What is Expertise in the Field of Intercultural Communication?

Intercultural communication is a field which is difficult to predict by science. In every encounter with someone from a different culture, so many different influences are at play. Is she acting this way because it is the ‘normal’ way in her culture, or is she acting this way because it is her unique personality, because she had a bad day, or because she learned that behaviour in one of the many organization she joined throughout her lifetime? These factors, and many more, can potentially have an influence on how she behaves right now.

So when you try to predict someone else’s behaviour, how do you go ahead and measure all these factors? Right, you don’t. You rely on different factors other than scientific validity. In his book “Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter“, Cass Sunstein describes three different types of expertise. Let’s now have a look at all three of them, and how they related to expertise in the area of intercultural communication.

Theory-based reasoning: “scientific understanding of the particular domain in which judgments are made”

Experiental expertise: learning which aspects of a situation to focus on and which one’s to disregard through experiential learning and feedback

Case-based memory matching: looking at cases from past experiences and looking in which way they relate to the current situation

Despite the fact that I said that scientific predictions of behaviour in intercultural encounters are difficult to make, all three types of expertise are at play when we try to make sense of somebody else’s behaviour as well. For instance, we could say that ‘oh she comes from China, a collective culture, so individual rewards will probably not work very well in her case’. We have applied a scientific theory to the case in order to make a prediction about what will work for her, and what won’t.

If we are not familiar with what the term ‘collectivist culture’ means, but we have worked together with many people from a Chinese background, then we may still come to a similar conclusion. “Most of them didn’t get motivated through individual performance rewards, so she probably won’t either”. We have taken previous cases, and applied what we learned from these cases to our understanding of the current situation. But it is only through experiential expertise that we are able to understand what factor all of our colleagues from China had in common that we can then come up with our own ‘theory’ of what it is about the Chinese as a group that makes individual performance rewards ineffective.

Experiential expertise allows us to come up with our own theories about the behaviour of a certain cultural group

If we are familiar with the scientific literature on the group, then we can see whether this literature matches with our own theory. If we are not familiar with it, then at least we have a theory we can use to predict other people’s behaviour in the future. And yet my question is, do you see the problem with this?

These predictions we make based on our experiences are generalizations, or what we often refer to as stereotypes. There is nothing wrong with stereotypes. Without them, we would walk through the world absolutely clueless. We would have to come into each situation with another person with no understanding whatsoever what his or her could possibly mean. And yet, stereotypes are also dangerous. They are dangerous because,  there are so many different influences on a person’s behaviour. Personality, culture, mood, the environment, and many more.

True expertise in the field of intercultural communication requires us to be strong in all three types of expertise. Pure theoretical knowledge is not enough. Neither is simply living abroad. If all we have is theoretical knowledge, then we have no means to match our knowledge with actual experiences. If all our expertise comes from simply living abroad and we don’t have a theoretical understanding, then we will not be able to fully comprehend why people behave the way they do.

After having said all this, I would like to warn you of the danger of reading something like a ‘pocket guide of doing business in China’. What they can give is a theory of what the culture is like. The author will either use his scientific knowledge to come up with this, or write about it based on his or her experiences. This is not altogether wrong. But all they can really tell you are tendencies for behaviour based on their own theories. Whether these theories are scientifically valid or not, the situations in which you will find yourself are different from those in which the author has been. You will deal with a different person, with different experiences, and a different environment. Use the information that you get from such pocket guides wisely, and always remain critical about their validity. ‘This is what is says in the book, so this is how it must be’, is something that is tremendously dangerous in intercultural encounters.


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