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People are both similar and different; diversity is the recognising and valuing difference. Diversity relates to distinction such as gender, age, religion, race, culture, education, occupation, language, attractiveness, health, physical appearance. Cultural diversity is one aspect of diversity with a multitude of differences which come from our cultural heritage. Every aspect of life is touched by culture, culture affects how people perceive things, and it influences how people attribute meaning to communication. When cultural communication systems are unknown or ignored, messages are likely to be misinterpreted resulting in barriers to communication. To ensure effective communication Human Services workers require awareness of and sensitivity to cultural differences to enable them to successfully serve a diverse range of people. This essay examines effective cross cultural communication for the Human Services worker, as culture refers to the language, knowledge, rituals, values that connect any group of people, in the scope of this essay the context of cultures is that from different countries. Firstly, it looks at some of the differences and problems when communicating cross culturally. Then the essay proposes solutions to reduce communication barriers and, finally proposing principles human service agencies should adopt to enhance communication.
Working cross culturally the human service worker faces many challenges to effective communication because of the complex nature of culture, intercultural behaviours, core values and expression provide much possibility for misunderstanding. According to Fouad Arredondo “communication patterns, styles, symbols and gestures are highly culture bound and unconsciously scripted.” (Fouad Arredondo 2007 p42). Several variables can be considered to assist in the understanding of cultural differences to identify why problems arise, individualism versus collectivism is one variable. Individualistic cultures are where emphasis is on individual achievement as contrasted to collective cultures where importance is on what is best for the group. Counselling itself is a culturally specific activity having evolved from a Western philosophy of individualism, asking a client from a collective culture to focus on hyperintrospection and hyperindividualism will not resonate result in a lost opportunity. Whilst not speaking the same language is a more obvious barrier to communication, consider the communication barrier created when a client for whom English is a second language is expected to verbalise highly complex emotions. (Wheeler 2006 p150)
Cultures can also be distinguished as having low context or high context communication, in low context cultures such Australia or America communication is direct, the meaning is in the message. Asian, Mediterranean and Arab cultures are high context where communication is indirect and it is equally important to look at the implicit meanings and body language. Misunderstandings arise when there is a lack of awareness in the different style of communicating. For example, Indigenous Australians would consider it rude to directly ask a question and instead hint (Mundine 1999, p. 1). This is similar to Asian concept of “saving face” indirect communication is used to prevent discomfort for either party. In some Asian cultures this is extended to some not disclosing physical abuse for fear of losing face or embarrassing the family (Devito 2009, p. 281), however withholding such information creates a barrier to communication for the human services worker.
Non verbal communication is another factor which in which meaning differs between cultures, and if these differences are not understood leads to communication breakdown. In some cultures nodding the head means no, or the nod of a head from a Chinese person does not implicitly mean that they agree. In Western culture direct eye gaze is considered a sign of honesty, in cultures such as Japan however, direct eye gaze is a sign of disrespect. De Vito (2009, p. 133) concludes “try visualising the potential for misunderstandings that eye communication alone could create.”
A Human Services worker lacking awareness of cultural-based norms, such as family structure and gender rules, risks violating these rules, their behaviour impeding trust and confidence. For example, married Muslim women cannot touch a man other than their husband. Lack of awareness or sensitivity to these norms creates conflict and a lost opportunity for engagement. Another barrier to communication results where the Human Service worker consider their own culture to be superior to others cultures. Gamble and Gamble conclude that “ethnocentrism is key to failed intercultural communication efforts.” (Gamble Gamble 2009, p.27).
Finally, cultural stereotyping is a barrier to effective cross cultural communication, whilst it is necessary to group people to simplify understanding differences, it is problematic perceive that ‘all are the same’. For example, to believe that all immigrants from the Middle East are unable to assimilate into Australian society is cultural stereotyping. Stereotyping demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of diversity leading to a breakdown in communication. This paper has looked at some cross cultural communication differences and problems that arise that can be covered in the scope of this essay, the paper now proposes solutions to enhance communication and reduce communication barriers.
To enhance communication and reduce barriers in cross cultural communication the Human Services worker develops knowledge and skills. Integral to this is self awareness, being aware of and challenge one’s perceptions and bias. Workers must to increase intercultural communication competence by developing knowledge of different cultural differences, Gamble Gamble confirm it is vital to make the unknown known “…we need to conduct ourselves in a manner designed to reduce the strangeness of strangers; that is, we need to open ourselves to differences by adding to our storehouse of knowledge, by learning to cope with uncertainty and by developing an appreciation of how increasing our cultural sensitivity positively affects our communication competence (Gamble Gamble 2009, p. 30). It would however be uninformed to believe that a person can ever completely understand another culture making it necessary for Human services workers to be comfortable dealing with ambiguity. As important as it is to be familiar the difference in culture conversely it is important not to allow cultural traits to hinder understanding nor to focus excessively on differences. Clients are individuals; human services workers serve a person, not a culture (Egan 2006).
Empathy listening skills are integral to effective communication and equally so when communicating interculturally. The Human services worker should put themselves in their client’s shoes to imagine what is like from his or her world view point. Listening skills and careful observation of cues such as non verbal signals should be taken into account interpret full meaning, particularly when communicating with a person from a high context culture. To enhance communication the human services worker should also regularly seek confirmation of understanding. A deeper level of trust and confidence may need to be built with people from some cultures before they disclose emotional or what they consider to be shameful. To enhance communication with these people it may take patience, time and also an appropriate level of self disclosure on the workers part. To reduce communication barriers the worker may ask permission before asking sensitive a sensitive question. Workers should also be aware and sensitive to taboo subjects, in some Indigenous Aboriginal communities it is shameful to talk about mental illness, to reduce communication barriers workers would avoid using certain words or lables (XXXXX). Working with people who speak English as a second language poses another set of challenges in communication, to reduce barriers workers should speak slowly, be patient and allow pauses, alternatively an interpreter could be offered. (Kenny 2009).
To reduce communication barriers for their diverse range of stakeholders it is vital for Human services agencies should foster their own culture where diversity is embraced and celebrated. A philosophy of respect of individuality and uniqueness which commitment to self development and ongoing learning is promoted. This philosophy should be brought to life by encourage a diverse range of workers with difference backgrounds and experience. A culturally specific approach to training programmes, developing intercultural communication competencies when working and human services workers be regularly reviewed against competencies identifying areas for development.
Culture influences everything about people, including the meaning attributed to communication, this poses challenges for the human services worker when working cross culturally. This essay has considered some of the communication differences and issues that Human Services workers face working interculturally, it has also looked at ways to enhance communication and also principles agencies should adopt to reduce communication barriers. The essence however is that ultimately no two people even those from the same culture are the same, innumerable differences makes each person unique. Human Services workers require cross cultural competency to effectively communicate with the diverse range of people that they meet the most fundamental of these abilities being willingness to learn and respect of all individuals.
DeVito, J 2009, The interpersonal communication book, 12th edn, Pearson Education, Boston, USA.
Egan, G 2006, Skilled helping around the world: addressing diversity and multiculturalism, Thomson Higher Education, Belmont.
Fouad, NA Arrendondo, P 2007, Becoming culturally oriented: practical advice for psychologists educators, American Psychological Association, Washington.
Gamble, TK Gamble, M 2009, Communication works, 10th edn, McGraw Hill, New York.
Kenny, S 2006. “Developing communities for the future, 3rd edn, Cengage Learning, South Melbourne.
Mundine, J 1999 ‘Face to face: communication protocols’, viewed 12 August 2010, http://www.nipaac.edu.au/Face2Face_CommnProtocols.pdf.
Wheeler, S (ed) 2006. Difference diversity in counselling: contemporary psychodynamic perspectives, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
Aboriginal Mental Health First Aid Training and research program. Cultural considerations communication techniques: Guidelines for providing mental health first Aid to an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person. Melbourne: Orygen Youth Health Research Centre, University of Melbourne and beyondblue, the national depression initiative 2008
Viewed 20 August 2010
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