What Blocks us in Intercultural Encounters?

We assume similarities

It is a natural tendency for us to assume that “hey, everybody should think like me”. Putting ourselves into the shoes of another person is just not our natural way of thinking. We are, by definition, self-centered. Our own view is the only one that we understand, and that we are familiar with. In other words: intercultural encounters leaves us in unfamiliar terrain. And as I pointed out a while ago, unfamiliarity is always threatening. Yes, there are certain similarities. As Ekman found out, facial expressions, for example, are universal. However, when and under what circumstances these are displayed, is not. So again, assuming similarities is potentially dangerous. However, we also shouldn’t fall into the trap of  thinking that we are different all possible ways. No. There are things we have in common, and others that we don’t. And the exciting thing about intercultural encounters is that over time we get to discover these, and learn new things.

We have trouble interpreting nonverbal signals

I have  already touched upon this in the first part of the article. But yes, this can be a problem. I mean, what does this picture below tell you, how does Obama feel in that moment?



For me personally, there is a big discrepancy here. On the one hand, he crosses his arms, which often signals a ‘closed off’ stance. On the other hand, he smiles openly, which is, of course, the complete opposite of being closed off. So, a picture like this can be confusing. It has to be looked at in so called behavioural  ‘clusters, in combination with other behaviours, and also by looking at Obama’s usual body language. Now, it gets more interesting if we bring culture into the game. In Indonesia, for example, crossing your arms is a sign of superiority and arrogance. However, you will see people crossing their arms in Indonesia. And perhaps they do not want to offend anyone. So, in the end, it takes a lot of time and experience in a particular culture to be able to see nonverbal signals in a differentiated way. Not everybody of a particular culture has the same nonverbal habits.


Just look at this picture. He is American, smiles, and crosses with his arms. Does he communicate the same message like Obama?

We use stereotypes to read behaviour

 I said it before, but once more: humans are scared of unfamiliar situations. New stuff makes us anxious. And so we rely on stereotypes to predict the behaviour of other people, and to put it into neat categories that we are familiar with. Now, it is easy to say that stereotypes are a bad thing, and that we should get rid of them. But that isn’t quite the truth as well. Stereotypes are necessary. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to assign meaning to the behaviour of other people at all.

The danger lies in applying stereotypes to broad categories of people, without being open to the fact that the ideas we have of them might not necessarily be true. And since our opinions often get entrenched into our way of thinking, are are difficult to change, one person could apply the same stereotypes over and over again, without realizing that he is misreading the behaviour of his Chinese friend.

We have the tendency to evaluate, and to judge, other people’s behaviour

…before we are able to understand their behaviour, and see it in the appropriate context.

While we are interacting with someone, we form immediate judgement of that persons behaviour. We do not naturally sit back and reflect on what just happenend. No. In reality, we simply judge another person on the standards of our own culture. You might have heard of this as ‘ethnocentrism’, and yes, that is exactly what it is. Before we can, and should, judge someone’s behaviour, though, we have to understand where he or she is coming from, and what the standards of his or her culture are. Only then are we able to decide whether or not we actually agree, or disagree with what he or she is doing. The only way to do this, is to do your research, and to have as much contact with people from that cultural background as possible.

Last but not least, I would like to give credit to f Laray M. Barna, who developed these stumbling blocks. So if you’d like to know more about it, check out his book chapter in Intercultural Communication: A reader.



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