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Developing Effective Cross-Cultural Communication


Donald K. Smith

Institute for International Christian Communication, 1984, 151 pp.  ISBN 0-9765186-0-0


Dr. Donald Smith is professor international communication at Western Seminary in Portland, OR.  He is a former missionary in Africa, where he developed programs for communications research and training including the predecessor to Daystar University in Nairobi.  He is the director of the International Institute for Christian Communication in Portland and the author of several books on communication.


The book shows why most development work has minimal long-term impact in other cultures and what is required for real change and lasting results.  Anyone who intends to work in another culture would do well to study these principles.


“Wholeness in mission only happens when the target group itself is a participant in the change process.”  Without full participation of the people being helped, the ‘best’ efforts will result only in superficial change.” (7)


“In this book, the stress is placed on achieving understanding as the basis for meeting needs.”  “Without understanding, communication too often abuses people rather than building them.” 


“It is easy to forget that we are not simply trying to get people to do what they ought to do.  That is not development.  That is control over other people.  It is manipulation.  No one else has the right to control another’s life.  Development first requires understanding.  And the purpose of communication is to develop understanding.” (9)


“Often as soon as foreign agencies leave everything goes back to the way it was before.” (10)  “Development programs have made few fundamental changes in the Third World.”  (11)


“Development is first and fundamentally the development of people….” (11)


“Culture change will only happen within the possibilities recognized by the culture itself, not by someone from outside that culture.” (14)


“Most individual behavior rests on group authority. When behavior changes are necessary, it is usually the group that should be the target of change rather than the individual.” (17)


“The fundamental influence on behavior is the core of culture, basic beliefs.  These are the ideas we hold about the nature of the world…and what we assume to be true about the nature of God and reality.” (17-18)  “They are the foundation on which everything else in culture is built.  …they are the colored windows through which we see the world.” (18)


“It is difficult to discuss beliefs held at the core because a contrary view is inconceivable.”  Faced with another position, the first response is to laugh, then to scorn, and if that fails, to destroy the new idea and the messenger.  “The only way the core can be changed is for the person to once again become a baby.”  “You must be born again.”  (20)


“…many cultures believe there is only limited good in this world.  If one group raises its standard of living, it does so by taking something away from someone else.”  “…there is the feeling that the wealthy have taken more than their share of the limited good and so have exploited those who do not have as much.” (22)


“It is essential to at least attempt to learn the core beliefs of the people with whom we work.  If we do not understand the core beliefs, our well-planned agricultural or medical programs will get nowhere.  Instead, they may create hostility that leads to failure and rejection.” (22)


“Assumptions are so deeply held that it is pointless to ask who is right and who is wrong.”  “These very different core beliefs affect Christian ministry directly.” (24)


Logic is not the same everywhere.  It differs among different cultures.  The two major systems are linear and contextual.  Examining an event in its total context is considered emotional, irrelevant and confusing in the West. (26-7)  Contextual logic tries to restore order among relationships.  Western logic tries to fix blame. (28)


“Each person puts his own meaning on what is said, not necessarily following the meaning of the person speaking.”  Information can be transferred but meaning can not.  “Meaning is always internal, hidden in the mind and existing nowhere else.”  “Each individual creates the meaning within himself on the basis of the information received and previous experience.” (34)  “We assign incorrect meaning, then act on that meaning.  The result is misunderstanding and resentment.” (35)


“Those who want to instruct others must learn to understand the models held in their listeners’ minds.” (36)  “If he does not know what models are there, he will not be able to relate new information to older mental models.”  “The only way to understand the mental models of the people is to be involved with the people.” 36)


“Communication is involvement.”  They are inseparable.  “Without involvement there is no communication.” “Communication techniques can be used very skillfully without communicating.” (43) 


“There must be a common area of understanding.”  “You do not have communication unless there is a large area of commonness where people’s lives overlap making possible understanding of one another.” (44)


“Involvement will develop in four stages: common language, common experiences, participating in common cultural patterns, and understanding or sharing basic assumptions.” (45)  “The difficulty is that Outsiders have very little experience in common with most of the people where they are working.” (46)


“It is not involvement in a program that matters, it is involvement in lives.” (47)


“Teaching cannot begin until the learners feel that the teachers are enough part of their lives so that they are worth listening to.  Training, skills, and money for training programs are not as important as sharing experiences.” “Deepening involvement comes by participating in common cultural patterns.” (48)


“Only through involvement can basic assumptions of other groups begin to be learned.  Building a base of communication moves from a common language through the sharing of common experiences into participating in common cultural patterns and on to the deepest level, understanding another’s basic assumptions about life.” (51)


“Genuine involvement can be established…by becoming dependent on the host group.” (51)


The building blocks of communication are made up of twelve systems: (55)

·        Verbal – speech, use of the spoken word

·        Written – the written word

·        Numeric – use of numbers to convey meaning

·        Pictorial – pictures as communication

·        Audio – sounds and music

·        Artifactual – the use of objects

·        Kinesic – body motion in all its varieties

·        Optical – use of color and light

·        Tactile – touch and the sense of feel

·        Spatial – use of space to give information

·        Temporal – using time to give a message

·        Olfactory – using taste and smell


Three principles: (68-70)

1.      We usually use two or three of the systems together.

2.      The systems we use may contradict each other.  When they do, we tend to believe the less overt signal (above list is given in decreasing consciousness of use)

3.      All signal systems carry both rational and emotional cues.  One may respond rationally and/or emotionally to all of the signals.  


“We are attempting to communicate clearly an infinite message to finite men, the message of Jesus Chris.”  (71)


Culture Shock (or Culture Stress).

“Normally, stress from culture shock results in excessive tiredness, recurring minor illnesses, erratic behavior and emotional problems.”  “Culture stress is unavoidable and can have serious consequences.”  “Denial is more likely to lead to difficulty.” (73)


“In our own culture we constantly read the signals of the Twelve Signal Systems.”  “But when going to another culture, suddenly the signs are not understood.  The familiar signs have different meanings….”  “We sense that we don’t know how to behave in this new culture.  Those experiences lead directly to culture stress.” (75)


Culture stress begins with fascination, proceeds to frustration and anxiety, and sometimes to rejection and negative judgments about the culture and the people.  Then hostility and open resentment.


“The rejection phase may last from one to six months.”  “In regression, the home environment becomes overwhelmingly important.  Personal security is felt to be only in the home environment…” (79)


“It is clear that no one is effective as a missionary or development worker while carrying a load of hostility and anger.” (81)


“The most effective way to overcome culture stress is learning to correctly read the signals of another culture.”  “The person who determines to be a learner from the very beginning will largely escape severe symptoms of culture stress.”  “It is easier to recognize that people are just different, not worse or better.” (83)


“Within a six to twelve month period enough of the other culture can be learned to operate comfortably within it.  The learning does not stop then, however.”  “It is a matter of learning to operate in two cultures.  The successful cross-cultural worker becomes a bi-cultural individual.” 984)


“One finding of research into cultural adjustment is that the ability to accept uncertainty is directly related to the ability to live successfully in another culture.”  People who cannot accept uncertainty will rarely be successful cross-cultural workers….”  “…self-image is related to the effects of culture stress.” (85)


Culture stress also happens to the nationals working with the foreigners. (86)


In African societies “the group is considered to be most important.  The group, not the individual, is the crucial place to work in bringing change.” (89) “The group will act in its own self-interest as it determines what would be best for each member.”  “In a group-oriented society then, the group must be the primary target for bringing change-NOT the individual.” (90)


“Change agents…are OUTSIDE the group.”  “A group-oriented society will seek to protect itself first of all, in order to preserve the group.”  “The most far-reaching change, and the least disturbing, comes when change begins within the group, even though stimulated by outsiders.” (90)


“The best way for an outsider to begin group change is for the outsider to become an accepted member of the group.”  “Only a fortunate few, very few, can ever become fully accepted into the society of another people and another culture.  Most of us remain outside…” (91)


“To be heard correctly inside another culture is almost impossible.  ‘Injecting’ the message creates only temporary change – if any change at all.  Until the message comes from inside the group, outside effort will not ensure a fair trial of the new idea.” (92)


“The outside messenger cannot become an insider, but through extensive involvement he can create commonness with the people to whom he brings change.  He can build a meeting place between the two cultures.”  “In this Third Culture, there is opportunity for discussion and consideration of innovations.”  “These Third Cultures are informal and often unplanned.” (93-4)


“When members of that intermediate group return to their original cultures, they will carry these ideas and plans with them.  They become the most effective possible change agents WITHIN THEIR OWN CULTURE.”  “The key is to create Third Culture settings that do not destroy a person’s participation in his home culture.” (95)


“…a Third Culture can be built with simple friendship.  “Learn the language.  Learn the cultural patterns.  Find ways to share experiences.”  “If interpersonal contacts are not effective, no large efforts in education, public health, evangelism, agriculture, or anything else, will be effective.” (96)


“The problem of beginning development is like trying to find the beginning of a perfect circle.”  “Every need leads to another, and every change leads to other changes.”  (101)


“Change can best be introduced by meeting the felt needs of the people,”  “In meeting the felt needs, a basis for trust is built up.”  “It is valuable to recognize three different kinds of needs – felt [by insiders], perceived [by outsiders], and real.  “We do need to identify the real needs, but that can never be done by the insider or the outsider acting alone.” (102)


“When we work with the people, inside their culture, we act as a resource that they can use.  We do not tell them what they must do, but we offer help that they desire.”  (107)


“It is the process of communication that binds a group together, helping each member find his part in the whole.”  “Communication in the social body is like blood in the physical body.”  “Communications hold a society together by helping individuals know how to play their role in the larger group.” (117)


“The cost of broken communication networks is most clearly seen in the human wreckage around growing cities of the Third World” (121)


“Genuine development will come when ideas for change are planted within the society, utilizing its existing communication networks.” (121)


“Neither the form of the message nor the method used is what primarily determines whether a communication system is internal or external.  It is rather a question of who has control over content and timing of messages.” 123)


“Working within the Internal Communication System means a slow beginning.”  “Change comes in tiny drops, one drop at a time.”  “The drops come faster and faster, until change is like a flood.” (125)


“Understanding the communication networks means understanding the peoples’ way of life.”  “It is vital to understand how close social relationships are maintained.” (125)


“Change does not happen when a decision is made publicly. It began a long time before a public choice was made, involving at least six recognizable stages before and after a public decision.”  (127)  The steps are awareness, interest, evaluation, choice, implementation, and readjustment. (128-130)


“Attempts to persuade a person or group to make a particular choice has little effect.” (129)


“Implementation always leads to readjustment.  Every change creates other changes.” (130)


“…seeking to help other people demands caring for other people.”  “They are more than potential converts to Christianity.  They are individuals whom God made to have dominion over His creation.” (148)



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