‘Cross-cultural communication’ has become the thing to study in many western countries. Some people may be surprised to hear that the subject is in Russia as well, and interest is growing; indeed one or two Russian universities are starting to offer it at degree level. In this interview Dr Oksana Danchevskaya, who is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Foreign Languages of Moscow State Pedagogical University, where she specialises in cultural studies, cross-cultural communication and American Indian studies, explains what cross-cultural communication is all about, and a brief history of the subject in Russia (editor). Interview by John Harrison

Dr Oksana Danchevskaya

First of all, Oksana, what is cross-cultural communication?

In short, cross-cultural communication studies the communication of people from different cultures. But many people misinterpret it, thinking that we are only talking about interaction between representatives of different ethnic backgrounds or of different countries. In fact, we are talking about a much wider field, as every subculture, organisation, religious group, gender, age and social group has its own culture, which means that communication between them can also be classified as cross-cultural. And it goes even beyond that – it includes such aspects as verbal and non-verbal communication, personal and business communication, customs and traditions, national characters and mindsets, taboos, values, basic needs and preferences, stereotypes, symbolism, kinesics and proxemics, conflict resolution, mediation, localisation and a lot more…

Briefly, how did the subject develop? 

The American cultural anthropologist Edward Hall is generally acknowledged as the founder of this field of studies. He used the term ‘intercultural communication’ in 1959 in his book: The Silent Language. The need for this kind of research was triggered by the global expansion of business, and many studies are still devoted to cross-cultural business communication.

Here I should mention that while in Russian we have only one term for this discipline, in English there are two — cross-cultural and intercultural communication. In most cases, these terms are used interchangeably, and many scholars still have difficulties differentiating between them. Some believe that intercultural communication happens when people from different cultures come into contact, while cross-cultural communication compares cultures, though, by and large the two terms mean the same thing. So, it can be a bit confusing.

In 1976, in another book titled Beyond Culture, Edward Hall suggested his classification of cultures into high- and low-context cultures. He also developed such an important aspect of cross-cultural communication as proxemics. Soon after that, more classifications and theories followed: the division of cultures into monochronic and polychronic by Edward Hall; cultural dimensions theory by the Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede in the 80s; the model of national culture differences by another Dutch scholar; Fons Trompenaars in 1993; the Lewis model of cross-cultural communication by an English communication consultant Richard Lewis in the 1990s, and several more.

In Russia, cross-cultural communication became an official university discipline only in 1996 thanks to the efforts of Dr. Svetlana Ter-Minasova from Moscow State University. Now the subject is gaining more and more popularity and credibility.

But, in my opinion, a big problem of this subject is that in the minds of many it is still regarded as being only a part of language training and is taught mostly at language departments. That’s why many textbooks on cross-cultural communication concentrate on just a few countries; even worse — the books for English-speaking students exclude many English-speaking countries. Of course, there are exceptions, but not very many. We should realise that though language is a very important part of cross-cultural communication, it’s impossible to imagine that in our time someone will always communicate with the representatives of one or two countries only! That’s why my approach while teaching it is a bit different: I try to include as many cultures as possible, from all parts of the world.

You teach this subject in Russia, what are the main difficulties that students experience understanding this? How do they overcome such problems?

I’ve been teaching cross-cultural communication in Russia for about a decade now, and I have to say that the pace of our life is so fast nowadays that everything, including this very discipline is constantly developing. It means that new materials are appearing as are the results of fresh research. It also means that new questions are being asked and fresh ideas materialising. But I’d like to say that studying the subject is not so difficult and complex as it may seem if you have the right approach.

Maybe the main difficulty is that studying cross-cultural communication is impossible without the basic ability to communicate — something students often lack. The thing is, that while travelling on holidays or talking to their online friends from other cultures, many people don’t pay attention to a whole number of important and interesting aspects and are affected by stereotypes – ethnic, social, gender ones and others. And that’s why they make mistakes. I like to analyse with my students their mistakes and also teach them using some of my own errors. Often, they only realise what exactly was wrong and learn how to avoid it in the future during our lessons.

Among others, we use classical research methods – surveys, interviews, observation, document analysis, experiments… I give many field-work assignments, and some of the students may face the problem of finding enough people for their research, but at the same time it helps them master their communication skills and teaches them to get out of their comfort zones. Sometimes during such practical work, they get very interesting and unexpected results as side-effects. For example, once while interviewing people online, several students noticed the same tendency: that many men from different cultures are worse at communicatingand suffer from that, while women didn’t have such a problem (the students mainly blamed gender stereotypes for that)…

Another example that comes to mind is when I asked students to interview guest workers in Moscow. Later many students confessed that this was a real eye-opener for them as they began to treat those people much better; became more empathetic and saw their real problems. Problems they had never even thought about before. It seems to me that such discoveries are essential not only for educational purposes, but for self-understanding and personal growth as well.

There are plenty of other interesting examples, I could dwell on them for hours. What matters is the outcome. Usually, at the beginning of our course, many students have only a very vague idea of the subject, and thus don’t quite understand its importance and practical applicability. Gradually they get more and more involved, and consequently become genuinely motivated and interested. I love to give them freedom of choice and the opportunity to be creative, and it gives very good results. And the main outcome they (and I as their happy teacher) get, stays with them forever – in their minds, hearts and souls, and it’s much more important than simply learning new skills (which, of course, they successfully do).

Is interest in cross-cultural communication growing in Russia? If so, why? 

The interest is great and it’s growing! First of all, soft skills are essential in today’s world, and this subject is definitely about soft skills. Second, global contacts and collaboration are growing exponentially, and specialists who can ‘smooth corners’ and assist in cross-cultural communication are really needed. Last year I gave a talk about risks in cross-cultural communications at a very big international conference on construction – seemingly, a subject not closely related to cross-cultural communication. But the topic aroused keen interest as Russia has more and more construction projects with companies from other countries, and participants confirmed that they have experienced serious situations of misunderstanding which has slowed down or even endangered the workflow. They all agreed that people should be trained how to deal with such cases, and this is true for any other sphere. That’s why I believe that this is thespeciality of the future.

Let me give you an example of how cross-cultural communication is taught in Russia today. To meet the demand of the job market, the Institute of Foreign Languages of Moscow State Pedagogical University where I work now runs a very interesting bachelor’s programme called: ‘Theory and Practice of Cross-Cultural Communication’, which prepares diverse specialists in this area. The major goal is to ensure and implement successful interaction between people of different cultures at all levels of communication. A great advantage of such a degree is that graduates can seek work in the myriad of vacancies opening up in a whole variety of spheres: diplomacy, tourism, mass media, culture, education, science, sports, international business, etc. This is achieved due to a wide range of subjects that the programme offers. Our students not only master at least two foreign languages (many disciplines are taught in English, and they have another language at their choice), but also have the opportunity to study in one of the great universities we collaborate with – in Europe, Asia or the USA. Students also get work experience with leading Russian and international companies, and in some cases their supervisors are so satisfied with them that they even get job offers from those organisations…

You specialise, I have heard, in North American Indians. What aspects of history does this subject reveal that we are not usually familiar with? 

Many! Just to name a few — history itself (many important events in Native American history are not widely known), their heritage and achievements, world outlook, religion and mythology, present-day situation, parallels with other native peoples (especially those of Siberia and the Russian North) and many more. I regularly meet people who believe that all American Indians have already become extinct! Can you imagine how surprised and interested they get when they discover that it’s not only false, but that American Indians have a very rich culture and history which is still continuing?! But most of all I’m interested in mythologies – first of all, of course, Native American mythologies, but also those of other peoples. This is the sphere of comparative mythology. There’s so much wisdom in myths, they can teach us a lot about how to be more humane – and about culture as well!

Finally, why is cross-cultural communication important in today’s world, how can it increase our understanding of world affairs?

Obviously, we all want to be able to communicate. But if we don’t know at least some general characteristics of the cultural background of the people we are dealing with, we can easily make mistakes — some of them may just cause misunderstanding, but others can lead to serious consequences such as offence, relationship breaks and even conflicts. Surely, we don’t want this, and cross-cultural communication can teach us not only how to correct such unpleasant mistakes, but also how to predict possible problematic situations and avoid them. It can help us understand the needs of peoples, the reasons for this or that behaviour, as well as choose best behaviour strategies for ourselves. Moreover, the knowledge of cross-cultural communication helps us to understand our own culture better and avoid blind stereotyping.

To sum it all up, cross-cultural competence is a vital tool for survival in today’s world. It is very important to understand and respect both ourselves and others, and only in this atmosphere of mutual understanding and respect we can, figuratively speaking, move mountains and change our world for the better. Cross-cultural communication is here to help us with that.

Dr Danchevskaya runs a facebook group on cross-cultural communication which you are welcome to join, see: https://www.facebook.com/groups/485850584910087/

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