According to Byram (1997), being interculturally competent means to be able to interact effectively (using linguistic and non-linguistic resources) with people from another country in a foreign language. This means, of course, to be able to overcome stereotypes (which are a real barrier for cultural understanding), to be empathic, to understand the otherness, to avoid and deal with misunderstandings and to have a certain willingness to learn with the purpose of knowing not only the other but also oneself.
We would like to introduce at this point some disagreement with Byram’s conceptualization of intercultural competence. We think that this is a concept that does not only apply to people speaking different languages, but also to people speaking the same language but not sharing the same culture. This is what we call "cultural distance", the concept which will be discussed herein, focusing on the aspects of what ‘a culture’ brings about. Finally, some examples of the Spanish case will be discussed to exemplify the question.
Concept of culture and cultural models
Cultural assumptions are the sets of meanings, attitudes, beliefs, and values which are shared 1 by the members of a certain cultural community (who either consciously or unconsciously, but always mistakenly), tend to consider them universally accepted by the rest of the human beings. Harold Garfinkel coined the term Ethnomethodology in 1960, a sociological discipline which focuses on the ways in which people make sense of their world. This, among others such as Psychology, Education, Linguistics, are used in this article to delve into its main point: the different ways people understand and cope with their realities, even though they share the same language. The cultural background of a person is determined by a range of different and varied elements among which language is a relevant and crucial one. Our study will analyse this phenomenon found with Spanish speakers, so we will first make a brief summary of the meaning of the term culture in our tradition.
The Royal Academy of the Spanish Language 2 defines culture as the "set of ways of life and customs, knowledge, and degree of artistic, scientific, industrial development found in a period, social group, etc." 3
Ruiz de Lobera (2004: 26) explains that this term began to be used in the 16th century as a consequence of the expansion of Europe. The contact of Europeans with the inhabitants of other countries (and continents) made them aware of the necessity to define their own culture, which also meant the comparison between the known and the unknown. The concept of culture is deeply associated to its definition with respect to other cultures; so it seems reasonable to deduce that a culture is so due, in fact, to its opposition and contrast with other cultures. Multiculturalism, so on, is the essence of culture; the respect for diversity must still wait for another four centuries (until the end of the 20th century).
Other authors (Kroeber & Kluckhon 1952) defined culture in contrast with nature at the beginning of this century. Kroeber and Kluckhon (1952: 181) stated:
"Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e., historically derived and selected ideas and especially their attached values; cultural systems may on the one hand be considered as products of action, on the other as conditioning elements of further action."
In the same line (culture in relation with nature), Herskovits (1948: 17) stated that "culture is the man-made part of the environment", a definition widely used in the literature.
Nowadays some tendency is found to underline the subjective aspect of culture as Camilleri (1985) and Simard (1986) state. Clanet (1990: 16), for instance, says that culture is a set of imaginary/symbolic forms which mediate in the relationships of a subject with others and with him/herself, as well as with the group and the context. So, external stimuli are understood regarding our socialization process in a specific cultural group. Culture, as a way of interpreting the world, is our instrument to understand reality (following our cultural parameters). This is what, finally, will lead us to the undesired intercultural conflicts which should be solved through the intercultural mediation (which is only possible through knowledge, education and understanding of the other). Culture helps us find our place in the world, but this is something we must learn to share with others. As García, Pulido & Montes (1999:70) state, each individual has his/her own personal and subjective understanding about the culture that others attribute to him/her, and such understanding is different from the one that other members of the group have.
Every man, as Bruner (1966) states by paraphrasing the metaphysical poet J. Donne, is part of a culture that s/he inherits and then recreates. Cultural heritage is a complex question, which we transmit after having filtered through our own understanding of culture. Such complexity makes Camilleri (1985: 45) hesitate about the impossibility of making culture an objective concept.
As we stated before, language is inseparable from culture. In the same way that our mind is shaped by the language we speak (cf. Sapir & Whorf Hypothesis), our language also determines our conception of the world and shapes our behaviour in community. The way we have been socialized determines the way we see the rest of the world. Sapir stated:
"Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ’real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached... We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation." (Sapir, 1958: 69)
Through metaphor, Lakoff (1987) explains the conceptualization of notions that are not shared by languages and which, in most occasions, are difficult to translate. Collocations are a clear example of this and show that, for example, in English "time" is a concept clearly related to "money": people can spend, save, waste, and invest time. These are verbs which are normally collocated with the term "money" because they are related to economical transactions. The cultural conceptualization of time in English so, has to do with the importance speakers give to the use of time, which is something they pay a lot of attention to, something which is conceived as a limited resource; just the same as money is.
Cultural models exemplifying this concept are nowadays quite well-known and accepted by the majority of authors: the onion model (which sees features of a culture as layers which could be peeled away to reveal underlying assumptions) or Weaver’s (1986, 2006) cultural iceberg. Weaver states that external behaviour is only a little visible part of the whole immersed reality that is culture. The immersed part of the iceberg is made up of assumptions, beliefs, and values, which are more permanent and which generally do not change with time.
So, what you get is not, in any way, what you see. In fact, what you see is only a small part of what you get. Language (which could be at the top of the iceberg) is only one among many means of communication. The significance of non-verbal communication should be added and in it we can find a long list of communicating instruments: olfactics (smell), paralanguage (phonetic aspects such as pitch placement and stress), kinesics (gestures, body posture), oculesics (the meaning of eye contact, gazing), haptics (touch), chronemics (cultural use of time), body coverings (tattoos, piercing, cosmetics), and proxemics (use of space). All these, of course, may give rise to different types of cultural misunderstandings which are not always due to language differences.
Cultural facts and differences
It is a fact that the mere contact among cultures makes the individual get a deeper understanding of his/her own cultural values and also to understand the reasons why people behave in a particular way. There appears a "recommendable distance" that allows the individual to see him/herself more clearly.
It is commonplace the fact that English-speaking countries do share (at least in their essence and roots) the language (with lexical, phonetic, and syntactic differences that make each one different). This is the reason why we have British and American English. But, North-American and British people still speak English. Cultural identity may be clearer to some people than it may be to others. Although many Americans, for example, identify with their Irish, West African, Chinese, or Mexican roots (among many others), they may still know themselves to be Americans. Nonetheless, American and British speakers of English can experience some kind of cultural misunderstandings; they might find it necessary to be empathic in order to interact effectively with the other; it could be useful to have minimum skills to understand the otherness. So, speaking the same language is, by no means, the guarantee to achieve the intercultural competence. Some added values are needed which should be taught and learnt. To sum up: we think that the intercultural competence should be achieved by every human being in the world, irrespective of the language s/he is using. Of course, language differences make things harder (due to the above mentioned Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and different cultural conceptualisations that different languages imply), but they are not the only barrier for the achievement of intercultural competence.
Once we have moved away from the place of our original culture and begun the process of adapting to another culture, we broaden our perceptions, noticing things that are done differently or similarly between the two cultures.We learn a whole new set of culturally and linguistically defined rules and value systems with the result that our own perception of the culturally induced life experience is expanded. This process seems to be an irreversible one: once people are adapted to a second culture, it seems easier to be adapted to a third one and so on: that is multiculturalism. If they go back and stay long enough, they might notice that they are no longer the same people culturally as they were when they left originally and they also might notice that people are seeing them as being influenced by the other culture in some way.
It seems that there is a feeling attached to speaking one language that is slightly different than that which is felt when speaking the other. In those who have emigrated while still quite young, speaking the original language may make one feel more like a child for example. Unconscious reflexes may be attached to the speaking of one language as well. For example, people declare to find themselves kissing people "goodbye" if they have been speaking French with them, and hugging them if they have been speaking English and they are often surprised to see that they might have done this completely unconsciously.
So, the crucial question to be answered is the nature of cultural variation. At the most concrete level, cultures seem to vary in terms of their towns (housing, streets...), physical features (body language of gestures, facial expressions, dress, appearance...), food and drink (what is acceptable and what is non-acceptable, times, places, importance...), social life (class, gender, tradition, hospitality, family life including old people and/or children...), routines (meal times, working schedules ...), business (hierarchy, formal or informal styles, communication...) and so on. We agree with Berry (2004: 169) that "the greatest intercultural problems arise from the more implicit aspects of culture" (the immersed part of the iceberg in Weaver’s model), it is also true that they are a source of intercultural difficulties which should be studied, especially among speakers of the same language because they tend to take for granted that they do not exist. We will use some examples of these cultural aspects found among speakers of Spanish from different countries (especially contrasting South-American and Spanish cultures) which will prove the importance of knowing and being aware of them to be an efficient, proficient and fluent intercultural speaker of Spanish.
Cultural differences: a case of the different speakers of spanish
Speakers of Spanish are diverse regarding their countries, customs, dialects and even the way they call themselves. Spanish speakers of South and Central America tend to differentiate themselves from the inhabitants of Spain by calling themselves "Hispanic", which is a term that culturally includes all Spanish peoples in America. The term was first adopted in the United States by the administration of Richard Nixon and it has continued to be used since then. The ethnic label "Hispanic" was coined by a Hispanic New Mexican senator, Montoya, who wanted a label that could be used to quantify the Spanish-speaking population for the US Census. The label "Hispanic" was chosen in part because in New Mexico, well-to-do people of Spanish descent - such as Montoya - referred to themselves as "Hispanos", and the transliteration of "Hispano" is "Hispanic". The term "Hispania" comprised the territories of what is today Portugal and Spain. "Hispania" seems to come from the Phoenician name given to the Iberian Peninsula, whose etymological meaning makes reference to the amount of rabbits found in this land. Spanish people do not call themselves "Hispanic", though culturally and etymologically it should seem reasonable to do so. So, the first difference comes with the name: Spanish-Hispanic 4 . Another term has become fashionable nowadays among South-American peoples; "Latinos", which is even more popular nowadays than "Hispanos".
We will analyse the particular aspects of non-verbal communication (belonging to the cultural identity of the peoples) that differentiate Spanish from Latin American countries. This will delve into specific differences and ways to overcome cultural misunderstandings among speakers of Spanish.
Haptics, or tactile communication, refers to the use of touch, which may be the most primitive form of communication. It varies across cultures and the factors affecting the type of touching are:
a) Gender. Male/female and its combinations: male-male, female-female, male-female and the now not-so-clear division between sexes;
c) Art of the body: head, hand, shoulder, etc.
E.T. Hall (1966) distinguished between contact cultures (those that tend to encourage touching and engage in touching quite frequently); and moderate or non-contact cultures where touching occurs less frequently and is generally discouraged.
Spanish culture can be said to be a contact culture regarding haptics, as well as Latin American cultures. The difference can be found in the frequency and the parts of the body people touch. In Spain it is common to touch the other in the arm (especially if both men are friends). But touching among South Americans is more frequent and in more body parts (head, hands, arms, shoulders). Spanish men can feel their privacy invaded when South American males become too familiar; many Latin Americans get very close when they interact with each other. A second difference was also established by Hall (1976). He distinguished between High and Low context cultures. High context cultures are those whose members left things unsaid and cues are given in a subtle manner. It means that "most of the information is either in the physical context or initialized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message" (Hall, 1976: 79) High context cultures have a strong sense of tradition and history, and change little over time. Members know exactly when to touch and how to touch based on a strict nonverbal commonly understood code. South America is an example of this. In low context culture, people communicate mainly through words as opposed to inferences or contexts. "The mass of information is vested in the explicit code." (Hall, 1976: 70). People from low-context cultures value facts, figures, and candour. Americans and Germans are typically regarded as low context cultures. Spain is middle way between both types.
Spanish women generally greet themselves with two kisses on the cheek, which also applies if the greeting is between a man and a woman, or between two male members of the same family. If two men greet, they shake their hands or, in most affective cases, they share some pats on their backs. Physical contact is really important for Spanish people and is not considered as interfering other’s space. Latin American men (especially young people) generally embrace, which is understood by Spanish people as "too familiar".
Proxemics, the distance people need to feel "secure" and comfortable in a conversation, varies across cultures also. There is a general division based on the type of relationship established among individuals:
- Intimate distance (the closest). Distance between people that used for very confidential communications.
- Personal distance. In communicating, the physical distance used for talking with family close friends
- Social distance. In communicating, the distance used to handle business transactions, etc.
- Public distance (the farthest). In communicating, the distance used when calling across the room or giving a talk to a group
Hall’s (1966) research 5 established the personal distance among South American males as 18 inches (45,72 cm) which can be considered "too near" for Spanish males. The case with females seems to be different. South American and Spanish females need a closer distance (maybe no more than 15 inches, or 38,1 cm) to communicate and they touch quite frequently in the arms, hands, shoulders without feeling "invaded" or "too familiar". Communication among women seems easier in this respect.
Olfactics. It refers to the perception of smell and the meaning it has. Smell is used politically and socially to mark social distinction class, economical position, etc. Depending on two easy factors, it can be perceived as an "invasion of one’s privacy" by the other:
a. How much?
b. Of whom?
There seems to be a universal preference for some kinds of scents that may have biological and evolutionary roots 6 . The type and amount of smell is mediated by the culture to some extent. There seems to be gender differences, also in this respect; in addition, women perceive odours differently at various phases of their menstrual cycles 7 . South American women, in general, use some "strong" smells which are not usual for Spanish women.
Chronemics. Time talks and it speaks more plainly than words. The message it conveys comes through loud and clear.
E.T. Hall (1966) analysed how people use time, structure it, interpret it, and understand its passage. He found two perspectives:
a. Time orientations: F. Kluckhohn (1953) emphasizes the value or importance the members of the culture place on the passage of time. All societies have an understanding of the present, past and future, but they all differ in which dimension they emphasize.
- Past-oriented cultures: previous events and experiences are considered as most important. E.g. France, Egypt, Japan, China, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. They place greater importance on tradition, history, and experience, appreciate close family ties, and recall their own history well. They look to the past - real or imaginary - for inspiration, motivation, sustenance, hope, guidance and direction. These cultures tend to direct their efforts and resources and invest them in what IS. They are, therefore, bound to be materialistic, figurative, substantive, and earthly. They are likely to prefer old age to youth, i.e. worship their ancestors, old habits to new, old buildings to modern architecture, etc. This preference of the Elders (a term of veneration) over the Youngsters (a denigrating term) typifies them strongly. These cultures are likely to be risk averse. "Tried and true" has more merit than "new and improved." Whereas the future may be circumspect at best, the past a reliable, steady wealth of information and lessons to guide human action. The future lies outside of man’s control and falls under the domain of the supra-natural. "In-sha-allah" or "God willing" used by many Arabic speakers, because only God, not man, knows what will or will not happen in the future.
- Present-oriented cultures: present experiences as most important. They place emphasis on the here and now, spontaneity and immediacy. They may be relatively unconcerned with the future; they will deal with it when it comes. E.g. Latin Americans, Native Americans, and Middle Easterners. They may, for example, neglect preventive health care measures. They may show-up late or not at all for appointments. They do not feel that pressing need felt by the future-oriented cultures "to change one’s (present) situation". The situation is the way it is. It may have been different in the past. It may be different in the future. But, right now, it is the situation. Spain is middle-way between Past and Present-oriented cultures.
- Future-oriented cultures: tomorrow is important, work for future. These cultures are, inevitably, more abstract, more imaginative, more creative (having to design multiple scenarios just to survive). They are also more likely to have a youth cult: to prefer the young, the new, the revolutionary, the fresh - to the old, the habitual, the predictable. They are risk-centred and risk-assuming cultures. North-American life is filled with a future-oriented perspective that looks ahead. A positive perspective is associated with a forward looking perspective and "backwards" has a negative connotation that goes beyond simple direction or location.
b. T ime usage: Implicit cultural rules that are used to arrange sets of experiences in some meaningful way.
- Technical - the precise, scientific measurements of time that are calculated in such units as nanoseconds (laboratories).
- Formal. The ways in which the members of a culture describe and comprehend units of time, (e.g. Native American Indians: phases of the moon; Western cultures: seconds, minutes, hours, months...).
- Informal. Assumptions cultures make about how time should be used or experienced. Informal time is the most difficult to learn and understand because it is so loosely defined. We have the concept of duration. Informally, there are eight levels of duration: immediate; very short; short; neutral; long; very long; terribly long; and forever. Spanish businessmen have told angry tales of having to wait a half-hour, or longer, to see a Latin American associate. To the Spanish, a waiting period of this length is an insult, but in these cultures it is appropriate.
Paralanguage includes the communication through phonetic aspects such as pitch placement and stress. Spanish speakers are the Europeans with the higher pitch of voice. South and Central American in general tend to use an even higher pitch of voice, which is interpreted by Spanish as speaking too loud or shouting. Comments such as "why are you screaming at me" might be heard. In Spain, educated people don’t raise their voice when speaking in public, whereas in most Latin countries people speak louder which is perceived by Spanish as "noise" and interpreted as showing lack of education.
Oculesics, the meaning of eye contact, gazing is also extremely important for appropriate cultural behaviour. In Spain you face a person when interacting, yet when you are walking in the streets you would not "look" at people, because that would be interpreted as "gazing" or "staring", and considered inadequate. South American cultures have high contact communication. When walking in the streets, people tend to look at a passer-by with no second intention to this act. Therefore, if a South or Central American visiting Spain "looked" at people they would say: "Hi", which could be misinterpreted by the visitor as "friendliness".
Social manners. The following are two examples of how social manners can lead to cultural misunderstandings:
a. If invited to dinner in Central America, it is well-mannered to leave right after the dinner: the ones who do not leave may indicate they have not eaten enough. In Spain this is considered rude, indicating that the guest only wanted to eat but would not enjoy the company with the hosts.
b. In certain countries in South America, saying to a female friend one has not seen for a while that she has put on weight means she is physically healthier than before and had a nice holiday, whereas this would be considered an insult in Spain.
Another classification of the way people understand life is the Environment Division, which attends to the general sense people attach to their goals in life.
a. Control Cultures (Western Societies): People feel life is something you must fight for. The mottos which can be heard are: "Go for it", "Life is what you make it", "The future can be planned for".
b. Harmony Cultures (Asian Cultures): People feel in harmony with the context, they do not feel the need to fight. "Don’t rock the boat", "Go with the flow."
c. Constraint Culture (Latin America, Middle East): People feel fate is the controller of their lives, so you cannot do anything to change this: "It’s a matter of fate", "You take what life gives you."
The contrast it offers is clear: the way Latin Americans and Spanish understand life is not common. So, their control, attitude and general philosophy about life make them act differently, for example, in business, where Latin American feel more "cooperative" and Spanish feel more "competitive".
Another contrast is offered by the way individuals feel their belonging to the group; Individualist vs. Collectivist cultures:
a. Individualist : USA, UK, Italy, Scandinavia, France, Germany;
b. Intermediate : Israel, Spain, Japan, Argentina;
c. Collectivist : Brazil, Turkey, Mexico, South America, much of Asia.
This is another difference that makes people understand life in different ways. Latinos are collectivist (for example in business; young people frequently gather in bands...) and Spanish are intermediate, which means that they feel the individual effort, daily work and competition (business) but need the group to feel "socialized" in certain aspects of their lives (social life, leisure...).
The main point of this article has been to discuss cultural differences found in people sharing the same language, which is the essence of the cultural distance concept proposed herein. Language is not a guarantee of understanding because other communicating systems analyzed are in the basis of cultural misunderstandings. Many other cultural differences can be found (that also give rise to such cultural misunderstandings) but they fall outside the scope of this article (history, literature, art... as well as common things regarding daily life such as type of food, cooking, routines, etc.).
Thus, cultural distance gives account of the cultural span people feel when they do not share life values and social understanding. This cultural distance is found among people, irrespective of the language they speak. If people speak different languages, they are ready for the cultural shock: they know beforehand it is there and they must cope with it. But people are not aware of this when they speak the same language: they do not feel the need to get ready for a cultural shock because they suppose this is not going to cause them any trouble. In summary, we should pay more attention to cultural distance when it affects people sharing the language 8 because they are not prepared for that.
We have not tried to be exhaustive; we are aware that complementary ideas to this have been left aside deliberately (due to space constrictions). For example, cultural misunderstandings are well studied and analyzed among different cultures in the same country. We find examples of this in Spain, for instance, between Gypsy and non-gypsy cultures 9 , which create cultural spheres where people live and must cope with cultural distance.
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Recent work on stocks of knowledge (Adams, 1990) demonstrates that knowledge is found to be a major contributor to produRecent work on stocks of knowledge (Adams, 1990) demonstrates that knowledge is found to be a major contributor to productivity growth, so it seems reasonable to deduce that it is a highly influential factor in any other aspect of daily life.ctivity growth, so it seems reasonable to deduce that it is a highly influential factor in any other aspect of daily life. ↩
Real Academia de la Lengua in the original Spanish name (our translation). ↩
In Spanish, in the original: "conjunto de modos de vida y costumbres, conocimientos y grado de desarrollo artístico, científico, industrial, en una época, grupo social, etc." (our translation). ↩
The Spanish terms are "Españoles-Hispanos". ↩
Urine is frequently found in perfumes. ↩
Urine is frequently found in perfumes. ↩
This even takes women to have "simultaneous" menstruations due to hormones’ perception. ↩
We are aware of the differences between, for example, Spanish spoken in Spain and the Spanish spoken in the different countries of South and Central America. The "Instituto Cervantes" leads these studies and the question is widely known; Spanish is not so common for all speakers of Spanish. So, even this is a not-so-true statement. ↩
In Spain, the "Fundación Secretariado Gitano" is an NGO which is devoted to the cultural analysis of the gypsies to promote their co-existence with the rest of the Spanish people. ↩