An Interview with Muneer Alqahtani
Only a small part of how we communicate is verbal. We send visual clues through body language (kinesics), the tone of voice (paralanguage), touch (haptics), physical space (proxemics) and even the use and value of time (chronemics). All of these non-verbal indications are strongly influenced by our cultural environment and therefore understanding these clues forms a vital part of becoming an effective communicator on an international stage.
So what is the difference between cross-culturalism, interculturalism and multiculturalism and what value does an understanding of these differences have for a language learner? We spoke to Muneer Alqahtani, a PhD student in cross-cultural communication at Durham University to find out more.
OISE: Please tell us something about you, about your work at the university and why you are interested in cross-cultural communication.
Muneer Alqahtani: I am currently doing a phd at Durham university. My research focuses on the intercultural experiences of Saudi students in the UK and how such experiences impact their identities. I use the term "intercultural communication" rather than "cross-cultural communication" because some researchers argue that the former relates to interactions between cultures while the latter focuses on comparisons. On the other hand, some researchers use both terms synonymously.
I did my undergraduate degree in applied linguistics while my MA focused on TESOL. What made me decide to focus on intercultural communication as an area of research was an idea I came across in a book I was reading. The idea was suggesting that a typical answer for the question "Why are you learning English?" Would be "to be able to communicate with people around the world". However, the question is: is language alone enough for successful communication? Or is it further complexities added to the process of communication such as cultural understanding that we need to focus on? And my research started...
OISE: How would you explain the study of intercultural communications to someone who has never heard of it? What are the basic principles?
M.A.: I'll try to put in simple words. Imagine we have two people from different cultural backgrounds speaking perfect English. Nevertheless, when they met for the first time they struggled with aspects related to, for example, the modes of greetings as one of them prefers the handshake while the other does not shake hands with strangers. Although this may sound strange to some, it already happened with some of the participants who I interviewed for my research. Now, despite their English language skills, both people would struggle to initiate successful communication as a result.
Therefore, the studies on intercultural communication come to bridge the gap between interlocutors from different backgrounds in order to provide better mutual understandings. There are many theories that provide theoretical frameworks on how to achieve that goal but perhaps it's not the right time to discuss them as this will take long time and space.
OISE: How is this subject connected with the study of a foreign language? How important do you think is it when you study a new language?
M.A.: Communication does not equal language, but language is a part of communication. The spoken language is the tip of the iceberg and therefore more cultural understanding is needed. However, it is important to note here that cultural understanding does not mean initiating stereotypes about other cultures. For example, we should not picture people from X culture being introvert, or people from Z culture don't look at you in the eyes when they speak to you because "this is their culture". Rather, we need to treat people as independent individuals and therefore every case is different from the other even though they may seem to come from the same culture. Therefore, we initiate mutual understandings and respect between us and other individuals as individuals not representatives of a bigger group.
OISE: What is the difference between multiculturalism and intercultural communication?
M.A.: In a nutshell, multiculturalism is about representation of different cultures, having equal rights amongst them as well as their freedom to practice their cultural practices (of course as long as it doesn't break the law of the country where they reside). On the other hand, intercultural communication is more about interactions between these cultures. It is not about having different cultures represented in one place like multiculturalism but it's about their communication. I once was invited to what they referred to as "intercultural food event" at one of the colleges. I was told that there'll be a big venue where different types of cuisines from around the world will be represented and serving different types of food. My comment was that I would call that a "multicultural food event" not "intercultural". I only would call it "intercultural" when we see Japanese sushi -for example- served on the same plate with Indian curry!
OISE: Can you give us an example of some of the most important theories and models of intercultural communication?
M.A.: It is quite hard to do so in a small space. But I can say that, generally speaking, there there are two types of theories: theories that use essentialist approaches and theories that use more complex ones. The former theories try to capture and "pigeon hole" people or cultures behaviours in simple ways so it's easier to understand. For example, there are theories that suggest that when individuals are in interactions with people from different cultures they tend to do either X or Y. Other theories suggest that when people arrive to a new environment they develop their intercultural competence in a number of stages (then they name them). The problem with such theories is that they tend to be reductive in many cases. So what if someone's behaviour doesn't fit isn't of the categories they mention?
Here come the other types of theories that suggest that human's behaviour is very complex and can't be "boxed" in this way. Thus, they seek more complex explanations for intercultural communication. Such theories pay high attention to the notion of identity and how it is fluid and complex and thus can't be captured in a simple way. Therefore, the focus move from stereotyping to viewing people as individuals who behave differently even though they come from what we might think same cultural backgrounds. The focus then becomes more on the understandings of the unfamiliar, tolerance and respect.
I could go on forever on these theories but I hope this has given some insights for the subject.
OISE: What are the new horizons towards which research is aiming?
M.A.: It is hard to predict where the research is aiming toward. There's always development and improvements on the theories since humans' behaviour is changing too as a result of globalisation and more heterogeneous environments. Many theories were considered a revolution in their times and now they have been critiqued and improved.
OISE: What field are you personally deepening and how do you think it affects the study of the communication between the different nationalities nowadays?
M.A.: My main focus is on intercultural interactions and identity negotiation. I won't use the term "nationalities" since it is not a synonym for "cultures". Nationalism is defined by political borders while cultures are hard to define. It's very difficult to pinpoint where a culture ends then a new culture starts, unlike political borders. Therefore, I hope that intercultural communication studies would provide deeper understandings of people with one another and that there are multiple realities rather than one absolute reality that one culture or another is privileged to own.
At OISE we know that communication goes beyond language, especially in an increasingly international employment environment, and therefore the subtle forms of intercultural communication are a key feature of all of our courses.