appropriateness, customs regulating physical contact, time and space codes, strategies for the management of conflictwe have almost no systematic knowledge. To crash another culture with only the vaguest notion of its underlying dynamics reflects not only a provincial naivete but a dangerous form of cultural arrogance.
It is differences in meaning, far more than mere differences in vocabulary, that isolate cultures and that cause them to regard each other as strange or even barbaric. It is not too surprising that many cultures refer to themselves as "The People," relegating all other human beings to a subhuman form of life. To the person who drinks blood, the eating of meat is repulsive. Someone who conveys respect by standing is upset by someone who conveys it by sitting down; both may regard kneeling as absurd. Burying the dead may prompt tears in one society, smiles in another, and dancing in a third. If spitting on the street makes sense to some, it will appear bizarre that others carry their spit in their pocket; neither may quite appreciate someone who spits to express gratitude. The bullfight that constitutes an almost religious ritual for some seems a cruel and inhumane way of destroying a defenseless animal to others. Although staring is acceptable social behavior in some cultures, in others it is a thoughtless invasion of privacy. Privacy, itself, is without universal meaning.
Note that none of these acts involves an insurmountable linguistic challenge. The words that describe these actseating, spitting, showing respect, fighting, burying, and staringare quite translatable into most languages. The issue is more conceptual than linguistic; each society places events in its own cultural frame, and it is these frames that bestow the unique meaning and differentiated response they produce.
As we move or are driven toward a global village and increasingly frequent cultural contact, we need more than simply greater factual knowledge of each other. We need, more specifically, to identify what might be called the "rule books of meaning" that distinguish one culture from another. For to grasp the way in which other cultures perceive the world, and the assumptions and values that are the foundation of these perceptions, is to gain access to the experience of other human beings. Access to the worldview and the communicative style of other cultures may not only enlarge our own way of experiencing the world but enable us to maintain constructive relationships with societies that operate according to a different logic than our own.
Sources of Meaning
To survive, psychologically as well as physically, human beings must inhabit a world that is relatively free of ambiguity and is reasonably predictable. Some sort of structure must be placed upon the endless profusion of incoming signals. The infant, born into a world of flashing, hissing, moving images, soon learns to adapt by resolving this chaos into toys and tables, dogs and parents. Even adults who have had their vision or hearing restored through surgery describe the world as a frightening and sometimes unbearable experience; only after days of effort are they able to transform blurs and noises into meaningful and therefore manageable experiences.
It is commonplace to talk as if the world "has" meaning, to ask what "is" the meaning of a phrase, a gesture, a painting, a contract. Yet when thought about, it is clear that events are devoid of meaning until someone assigns it to them. There is no appropriate response to a bow or a handshake, a shout or a whisper, until it is interpreted. A drop of water and the color red have no meaningthey simply exist. The aim of human perception is to make the world intelligible so that it can be managed successfully; the attribution of meaning is a prerequisite to and preparation for action.
People are never passive receivers, merely absorbing events of obvious sign)ficance, but are active in assigning meaning to sensation. What any event acquires in the way of meaning appears to reflect a transaction between what is there to be seen or heard and what the interpreter brings to it in the way of past experience and prevailing motive. Thus the attribution of meaning is always a creative process by which the raw data of sensation are transformed to fit the aims of the observer.
The diversity of reactions that can be triggered by a single experiencemeeting a stranger, negotiating a contract, attending a textile conferenceis immense. Observers are forced to see it through their own eyes, interpret it in the light of their own values, fit it to the requirements of their own circumstances. As a consequence, every object and message is seen by every observer from a somewhat different perspective. Each person will note some features and neglect others. Each will accept some relations among the facts and deny others. Each will arrive at some conclusion, tentative or certain, as the sounds and forms resolve into a temple or team, a compliment or insult.
Provide a group of people with a set of photographs, even quite simple and ordinary photographs, and note how diverse are the meanings the photographs provoke. They will recall and forget different pictures; they will also assign quite distinctive meanings to those they do remember. Some will recall the mood of a picture, others the actions; some the appearance and others the attitudes of persons portrayed. Often the observers cannot agree upon even the most "objective" detailsthe number of people, the precise location and identity of simple objects. A difference in frame of mindfatigue, hunger, excitement, anger will change dramatically what they report they have "seen."
It should not be surprising that people raised in different families, exposed to different events, praised and punished for different reasons, should come to view the world so differently. As George A. Kelly has noted, people see the world through templates which force them to construe events in unique ways. These patterns or grids which we fit over the realities of the world are cut from our own experience and values, and they predispose us to certain interpretations. Industrialist and farmer do not see the "same" land; husband and wife do not plan for the "same" child; doctor and patient do not discuss the "same" disease, borrower and creditor do not negotiate the "same" mortgage; daughter and daughter-in-law do not react to the "same" mother.
The worlds people create for themselves are distinctive worlds, not the same worlds others occupy. They fashion from every incident whatever meanings fit their own private biases. These biases, taken together, constitute what has been called the "assumptive world of the individual." The worlds people get inside their heads are the only worlds they know. And these symbolic worlds, not the real world, are what people talk about, argue about, laugh about, fight about.
Every communication, interpersonal or intercultural, is a transaction between these private worlds. As people talk, they search for symbols that will enable them to share their experience and converge upon a common meaning. This process, often long and sometimes painful, makes it possible finally to reconcile apparent or real differences between them. Various words are used to describe this moment. When it involves an integration of facts or ideas, it is usually called an agreement; when it involves sharing ia mood or feeling, it is referred to as empathy or rapport. But understanding is a broad enough term to cover both possibilities; in either case it identifies the achievement of a common meaning.
If understanding is a measure of communicative success, a simple formulawhich might be called the interpersonal equationmay clarify the major factors that contribute to its achievement:
interpersonal Understanding =f (Similarity of Perceptual Orientations, Similarity of Belief Systems Similarity of Communicative Styles)
That is, Interpersonal Understanding is a function of or dependent upon the degree of Similarity of Perceptual Orientations, Similarity of Systems of Belief, and Similarity in Communicative Styles. Each of these terms requires some elaboration
Similarity in Perceptual Orientations refers to people's prevailing approaches to reality and the degree of flexibility they manifest in organizing it. Some people scan the world broadly, searching for diversity of experience, preferring the novel and unpredictable. They may be drawn to new foods, new music, new ways of thinking. Others seem to scan the world more narrowly, searching to confirm past experience, preferring the known and predictable. They secure satisfaction from old friends, traditional art forms, familiar lifestyles. The former have a high tolerance for novelty; the latter a low tolerance for novelty.
It is a balance between these tendencies, of course, that characterizes most people. Within the same person, attraction to the unfamiliar and the familiar coexist. Which prevails at any moment is at least partly a matter of circumstance: when secure people may widen their perceptual field, accommodate new ideas or actions; when they feel insecure, they may narrow their perceptual field to protect existing assumptions from the threat of new beliefs or lifestyles. The balance may be struck in still other ways: some people like to live in a stable physical setting with everything in its proper place, but welcome new emotional or intellectual challenges; others enjoy living in a chaotic and disordered environment but would rather avoid exposing themselves to novel or challenging ideas.
People differ also in the degree to which their perceptions are flexible or rigid. Some react with curiosity and delight to unpredictable and uncategorizable events. Others are disturbed or uncomfortable in the presence of the confusing and complex.
There are people who show a high degree of tolerance for ambiguity, others manifest a low tolerance for ambiguity. When confronted with the complications and confusions that surround many daily events, the former tend to avoid immediate closure and delay judgment, while the latter seek immediate closure and evaluation. Those with little tolerance for ambiguity tend to respond categorically, that is, by reference to the class names for things (businessmen, radicals, hippies, foreigners) rather than to their unique and differentiating features.
It would be reasonable to expect that individuals who approach reality similarly might understand each other easily, and laboratory research confirms this conclusion: people with similar perceptual styles attract one another, understand each other better, and work more efficiently together and with greater satisfaction than those whose perceptual orientations differ.
Similarityin Systems of Beliefrefers not to the way people view the world but to the conclusions they draw from their experience. Everyone develops a variety of opinions toward divorce, poverty, religion, television, sex, and social customs. When belief and disbelief systems coincide, people are likely to understand and appreciate each other better. Research done by Donn Byrne and replicated by the author demonstrates how powerfully human beings are drawn to those who hold the same beliefs and how sharply they are repelled by those who do not.3
Subjects in these experiments were given questionnaires requesting their opinions on twenty-six topics. After completing the forms, each was asked to rank the thirteen most important and least important topics. Later each person was given four forms, ostensibly filled out by people in another group but actually filled out by the researchers to show varying degrees of agreement with their own answers, and invited to choose among them with regard to their attractiveness as associates. The results were clear: people most preferred to talk with those whose attitudes duplicated their own exactly, next chose those who agreed with them on all important issues, next chose those with similar views on unimportant issues, and finally and reluctantly chose those who disagreed with them completely. It appears that most people most of the time find satisfying relationships easiest to achieve with someone who shares their own hierarchy of beliefs. This, of course, converts many human encounters into rituals of ratification, both people looking to each other only to obtain endorsement and applause for their own beliefs. It is, however, what is often meant by "interpersonal understanding."
Does the same principle hold true for Similarity of Communicative Styles? To a large extent, yes. But not completely. By communicative style is meant the topics people prefer to discuss, their favorite forms of interactionritual, repartee, argument, self-disclosureand the depth of involvement they demand of each other. It includes the extent to which communicants rely upon the same channelsvocal, verbal, physicalfor conveying information and the extent to which they are tuned to the same level of meaning, that is, to the factual or emotional content of messages. The use of a common vocabulary and even preference for similar metaphors may help people to understand each other.
But some complementarily in conversational style may also help. Talkative people may prefer quiet par~ers, the more aggressive may enjoy the less aggressive, andlthose who seek affection may be drawn to the more affection-giving, simply because both can find the greatest mutual satisfaction when interpersonal styles mesh\Even this sort of complementarily, however, may reflect a case of similarity in definitions of each other's conversational role.
This hypothesis, too, has drawn the interest of communicologists. One investigator found that people paired to work on common tasks were much more effective if their communicative styles were similar than if they were dissimilar.4 Another social scientist found that teachers tended to give higher grades on tests to students whose verbal styles matched their own than to students who gave equally valid answers but did not phrase them as their instructors might.5 To establish common meanings seems to require that conversants share a common vocabulary and compatible ways of expressing ideas and feelings.
It must be emphasized that perceptual orientations, systems of belief, and communicative styles do not exist or operate independently. They overlap and affect each other. They combine in complex ways to determine behavior. What people say is influenced by what they believe and what they believe, in tum, by what they see. Their perceptions and beliefs are themselves partly a product of their manner of communicating with others. The terms that comprise the interpersonal equation constitute not three isolated but three interdependent variables. They provide three perspectives to use in the analysis of communicative acts.
The interpersonal equation suggests there is an underlying narcissistic bias in human societies that draws similar people together. They seek to find in others a reflection of themselves, those who view the world as they do, who interpret it as they do,
DEAN BARNLUND 45
and who express themselves in a similar way. It is not surprising, then, that artists should be drawn to artists, radicals to radicals, Jews to Jewsor Japanese to Japanese and Americans to Americans.
The opposite seems equally true: people tend to avoid those who challenge their assumptions, who dismiss their beliefs, and who communicate in strange and unintelligible ways. When one reviews history, whether one examines crises within or between cultures, one finds people have consistently shielded themselves, segregated themselves, even fort)fied themselves against wide differences in modes of perception or expression (in many cases, indeed, have persecuted and conquered the infidel and afterwards substituted their own cultural ways for the offending ones). Intercultural defensiveness appears to be only a counterpart of interpersonal defensiveness in the face of uncomprehended or incomprehensible differences.
Every culture attempts to create a "universe of discourse" for itsmembers, a way in which people can interpret their experienceand convey it to one another. Without a common system of codifying sensations, life would be absurd and all efforts to share meanings doomed to failure. This universe of discourseone of the mostprecious of all cultural legaciesis transmitted to each generation in part consciously and in part unconsciously. Parents andteachers give explicit instruction in it by praising or criticizingcertain ways of dressing, of thinking, of gesturing, of respondingto the acts of others. But the most sign)ficant aspects of any cultural code may be conveyed implicitly, not by rule or lesson butthrough modelling behavior. The child is surrounded by otherswho, through the mere consistency of their actions as males andfemales, mothers and fathers, salesclerks and police of ficers, display what is appropriate behavior. Thus the grammar of any culture is sent and received largely unconsciously, making one's owncultural assumptions and biases difficult to recognize. They seemso obviously right that they require no explanation.
In The Open and Closed Mind, Milton Rokeach poses the problem of cultural understanding in its simplest form, but one that can readily demonstrate the complications of communication between cultures. It is called the "Denny Doodlebug Problem." Readers are given all the rules that govern his culture: Denny is an animal that always faces north and can move only by jumping; he can jump large distances or small distances, but can change direction only after jumping four times in any direction; he can ~ump north, south, east, or west, but not diagonally. Upon concluding a jump, his master places some food three feet directly west of him. Surveying the situation, Denny concludes he must jump four times to reach the food. No more or less. And he is right. All the reader has to do is to explain the circumstances that make his conclusion correct.6
The large majority of people who attempt this problem fail to solve it, despite the fact that they are given all the rules that control behavior in this culture. If there is difficulty in getting inside the simplistic world of Denny Doodlebugwhere the cultural code has already been broken and handed to usimagine the complexity of comprehending behavior in societies where codes have not yet been decipheredand where even those who obey these codes are only vaguely aware of and can rarely describe the underlying sources of their own actions.
If two people, both of whom spring from a single culture must often shout to be heard across the void that separates their private worlds, one can begin to appreciate the distance to be overcome when people of different cultural identities attempt to talk. Even with the most patient dedication to seeking a common terminology, it is surprising that people of alien cultures are able to hear each other at all. And the peoples of Japan and the United States would appear to constitute a particularly dramatic test of the ability to cross an intercultural divide. Consider the disparity between them.
Here is Japan, a tiny island nation with a minimum of resources, buffeted by periodic disasters, overcrowded with people, isolated by physical fact and cultural choice, nurtured in Shinto and Buddhist religions, permeated by a deep respect for nature nonmaterialist in philosophy, intuitive in thought, hierarchical in social structure. Eschewing the explicit, the monumental, the bold and boisterous, it expresses its sensuality in the form of impeccable gardens, simple rural temples, asymmetrical flower arrangements, a theater unparalleled for containment of feeling, an art and literature remarkable for their delicacy, and crafts noted for their honest and earthy character. Its people, among the most homogeneous in the world, are modest and apologetic in manner, communicate in an ambiguous and evocative language, are engrossed in interpersonal rituals, and prefer inner serenity to influencing others. They occupy unpretentious buildings of wood and paper and live in cities laid out as casually as farm villages. Suddenly from these rice paddies emerges an industrial giant, surpassing rival nations with decades of industrial experience, greater resources, and a larger reserve of technicians. Its labor force, working longer, harder, and more frantically than any in the world builds the earth's largest city, constructs some of its ugliest buildings, promotes the most garish and insistent advertising anywhere, and pollutes its air and water beyond the imagination.
And here is the United States, an immense country, sparsely settled, richly endowed, tied through waves of immigrants to the heritage of Europe, yet forced to subdue nature and find fresh solutions to the problems of survival. Steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition, schooled in European abstract and analytic thought, it is materialist and experimental in outlook, philosophically pragmatic, politically egalitarian, economically competitive, its raw individualism sometimes tempered by a humanitarian concern for others. Its cities are studies in geometry along whose avenues rise shafts of steel and glass subdivided into separate cubicles for separate activities and separate people. Its popular arts are characterized by the hugeness of cinemascope, the spontaneity of jazz, the earthy loudness of rock; in its fine arts the experimental, striking, and monumental often stifle the more subtle revelation. The people, a smorgasbord of races, religions, dialects, and nationalities, are turned expressively outward, impatient with rituals and rules, casual and flippant, gifted in logic and argument, approachable and direct yet given to flamboyant and exaggerated assertion. They are curious about one another, open and helpful, yet display a missionary zeal for changing one another. Suddenly this nation whose power and confidence have placed it in a dominant position in the world intellectually and politically, whose style of life has permeated the planet, finds itself uncertain of its direction, doubts its own premises and values, questions its motives and materialism, and engages in an orgy of self-criticism.
It is when people nurtured in such different psychological worlds meet that differences in cultural perspectives and communicative codes may sabotage efforts to understand one another. Repeated collisions between a foreigner and the members of a contrasting culture often produce what is called culture shock. It is a feeling of helplessness, even of terror or anger, that accompanies working in an alien society. One feels trapped in an absurd and indecipherable nightmare.
It is as if some hostile leprechaun had gotten into the works and as a cosmic caper rewired the connections that hold society together. Not only do the actions of others no longer make sense, but it is impossible even to express one's own intentions clearly. i`Yes" comes out meaning "no." A wave of the hand means "come," or it may mean "go." Formality may be regarded as childish or as a devious form of flattery. Statements of fact may be heard as statements of conceit. Arriving early, or arriving late, embarrasses or impresses. "Suggestions" may be treated as "ultimatums," or precisely the opposite. Failure to stand at the proper moment, or failure to sit, may be insulting. The compliment intended to express gratitude instead conveys a sense of distance. A smile signifies disappointment rather than pleasure.
If the crises that follow such intercultural encounters are sufficiently dramatic or the communicants unusually sensitive, they may recognize the source of their trouble. If there is patience and constructive intention, the confusion can sometimes be clarified. But more often foreigners, without knowing it, leave behind them a trail of frustration, mistrust, and even hatred o~which they are totally unaware. Neither they nor their associates recognize that their difficulty springs from sources deep within the rhetoric of their own societies. All see themselves as acting in ways that are thoroughly sensible, honest, and considerate. And given the rules governing their own universes of discoursethey all are. Unfortunately, there are few cultural universals, and the degree of overlap in communicative codes is always less than perfect. Experience can be transmitted with fidelity only when the unique properties of each code are recognized and respected or where the motivation and means exist to bring them into some sort of alignment.
The Collective Unconscious
Among the greatest insights of this modern age are two that bear a curious affinity to each other. The first, evolving from the efforts of psychologists, particularly Sigmund Freud, revealed the existence of an individual unconscious. The acts of human beings were found to spring from motives of which they were often vaguely or completely unaware. Their unique perceptions of events arose not from the facts outside their skins but from unrecognized assumptions inside them. When, through intensive analysis, they obtained some insight into these assumptions, they became free to develop other ways of seeing and acting which contributed to their greater flexibility in coping with reality.
The second of these generative ideas, flowing from the work of anthropologists, particularly Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, postulated a parallel idea in the existence of a cultural unconscious. Students of primitive cultures began to see that there was nothing divine or absolute about cultural norms. Every society had its own way of viewing the universe, and each developed from its premises a coherent set of rules of behavior. Each tended to be blindly committed to its own style of life and regarded all others as evil. The fortunate people who were able to master the art of living in foreign cultures often learned that their own modes of life were not universal. With this insight they became free to choose from among cultural values those that seemed to best fit their peculiar circumstances.
Cultural norms so completely surround people, so permeate thought and action, that few ever recognize the assumptions on which their lives and their sanity rest. As one observer put it, if birds were suddenly endowed with scientific curiosity, they might examine many things, but the sky itself would be overlooked as a suitable subject; if fish were to become curious about the world, it would never occur to them to begin by investigating water. For birds and fish would take the sky and sea for granted, unaware of their profound influence, because they comprise the medium for every act. Human beings, in a similar way, occupy a symbolic universe governed by codes that are unconsciously acquired and automatically employed. So much so that they rarely notice that the ways they interpret and talk about events are distinctively different from the ways people conduct their affairs in other cultures.
As long as people remain blind to the sources of their meanings, they are imprisoned within them. These cultural frames of reference are no less confining simply because they cannot be seen or touched. Whether it is an individual neurosis that keeps an individual out of contact with his or her neighbors, or a collective neurosis that separates neighbors of different cultures, both are forms of blindness that limit what can be experienced and what can be learned from others.
It would seem that everywhere people would desire to break out of the boundaries of their own experiential worlds. Their ability to react sensitively to a wider spectrum of events and peoples requires an overcoming of such cultural parochialism. But, in fact, few attain this broader vision. Some, of course, have little opportunity for wider cultural experience, though this condition should change as the movement of people accelerates. Others do not try to widen their experience because they prefer the old and familiar, seek from their affairs only further confirmation of the correctness of their own values. Still others recoil from such experiences because they feel it dangerous to probe too deeply into the personal or cultural unconscious. Exposure may reveal how tenuous and arbitrary many cultural norms are; such exposure might force people to acquire new bases for interpreting events. And even for the many who do seek actively to enlarge the variety of human beings with whom they are capable of communicating, there are still difficulties.
Cultural myopia persists not merely because of inertia and habit but chicfly because it is so difficult to overcome. People acquire personalities and cultures in childhood, long before they are capable of comprehending either of them. To survive, people master the perceptual orientations, cognitive biases, and communicative habits of their own cultures. But once mastered, objective assessment of these same processes is awkward, since the same mechanisms that are being evaluated must be used in making the evaluations. Once children learn Japanese or English or Navajo, the categories and grammar of each language predispose them to perceive and think in certain ways and discourage them from doing so in other ways. When they attempt to discover why they see or think as they do, they use the same techniques they are trying to identify.
Fortunately, there may be a way around this paradox. Or promise of a way around it. It is to expose the culturally distinctive ways various peoples construe events and to seek to identify the conventions that connect what is seen with what is thought with what is said. Once this cultural grammar is assimilated and the rules that govern the exchange of meanings are known, they can be shared and learned by those who choose to work and live in alien cultures.
When people within a culture face an insurmountable problem, they turn to friends, neighbors, and associates for help. To them they explain their predicament, often in distinctive, personal ways. Through talking it out, however, there often emerge new ways of looking at the problem, fresh incentive to attack it, and alternative solutions to it. This sort of interpersonal exploration is often successful within a culture, for people share at least the same communicative style even if they do not agree completely in their perceptions or beliefs.
When people communicate between cultures, where communicative rules as well as the substance of experience differs, the problems multiply. But so, too, do the number of interpretations and alternatives. If it is true that the more people differ the harder it is for them to understand each other, it is equally true that the more they differ the more they have to teach and learn from each other. To do so, of course, there must be mutual respect and aufficient curiosity to overcome the frustrations that occur as they flounder from one misunderstanding to another. Yet the task of coming to grips with differences in communicative stylesbetween or within culturesis prerequisite to all other types of mutuality.
Edwin Reischauer, Man and His Shrinking World (Tokyo: Asahi Press' 1971), 34-35.
2 Masao Kunihiro, "U.S.-lapan Communications," in Discord in the Pacifc, ed
ited by Henry Rosovsky (Washington, DC: Columbia Books, 1972), 167.
3 Donn Byrne, "Interpersonal Attraction and Attitude Similarity,"Journal of Ab
normal ond Social Psychology 62 ( 1961).
4 Harry C. Triandis, "Cognitive Similarity and Communication in a Dyad," Hu
man Relations 13 ( 1960).
s R Runkel, "Cognitive Similarity in Facilitating Communication," Sociomet~y 19 (1956).
6 Milton Rokeach, The Open and Closed Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1960).