Cross-cultural communication: good, dangerous, impossible?

As I write this, North America is asleep. Before we leave for Hong Kong, here’s some random thoughts relating to globalization, intercultural interaction, and anthropology that have been stagnating in my head for a while.

Regarding people from different cultures communicating with one another, I once read a movie review that criticized Kingdom of Heaven (never saw it) for promoting the notion that, actually, the whole Crusades business was really just a big cultural misunderstanding. If we’d all just learn to listen to each other, then we’d all get along. I can’t find the exact review, but it was along the same lines as this one:

…it’s not every war movie that can turn the most gruesome sustained rampage in the history of mankind into a misunderstanding between rival peaceniks.

or this one:

…a few bad apples were all that prevented the Christians and Muslims from joining hands and participating in sing-alongs.

In contrast, I also read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which people can perfectly understand one another no matter what culture (or solar system) they are from so long as they stick a tiny Babel fish in their ears.

The Babel fish is small, yellow and leechlike, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier but from those around it. … It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centers of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language.

And the downside? Unfortunately, the Babel fish…

…by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.

Kingdom of Heaven is from Hollywood. Hitchhiker’s is from England. I wonder if that accounts for some of the difference in perspective. Two very different anthropologies in play here.

If we really knew exactly what each other meant, especially in the international/intercultural arena, would the world be a happier place? What do you think would change regarding the way people from different nations and cultures relate to one another, if we could completely understand one another?

2 thoughts on “Cross-cultural communication: good, dangerous, impossible?”

  1. I was once talking to a superior from a job I had in Memphis. He was the type that expected things from you, but you had to guess what those things were, because he didn’t tell you. Once, he told me, “Josh, we need to sit down and talk about goals and expectations that you and I have for each other.” I thought, this is great; now I’ll know what he expects from me instead of just guessing and getting it wrong. Little did I know that this was his way of saying that I was an idiot. Thankfully, I found this out later; if I knew he felt this at the time, I would have had some choice words for him.
    I think that even between people of the same culture, undestanding one another can lead to some pretty ugly situations. On the other hand, being clueless could probably be worse.

  2. i don’t think it is a failure to communicate that causes problems…

    communication is not that difficult, at least according to Zorba the Greek.

    i think it is a failure to relenquish power that causes most of our problems.

    and all of our wars.


Leave a Reply!