Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Intercultural Adaptation Theory

A simplified model of Intercultural Adaptation, which shows
inverse parabolic arc (i.e., the "U-shaped" curve) that
we often go through when adjusting to new cultures.
Cai & Rodriguez (1996)
 give an overview of the communication
role in this process across nine propositions.

As we've now been leben in Deutschland fur sieben Wochen, we should start thinking reflectively as to how we are adapting to our new surroundings. No doubt each of us is experiencing some different level of German culture as we continue to try new foods, speak new languages, and adapt to new customs. Perhaps the easiest part of international trtavel is recognizing that you are quickly in a culture not your own - it's usually a pretty exciting experience in the beginning (the "Honeymoon Stage") until the glitz and glamour wear off and you find yourself outside the comfort zone - for me, it was (of all things) drinking seltzer water (wasser mit gas) when I was expecting table water (still-wasser). This is an incredibly small thing to "shock" over, but even these small events have you questioning future interactions - trepidation over a drink order leads to scruntiny of a foreign food menus and drives many tourists to the local McDonald's over their local Gasthaus, as they experience a "Culture Shock" and look to regain control of their environment.

Two new ways that we might take a communication science (communiciology?) approach to this would be a focus on "intercultural adaptation" and "intercultural competence." The former focuses on Let's break them down seperately, and then I'll ask you guys to put them together in your weekly post.

Intercultural Adaptation

The following blog offers recommendations on how to
overcome these awkward new moments; I would not
recommend any of their suggestions.
When thinking of intercultural adaptation, Cai & Rodriguez (1996) talk about how communication patterns might aid or hinder persons understanding their "new" cultural environment. Defined as "as the process through which persons in cross-cultural interactions change their communicative behavior to facilitate understanding" (pp. 34, which seems to have a lot of elements in common with Communication Accomodation Theory, yes?).

IA looks at how we might try to continually alter our communication patterns to reduce misunderstandings - a common example of this is using exaggerated hand gestures when trying to convey meaning to someone who speaks a different language. Why would this play into culture? The notion here is that cross-cultural encounters are the result of individuals from different backgrounds relying on their social norms in an encounter. Example: In the US it is acceptable to hug an old friend whereas in many parts of Europe you may see friends kissing each on both cheeks. In the US, a kiss might be construed as having much more intimacy or meaning, which can lead to a rather awkward pause and silence.

Of course, with experience we hope to get better at avoiding these misunderstandings - the same "American" from above migth travel abroad in the future armed with this slight cultural knowledge and be better-prepared when old friends kiss him or her on the cheek. because their past experiences were rather positive (a kiss on the cheek represents a friendship, and this is a good thing). At the same time, not all experiences are positive and we can reinforce negative as well as positive interactions. Indeed, a common stereotype among US travelers can be how poorly they are treated when visiting France - often a result of miscommuniations from a lack of language skills and Francophile culture. Said negative interactions with one cultural group can drive individuals away from future intercultural interactions or at least, cause them to be more guarded when meeting "foreigners" in the future.

What does this mean for intercultural communication? It suggests that many cultural interactions can be understood in terms of how we communicate ourselves. Moreover, it suggests that much of our communicative behaviors are best understood as a function of the culture from which we stem - understanding communication is understanding culture, and vice versa.

Intercultural Competence

Another way of thinking about how we are "working" interculturally is to focus on our competence, defined by Fantini (2005) as "the complex of abilities needed to perform effectively and appropriately
when interacting with others who are linguistically and culturally different from oneself." An interesting distinction here is found between "effective" (how well we think we are doing) compared to "appropriate" (how well our hosts think we are doing). It is likely no secret that these perceptions can differ widely from each other, yet the better we are at detecting how our hosts are responding to our communication is the better we are at adapting ourselves to our new culture. Example: You might speak slowly and wave your arms while yelling at a barista to prepare you a michekaffe (which you're probably still calling a coffee with milk, if you're taking this approach) and you'll likely get your coffee (effective communication) - yet this behavior is hardly going to endear you to your hosts (inappropriate communication). Thus, to truly be interculturally competent we much struggle to balance out effectiveness with appropriateness, which is not so easy of a task.

Your assignment? For this week, I'd like you to make an honest reflection as to where you feel that you're fitting on both of these dimensions. Have you started to adapt to your surroundings? In the figure posted here, which "number" do you think you'd be? How would you honestly assess your own intercultural competence? Give me 300 to 400 words on this, and use the theory language. This post will serve as the basis for the end-portion of your final project, go give it a good effort!

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