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David Ross

Lost in Translation: Bridging Gaps in Intercultural Communication

Anna – a friendly host in Siberia. We lacked a common language but still found ways to communicate. (Image courtesy of author)

Introduction

The more I interact with people from different cultures, the more it is clear to me that we simply don’t understand each other. In my previous post (link) I discussed the challenges of listening to each other in the world we live in, addressing a few of the general barriers we face in the 21st century. These challenges are magnified by the realities of intercultural communication.

What is Intercultural Communication?

When we think of intercultural relations, the immediate image is often someone from a distant country, speaking a language entirely different from our own. Yet, as I’ll argue, intercultural gaps can happen closer to home, too.

My Experiences Abroad: A Tale of Two Countries

I have had the fortune (or perhaps misfortune) depending on your point of view, of experiencing intercultural barriers while visiting and studying in China and while traveling on the trans-Siberian railway in Russia. In both instances, I was acutely aware of being a foreigner and needing help from locals to perform the most basic of tasks – be it navigating public transport or ordering food.

The Magic of Google Translate

Technological tools like Google Translate can be game-changers, making once-impassable language barriers less daunting. For instance, I spent a memorable half-hour using the app to converse with a Russian border guard. We connected over shared experiences of serving in the military and performing often dull guard duties, despite our geographical and linguistic differences. However, technology isn’t flawless—it can miss out on cultural nuances and emotional subtleties.

Communicating without language

I have experienced how a smile or a shared meal can speak volumes, transcending linguistic barriers. These simple gestures can pave the way for genuine human connections. However, even with the best intentions, nonverbal cues can sometimes be misinterpreted.

When Communication Fails

During my time in rural China, simple tasks like catching the right bus became Herculean feats. I often found myself quite lost and this wasn’t due to a lack of helpfulness on the part of the locals; the problem was that we didn’t speak the same language. Similarly, a dinner conversation with an English-speaking tipsy fellow on the Trans-Siberian Railway demonstrated that goodwill and technology alone don’t guarantee successful communication. His lack of awareness of his own condition inhibited our ability to successfully communicate.

Left to right – my tipsy friend, the bartender, me (Image courtesy of author)

Awareness: A Double-Edged Sword

Although from my perspective, traveling in both Russia and China, I felt a similar sense of ‘lostness’ and needing to swim in the deep end, there were a number of differences influencing my travel experience. The most obvious difference was the direct result of my external appearance: I look like I could potentially be a local in Russia, but not in China. Though from my perspective I may have been similarly vulnerable, when in Russia, people looked at me as if I was one of them and would approach me in Russian, expecting me to understand them. In China, I was immediately seen as a foreigner and was usually approached with the expectation of a gap in understanding or not approached at all.

Navigating public transport in a country where I don’t speak the language… (Image courtesy of author)

When approached with a question in Russian in Russia, the consequence was very similar to the consequence of the conversation I had with the tipsy fellow on the train: lack of awareness meant a gap in communication. On the train, intoxication meant the communicator was not aware of a lot of the nonsense he was saying. In Russia in general, people who approached me were not aware that I didn’t speak their language. On my end, the consequence was the same: I didn’t understand what was being said. Granted, a few months studying Russian could help solve my lack of understanding of Russian but couldn’t help me understand the incomprehensible drunk. But that isn’t the point I am trying to make: If we don’t speak the same language, communication and understanding will be limited.

Presented in a simple table, the situations described above look as follows:

Situation Awareness Lack of Awareness
David in China
David in Russia
Drunk fellow on train

 

Table: Comparing situations in which there is a lack of understanding, differentiating them based on whether there is an awareness or a lack of awareness of the misunderstanding.

Whereas in China, both parties tended to be aware of the lack of understanding, in the case of David in Russia, the situations were such that people were unaware that David wasn’t a local and therefore that he did not understand.

In terms of communication, and avoiding misunderstandings, my life in China was actually easier, because the expectation of understanding was removed, along with the assumption that because we looked similar, we understood each other and that I knew what they were talking about.

Enjoying nature and the impressive Great Wall of China – easy to appreciate even without understanding Chinese! (Image courtesy of author)

Cultural Misunderstandings Closer to Home

You don’t have to cross oceans to face intercultural gaps. Within our own countries and communities there can be significant cultural differences. In cases where people who look like us, don’t think like us, misunderstandings can be particularly painful.

Do we Really ‘Just Speak English’?

England and the United States have often been referred to as “two nations separated by a common language” and can be a useful example for people groups that may assume to be a lot more similar than they are beneath the surface. Being English and married to an American means I can personally testify to such discrepancies. We speak the same language (English) but have very different understandings of the world and different understandings of how to use the English language. For an Englishman, to describe something as being “not bad” would be seen as high praise, but for an American “not bad” would be nothing short of an insult.

Gaps in Work Culture

For someone who is used to a military culture of checklists and constant verification of inventory and equipment, working under someone who is a ‘micro-manager’ and constantly checking up on them is likely to be viewed as normal, as a regular part of office life. However, an employee that is used to a culture of creatives and designers, especially if they are used to working as an independent contractor, working under the same manager would likely cause significant friction with the manager’s conduct being viewed as overbearing and lacking in trust.

In other words, the situation I found myself in whilst traveling in Russia, is actually a reality that many of us face, to differing extents, in our everyday lives!

Situation Awareness Lack of Awareness
David in China
David in Russia

 

Drunk fellow on train
English and Americans
Different work cultures

What would you add to the Table?

Bridging the Gap

CCO 1.0 Universal, Public Domain

The first step to bridging the gap in intercultural communication is acknowledging the gap itself. Though that may seem trivial, it is vital to realize that the people who surround us and who we see as ‘like us’ may not be as similar to us as we originally thought. For if they were truly ‘like us’, then they should understand us and often times, it is easier to place the onus on others to understand and blame them for not understanding us than to put in the effort of recognizing how we are different and why we may view things from different perspectives.

Naturally, like people in Russia who assumed I spoke Russian, so we will also make assumptions about others and assume that they will understand us. The challenge comes when we realize that our assumptions were wrong. In the case of a linguistic barrier, the misunderstanding is usually pretty clear and can often also be remedied by the use of an app. However, in other instances of misunderstandings, especially when they are due to more subtle cultural differences, understanding the cultural gap may be harder and the remedies may be more challenging.

In spite of the challenges, I strongly believe that taking the time to recognize and understand cultural differences is hugely important in our ability to function in a world of complex, mixed and diverse cultures.

What’s Next?

In my upcoming blogs, I intend to delve deeper into these facets of cultural difference. We’ll look at how to better recognize these gaps in communication and how to listen to each other, despite the challenges.

About the Author
Attorney David Ross was born in the UK to the son of a holocaust survivor and immigrated to Israel as a child. He studied at the Anglican International School Jerusalem before serving as an Officer in the IDF. David graduated with an LLB from the Hebrew University and is a graduate of the Schwarzman Scholars Program with a Master of Global Affairs from Tsinghua University in China. David recently completed his legal apprenticeship with the State Attorney Office Civil Law Department.
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