“Human behavior takes place in a social and cultural context that varies widely from place to place.  This variation occurs along certain dimensions that are signified by social science terminology that we use in cross-cultural psychology.”
Segall, Dasen, Berry, Poortinga, Human Behavior in Global Perspective


How To Improve Cross-Cultural Communications  

     When you live and work in another culture and actively strive to develop cross-cultural understanding and allow yourself to adjust to the culture, you make fundamental changes in the way you think, feel and behave.  We can refer to this as informal on-the-job training and it can be very effective.  For many people an informal approach may be all that is needed for them to quickly adjust to another culture.  Success with an informal approach to cross-cultural self-training depends on the personality, knowledge and experiences of the individual.    Formal training programs in cross-cultural communications also bring about the changes in people that are necessary for them to interact cross-culturally.   Perhaps one of the most effective ways to bring about cross-cultural understanding and intercultural interaction skills is to combine both language and cultural training in an intensive program of instruction.  The study of language is a considerable aid to cross-cultural understanding because embedded in a people’s language is their cultural logic and their rules of social interaction.  Most languages have built-in ways to talk to people of different social statuses. The Japanese language is a prime example and Pacific island languages also contain linguistic conventions such as the respect speech and oratory found in Pohnpei, Fiji and Samoa.


The Peace Corps Approach To Cross-Cultural Training

     A combination of intensive language training and cultural immersion living is the approach taken by the U.S. Peace Corps in its training programs for Peace Corps Volunteers throughout the world.  In-country Peace Corps training programs typically last about 8 weeks and consist of intensive language and culture training as well as orientation and training in the field that the volunteer will be working in.   The language and culture trainers are often well-educated locals, many times educators, who have a good understanding of American culture and its influence on the behavior of Americans.  They also very often have an objective anthropological understanding of their own culture and its influence on themselves and their own people.  Peace Corps training programs are intensive; there is normally about three hours of language training in the morning with cultural and job-related sessions in the afternoon.  Peace Corps trainers use a lot of role-playing activities where volunteers must use both language and culturally-correct social interaction skills.  In addition to this formal training, volunteer trainees also explore the local culture informally in their off-hours and on weekends and try out some of their language and social interaction skills.  Some training programs also combine village and home-stays with locals as part of the training process.  During my own Peace Corps training in Fiji we spent one week in a rural Fijian village, each volunteer staying with a separate family.  The families were instructed not to speak any English to us and we were encouraged to try to speak as little English as possible to each other.   This was immersion training at its best.  At the end of a day we found ourselves starved to speak English, but forced to communicate in the local language.  It was a very effective cross-cultural and linguistic training regime and everyone in my group went on to become successful volunteers, except for one.

     Most Peace Corps Volunteers have the correct attitude for successful cross-cultural communication that allows changes to take place in them.  However, there are always a few who do not possess the right attitude and who sometimes terminate even before the training is over.  A few others may not make it through the first year and will also go home.  And then there is sometimes even a few who must be “psycho-vacced” (psychological evacuation) because of acute culture shock.   In my training group in Fiji there was only one volunteer that had to be psycho-vacced during the 8th month our two-year stay.  She had classic culture-shock symptoms.  While at work as a nurse in the hospital she was fine because she was always busy on the ward.  But when off duty she spent an excessive amount of time alone at home reading novels and sleeping.  And when she did socialize with fellow volunteers she would become overly happy and histrionic and end of laughing herself sometimes to the point of tears and sobbing.  She was physically and psychologically assessed by a doctor and it was determined that it would be best for her to return home.  She left Fiji in a good frame of mind.  She had done a fine job while working as a nurse in the hospital, but she accepted the fact that she just wasn’t cut out for long-term overseas assignments. 

     However, the overwhelming majority of Peace Corps Volunteers are successful because it’s what they signed up for in the first place.  There was one guy in our training group who wanted a very rigorous Peace Corps experience and felt that Fiji was too developed and comfortable for him.  At the end of training he took an option of getting reassigned before the final swearing-in ceremony and ended up in Nepal.    There is a lot of truth in the Peace Corps recruiting slogan that says  “it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love.”  It is psychologically demanding, even grueling sometimes with regard to cross-cultural adjustment requirements, but is also immensely challenging and rewarding with regard to the character building and personal enrichment and achievement aspects of it.   Some volunteers even become significantly resocialized into the local culture and coupled with fluency in the language these are the volunteers who are said to have “gone local.”  They are usually very successful volunteers and also the ones who are most remembered by the local people after they return home – if they ever return home.  But “going local” is not a necessary requirement for a completely successful Peace Corps experience.

     Not all expatriates take overseas jobs for enriching cross-cultural experience and hardships.  Becoming bicultural or bilingual is not in everyone’s job description and neither is it always a prerequisite for being a success overseas, but it obviously helps.  Today most multinational businesses provide cross-cultural and language training for employees who will be stationed overseas, and the U.S. Foreign Service, a pioneer in this field, has developed this type of training to a fine science.


Effects of Cross-Culturalization

     People who become cross-culturalized through informal or formal training will undergo some very fundamental changes in their thoughts, emotions and behaviors due to the neural rewiring which takes place in their brain and the changes in the way they process information.   Our thought processes become more sophisticated and complex as we factor new cultural norms into our daily lives. We build new neural networks and alter existing ones, and we construct new and more complex cognitive maps with these networks.   We learn to naturally for multiple points- of- view and more possible explanations for the thoughts, emotions and behaviors of the people we interact with.   We engage less in simplistic cultural - stereotyping and gradually develop the ability to see through the cultural lenses of the local people.  We also learn that it is wise to suspend judgment sometimes and admit that we are not yet ready to understand something about the host-country people.  We gradually learn to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty and to more patiently wait for insight and understanding to come.   We learn to understand and control our ethnocentrism and the ways in which our own culture influences us.

     Changes in our thoughts and emotions eventually lead to behaviors that can either be successful or unsuccessful while living in another culture.  A consistent production of unsuccessful behaviors is normally an indication of culture shock.   Symptoms of culture-shock include negative stereotyping, excessive criticism of host country people and their ways, anger and resentment, depression, sullenness and withdrawal.  People experience stress when they can’t successfully communicate with other people or make themselves understood by them.  It can be emotionally demanding to always be unsure of how people will think, feel and behave.   Each day can bring disconfirmed expectancies and linguistic communication difficulties and it can sometimes be cognitively and emotionally exhausting for a person just to get through an average working day.  Successful cross-cultural communications allows one to be at ease in the host culture and form real friendships and working relationship with the local people.

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