www.diploweb.com/english/1.htm Geopolitics


Cross-culture awareness and competence,  

Steven Matejovsky, ISIT


Cross-cultural knowledge and skills have become increasingly important as more and more people from different countries study, work and live together. The Erasmus programme (part of the Socrates and Leonardo Da Vinci programme of the European Union) which facilitates student exchange among 31 different countries, is one example where an awareness of the role of culture on our perception and understanding of the world can make a difference in the quality of our interaction with people from other countries.

Key words: steven matejovsky, cross-culture awareness and competence, erasmus, institut supérieur d'interprétation et de traduction, isit, institut catholique de paris, icp, ambiguity, appropriate response, arbitrary, artefacts, assumptions, attribution, awareness, beliefs, chronemics, communicative competence, context, convergence, cross-culture, culture, decode, divergence, encode, ethnocentric, expected behaviour, haptics, iceberg, individual preference, intent, filter, kinesics, no avoidance culture, oculesics, olfactics, norm, parochial, perception, perceptual patterns, prejudices, proxemics, relationship, semiotics, stereotypes, universalistic, value, vocalics, yes avoidance culture.


Developing Cross Culture Awareness

This article is the result of a workshop designed for students participating in the Erasmus student exchange programme. The workshop is designed to respond to the needs of students travelling abroad (for the most part French) and students arriving to study in France (mixed nationalities). The course is given at the ISIT (Institut Supérieur d’Interprétation et de Traduction), at l’Institut Catholique de Paris at the end of the second year for the departing students and at the beginning of the autumn semester for the newly arrived Erasmus students.

The workshop, which lasts half-a-day, is designed to raise awareness of cultural differences and similarities and eventually to lay the groundwork for developing cross-cultural communicative competence. At the ISIT the course is run in English for the departing students and in French for the arriving students. Because the students have specialised in language study (and are competent in 2, 3 or sometimes more languages) they have a certain level of awareness of cultural difference due to the links between language and culture. Learning another language implies learning the idiosyncratic ways in which each culture expresses itself and defines the world (see perception below). However, students can master the linguistic elements of the language without necessarily developing skills in either communicative competence or cultural competence. In addition, through text study and selected readings, students learn facts about the target culture. So while not parochial in their outlook (not recognising that cultural differences exist – sometimes the term culture blind is used) many areas of cultural awareness are unmapped territories for them.


Workshop objectives

    • Increase positive attitudes toward people of other cultures.

    • Increase participants’ awareness of their own cultural values and unstated cultural assumptions.

    • Introduce the notion that cultures are relative to one another and not hierarchical.

    • Increase awareness of the origin of problems that can arise in communicating with people of other cultures.

    • Call attention to counterproductive stereotypes and prejudices toward people of other cultures.

The methodology of the workshop is based on experiential learning and consists of problem solving (critical incidents) role-plays, discussions and experiments. The themes progress from perception and culture, to behaviour and culture, and finally culture and communication.



The fundamental principle for this workshop is based on the notion that in order to comprehend and appreciate a different culture, one must first have a conscious understanding and insight into one’s own culture. Consequently, self-discovery is a major element in the workshop. This self-discovery process consists primarily of identifying the shared beliefs, values, assumptions, perceptual patterns, behavioural norms and communication preferences within one group. Students are then introduced to the idea of convergence and divergence that occurs when different cultures meet. 

Steven Matejovsky, 2005


Convergence and divergence

The notions of convergence and divergence are fundamental to the workshop for two reasons. First, they provide an opportunity to discuss assumptions: the things we take for granted or the belief that we can correctly predict the outcome of our actions. When there is convergence, that is to say, when others do things in the same way as we do, then we don’t notice their behaviour. It is normal, they are behaving like us, in other words normally, or the way people should behave. We usually expect people to react in the same way we would, and get confused when this is not the case—is this person a non-conformist, an eccentric or worse? Expected behaviour and appropriate responses allow us to negotiate our own personal preferences within the limits of cultural acceptance that regulates our daily lives. But none of this necessarily applies when we find ourselves in another culture. Our assumptions no longer hold, or is everyone in culture X an eccentric? Secondly, we can’t accurately predict what elements will be similar and which ones will be different. For the most part those elements which converge and diverge between cultures appear to be arbitrary.

Often too much attention is paid to divergence and not enough time is spent on reflecting on convergence, or what is similar between culture X and Y. Focusing on the similarities gives us the opportunity to discuss how easy it is to see a universality of human behaviour based on our own cultural norms. The idea that people are people and all one has to do is be polite and one can adapt anywhere is a result of universalistic thinking. This allows us to further the discussion of the arbitrary nature of culture—the very idea of what it means to be polite or impolite. This is valuable time spent, especially as a preview to defining culture, which follows next in the workshop. Discussing divergence or where norms, values etc, differ is in many ways a much easier task than looking at convergence. It is what the student expects the course to be about; ‘tell us what they do differently and how to deal with it’ is a common participant request in the workshop. These “do’s” and “don’ts” can be found in the popular literature devoted to “Understanding the X’s” and not part of this workshop. If used at all, they are examined in developing awareness of stereotypes, which in some cases can be more of a hindrance to understanding another culture than a resource. Divergence is examined from two basic standpoints. First is the idea that the greater the difference in the norm, the more importance we attach to it. Secondly, we see that the more the behaviour is different from our norm, the more likely we are to attach a negative value to it. This reflects a basic ethnocentric response summed up as ‘our way is best’. Geographic distance, religion, economic modes, ethnic difference, language—any example of human response to our environment, does not necessarily help to predict where cultural differences or similarities will occur. One striking example is the convergence found between Swedes and Japanese concerning use of silence, avoidance of physical contact and even a very superficial element (the artefacts discussed in the models and definitions) such as removing shoes indoors. Less convergence exists between Swedes and their neighbours the Danes than between Swedes and Japanese. Developing this awareness among the students is valuable in helping them develop skills such as being more observant of the new culture and leaving aside assumptions based on ‘common sense’. 


Defining culture

Despite the fact that few social scientists agree on a standard definition of culture, there are enough similarities to list and compare the common elements. What is important at this point is that the students see the difference between notions of culture with a capital C and culture with a small c. In a very simplified definition, culture in the cross-culture sense is not about civilisation (the arts) or developed/modern/superior versus underdeveloped/traditional/inferior, but a relative notion of shared values and common rules for behaviour among individuals who identify themselves as members of the same group. Once sufficient time has been spent on definitions so that there is agreement of how the term is to be used, attention can be turned to the concept that one’s own culture is invisible to the individual. Many useful metaphors and analogies have been proposed to illustrate this phenomenon which attests to its importance. One example is the Iceberg model of culture where the most important elements – assumptions, norms and values – are hidden below the surface. While the artefacts – clothing, language, money, food, architecture, etc. those things visible and easily identifiable that are on the top of the iceberg – in the end prove to be less problematic for cross-culture interaction however exotic they first appear to be.

Since culture is learned, not inherited and the learning is for the most part progressive, incremental and implicit—we absorb it slowly—it sinks from the conscious and becomes reflexive and second nature. It takes all of our childhood and most of our adolescence to learn the ‘rules’ and limits of acceptability a culture hands down to us and by the time the learning is finished we have integrated it and apply it without thinking.  


The value of No

One very useful example to illustrate the transition from linguistic competence towards communicative competence and eventually cultural competence is discussing the value of yes and no. At first sight the students often see it as a non-issue, which is useful. By encouraging students to reflect on when they say yes and no (in the framework of context and relationship, see below) it becomes apparent that the issue is not so clear cut. In some cultures no = no, and yes = yes. Others, however, can be placed on a relative scale of no avoidance cultures, where there is a tendency to say yes in most contexts and relationships; and yes avoidance cultures where the cultural norm is to say no in most contexts and relationships. Again these are tendencies and not absolutes and in every case students must be made aware that the individual can negotiate his or her personal preferences within the limits the culture provides for deviation. The following illustration is used for discussion.

Source: KD Conseil

The value of no serves as a very good model of how broad cultural statements (clichés or stereotypes) are only general trends among a group, not absolutes for every individual. It provides an opportunity to reinforce the idea of interaction as a negotiation of individual preferences between expected behaviour and appropriate response. The classic example of a ‘no avoidance’ culture (the English in the above illustration) is the Japanese. Much has been written explaining how the ‘no’ is embedded in non-verbal signals evident to all members of the culture but invisible to the non-initiated. However, some Japanese individuals can vary in their avoidance of saying no. Still, they are aware of the signals (expected behaviour) and are able to act correctly (appropriate response) while negotiating their individual preference in a way that will also be correctly interpreted in their own culture.  


Context and Relationship

By taking any example of social interaction in a given culture, it is evident that by the time you are an adult it is taken for granted you know how to act. Kissing as a form of greeting is a good example where the practice in France is much different than in Finland. The Frenchman in France and the Finn in Finland don’t have to consciously think about the rule system when at home. If asked what the rules are for greetings they would most likely be surprised by the question. They know the rules internally but have difficulty verbalising them since they have been learned over time, though observation, modelling and implicit instruction. The rules have become invisible to them. But the same French person travelling to Finland for the first time would quickly become aware of cultural divergence were he or she to greet people of her own age in similar contexts to those that she would find in France. Examples like these provide the opportunity to introduce two key elements in cross-culture awareness—context and relationship. All human interaction occurs in a specific place, with one or more than one person. The place – office, classroom, home, shop, train, sports club, public space, etc. and the person/people – brother, travel agent, strangers, teacher, grandparents, etc. dictate our application of internalised rules of behaviour. We apply these rules unconsciously and normally we get them right. When it sometimes occurs that we get them wrong, we quickly know how to modify our behaviour and send the appropriate signals to rectify the error. That is we get them right when we are safely interacting in our own culture. Once in foreign situations we can be faced with frustration and ambiguity at not getting them right and then not knowing how to fix them once they have gone wrong. Therefore every cross-culture interaction must be analysed in its context—where it is taking place, and its relationship—who are we interacting with. By making students aware of these two essential parameters they see clearly the complexity of a system that has become second nature and they realise that there is more to be learned than the standard answers of ‘how to act’ in country X. You need to think of whom you are with and where the interaction is taking place, things you do automatically and unconsciously at home. Very often we find that there is convergence and we can act ‘normally’; it is only when a difference suddenly arises that we notice that something has not met our expectations. How great the difference is determines how much of an issue it becomes. ‘People don’t respond directly to events, they respond to the importance they attach to the events’ (Bennett).


Culture and perception

Establishing the links between culture and perception is the first of the three themes for the workshop. Culture is presented as the filter between the object (reality) and how we perceive it. Emphasis is placed on the idea that it is not what we ‘see’ but what we pay attention to that is important. There are many ways to illustrate the point experientially, relying on experiments developed in psychology as well as the social sciences. All of the perceptual senses are discussed: hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and touching, and they are examined within a contextual/relational framework. For example, students are asked to think about how closely they listen (or need to listen) in given contexts – parents at the breakfast table as opposed to a professor listing criteria for evaluation at the beginning of the semester. Then students are asked to reflect on what sounds they filter out on a daily basis, why this is so and how there are clear distinctions between what we hear and what we listen to within the daily familiarity of our own culture. All the senses can be examined in this way: what smells good or bad, what tastes are agreeable, how we feel when we are touched by others, etc.


Culture and behaviour

The second introductory theme in the workshop is based primarily on E. T. Hall’s taxonomy of non verbal communication. A quick look at the topics reveals the complexity of human interaction. In the workshop students are asked to list their norms for interpersonal behaviour for each of the topics. 

         Proxemics—the use of space.

         Kinesics—posture and movement.

         Haptics—touch or physical sensitivity.

         Oculesics—eye contact.

         Vocalics—voice and volume.

         Olfactics—smell, taste and odours.

         Chronemics—use of time.

Despite the peculiar nomenclature that Hall employs, students have little trouble identifying norms that to a large extent were previously taken for granted and invisible to them. The complexity of our cultural reflexes becomes apparent when the students then specifically describe the norms within given contexts and relationships.


Culture and communication

Numerous studies suggest that when we communicate 30% of the message is transmitted in the words, 70% in what surrounds the words. What surrounds the words is as much tone, pause, non-verbal sounds, gestures, facial expression, as the dimensions discussed above – eye contact, distance, touch, etc.

One of the ideas that this final section of the workshop tries to underline is the possibility of mismatch between intention and interpretation in cross-culture communication. This is a development of basic notions of semiotics concerning encoding, decoding, sending and receiving of messages. When the message being interpreted was encoded in another culture, the cultural influences and experiences that produced that message may be entirely different form the cultural influences and experiences that are being drawn upon to decode the message. Students work through a problem (critical incident) which highlights the ambiguity of sending a message in a foreign culture. That message is interpreted according to the norms of the new culture, and is seen as inappropriate, whereas the same message would have been completely appropriate in the home culture. ‘Errors in attribution (the meaning or value we assign) may arise that are not intended and often the person sending the message is neither aware of how the message is being received nor the effect it may be having on the recipient’ (Gudykunst).



This workshop is about developing awareness; it is aimed primarily at making students conscious of their own ‘taken for granted’ culture and is intended to help them become open and non-judgemental towards others. Much territory is covered in a very short period in this workshop. This is done to impress upon the students the vast complexity of factors that make up social interaction. The students realise that these factors become cultural as soon as we leave our own group and have to interact with those whose ‘system’ may arbitrarily converge or diverge with our own. Also, by reflecting on the objectives of the workshop one can accept that what is different is not necessarily inferior and what is familiar is not always best. The development of cross-cultural competence, which only comes after awareness, is in large measure attitudinal. While skills can be learnt they are difficult to apply if one is not open to new ways of seeing and experiencing the world.

Steven Matejovsky

He can be contacted at I.S.I.T., 12 rue  Cassette, 75006  Paris France or e-mail matejovsky@wanadoo.fr

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Copyright 2005, october - Matejovsky / www.diploweb.com


Steven Matejovsky


Steven Matejovsky received an MA in International Relations in 1983 from Ohio University and later pursued post-graduate studies at the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies and Stockholm University, Centre for Ethnic and Immigration Studies.


He has held teaching positions at Mohammed V University in Rabat, Morocco, Universidad de las Americas in Mexico City, Mexico, Stockholm School of Economics in Stockholm, Sweden, Univeristé Marc Bloch, Strasbourg, France, and presently teaches cross-culture communications at the I.S.I.T., part of the Institut Catholique, Paris, France.


In addition, Mr. Matejovsky trains and consults with multinational companies in France and abroad. He can be contacted at I.S.I.T., 12 rue  Cassette, 75006  Paris France or e-mail matejovsky@wanadoo.fr



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