In the globalized world, the need for people from different cultures to communicate effectively is essential.
Yet, attaining effective cross-cultural communication is not always an easy undertaking. What with every person believing that his or her culture is the best and even more people not willing to learn or accommodate another culture? Moreover, human beings tend to be stereotypical, usually judging people from other cultures based on long-held biases. Regardless of the stereotypes and biases, the human relations across the conventional world are such that governments need each other, and hence cross-cultural communication must be enhanced if understanding between governments and the people they represent is to be attained. Among the cultures that have always been in conflict are the Islamic culture and the American culture. The latter is predominantly based on Christian principles, although the government and its people are quick to denounce any religious affiliations, choosing to remain a liberal society. Islamic culture on the other hand is based on Islamic religion, and Muslims perceive their religion as a way of life. Specifically, Muslims do not separate their religion from the life they lead publicly or privately (Hamada). As Shaheen observes however, the casual American observer usually associates Islam to hatred, fanaticism, violence, women oppression, and jihad (2).
This affects cross cultural communication between Americans and people who adhere to the Islamic culture because the former always view the latter as a group of people who believe, feel, think and act as one based on their religious inclinations. Muslims on the other hand perceive adherents of the American culture as a “proud culture” with little tolerance to ideals that differ from what the ‘liberal culture’ advocates.
Most cultural conflicts between the American culture and the Islamic culture are based on stereotypes. According to Shaheen, people form stereotypes through hearsay or imagination (5). As such, their perceptions are not based on personal experiences or knowledge.
The perceptions based on stereotypes however shape their future relationships with people from ‘the other’ culture, hence affecting communication between the two parties. One however wonders why effective cross-cultural communication between adherents of the Islamic and American cultures is such an important issue. There is an average 6.5 million Muslims living in the United States. Some are Americans by birth, while others are immigrants.
More important is the fact that the United States as a nation needs to comprehend the Islamic culture in order to serve its strategic geopolitical needs as well as uphold its constitutional ideals such as religious tolerance. There are also a significant number of American scholars, investors, and even students in countries with a predominant Islamic Culture (Ahmed “Journey” 7; Shaheen 6). There is evidence in literature to the effect that cross-cultural communication between adherents of the American and Islamic culture can only be effective if both parties take time to understand each other (Ahmed “Journey” 7; Shaheen 6; Zaharna 245).
Notably, communication breakdown as observed by Zaharna occurs when one “observes the differences of another through the prism of one’s culture” (241). Lacking knowledge regarding another person’s culture occurs because people are ignorant, and often times such people believe that their culture is the best. Such attitudes towards a different culture eventually breed ethnocentrism, which in turn leads to negative perceptions towards ‘the other’ culture. According to Zaharna, only a conscious awareness of differences that exist between two cultures can help facilitate understanding (241). As such, there is a need to investigate how the American and Islamic cultures differ.
With the United States being a cultural melting pot, it is hard to have a definite definition of the American culture. In the same way, it is hard to define the Islamic culture since it is made up of people of diverse backgrounds and origins.
For example, during a 2001 ethnicity study in the United States, the Muslim community compromised of 25 percent Arabs, 3 percent Africans, 35 percent Asians, 30 percent African-Americans, and 25 percent Europeans (Theis). In the same study, it was established that Americans will most likely pick a person of Arabic descent as a Muslim since there is a widespread concept that all Arabs are Muslim, while ignoring the large percent of Asians or African-Americans. In communication, the Islamic culture can be defined as a high-context culture while the American culture can be identified as a low-context culture (Hall 18). In high-context cultures, communication is neither coded nor explicit.
Often, the communicator expects the recipient to understand the physical and contextual cues of the message in order to get the “full meaning of the message” (Hall 98). In most cases, the communicator avoids giving specific details, expecting the interlocutor to interpret the message for him or herself and hence unearth the meaning of their communication. Americans on the other hand practice a low-context culture, where the burden of making communication clear lies with the person articulating the message.
As such, it is the responsibility of the person conveying the message to ensure that it is clear, precise, and accurate in order to avoid any misinterpretation by the recipient. A clash in cross-cultural communication occurs when neither of the parties knows how to interpret each other’s communication methods. Samovar, Porter and McDaniel specifically point out that mutual misconceptions occur between adherents of the Islamic and American culture since people on both sides do not have the patience, or the knowledge needed to understand each other’s point of view (164).
Adherents of the American culture are specifically unfamiliar with the Islamic way of communicating, praying, and even relating. Adherents of the Islamic culture on the other hand usually lack the knowledge and tact needed in presenting their faith and lifestyles to others (Samovar, Porter, and McDaniel 116). As a result, adherents of the Islamic culture (especially those of Arabic origin) have always been perceived as the “uncivilized character, the cultural other [or] someone who appears and acts differently [from] the white western protagonist…” (Shaheen 12). In an example from (Ahmed “Journey” 11), the author observes that Muslim women may become nervous and perturbed when male officials in America or elsewhere look them direct in the eye, speak to them in a loud, show aggressive behavior or come too close to them. Modesty rules in the Islamic culture hold that men should address women in reasonable mild tones.
Moreover, the Islamic culture expects people of opposite sex to maintain reasonable distance while communicating as a sign of modesty (Ahmed “Journey” 11). Ahmed further notes that the nervous and perturbed nature of a Muslim woman may however be interpreted by the American male official as a sign that the woman is ill-at ease because of something she may be hiding (11). This suggests that unless adherents of both the American and Islamic cultures make deliberate efforts to understand each other’s cultures, a breakdown in communication between people of the two cultures will always occur. According to Zaharna, while the American culture stresses the need for univocal openness, the Islamic culture relies more on using ambiguous communication (146). This then raises the question, how can people from the two cultures communicate effectively with each other? More so, what are the chances that a Muslim working in America will learn to communicate effectively with people in the host country or vice versa? According to Zaharna, the answers to these questions are contained in people understanding each other’s culture (147). For Muslims living in America, the burden of effective communication is on them. The same case applies to Americans working in Middle East countries where the Islamic culture is prevalent. In both cases, the person moving to the other culture has to research, understand, and in most cases make changes in his or her communication methods in order to conform to the host culture.
Unfortunately, this cannot be an easy undertaking especially since change would call for one to set aside what they have always practiced and adopt a set of different communication approaches. A Muslim faithful who has always used ambiguous styles of communication would for example need to adopt open, univocal communication while residing, working with, or dealing with people from the American culture. Notably, such a transformation in communication skills would not only require patience, but dedication too. Having observed that the Islamic culture does not differentiate between religiosity and lifestyle, it is worth noting that people from the Islamic culture associate their well-being with God’s blessing. According to Zaharna, how different people perceive their positions in life also affects the way they communicate (248). Notably, the American culture lays special emphasis on the need to work hard if one is to attain measurable accomplishments. According to the author, the American culture’s perception to material well-being can be defined as a “doing culture.” The Islamic culture on the other hand believes in a “being culture” where Allah’s blessings are deemed essential for success in life.
The two concepts as proposed by Zaharna are well captured by Ahmed, who indirectly alludes to the fact that the American culture borrows from Darwinian principles where the fittest people succeed or survive in life. On the same breadth, Ahmed indirectly equates the Islamic culture with Abrahamic faiths, where self-interest is abhorred, while virtues such as selfless love, concern for the needy and the dispossessed are encouraged (25-26). Ahmed further notes that the American culture’s anxiety, competitiveness, anger and fear towards other cultures is deeply rooted in Darwinian thinking (26). This assertion can be interpreted to mean that there are suspicions on both sides of the divide, which could very well hinder effective communication.
The American will on one hand, relate with the Muslim with some skepticism especially considering that there is a wide held-misconception that all Muslims are violent. Muslims on the other hand relate with the Americans cautiously based on the selfish impression that most Muslims have towards the American culture.
Assimilation and integration
Assimilation in the American and Islamic cultures is desirable if effective communication is to occur between adherents of the two cultures. However, the magnitude of the goodwill required from both sides cannot be underestimated if assimilation and integration is to become a reality (Tareen). As has been noted by Shaheen, the first step to progress would both cultures to contest stereotypes that exist between them (65). Citing John F.
Kennedy, Shaheen observes, “it is necessary to remove the prejudices of the people, enlighten their ignorance and convince them that their interest will be promoted by [the] proposed changes; and this is not the work of a day” (65). Seeing the extent of work that such changes would call for, one wonders just where the starting point would be. The potency of mass media as a communication tool would perhaps present one of the most wide-reaching and effective means of enhancing cross-cultural communication between adherents of the American and Islamic cultures.
Shaheen’s analysis of nine hundred American-produced films reveal that most such movies contained racist and nonobjective representation of the Islamic culture mainly through characters of Arab origin. According to Samovar, Porter and McDaniel, the unrealistic messages and images passed through media channels can be changed if producers and writers are taken through literacy programs, which encourage critical thinking amongst them (169). One such effort as cited by Theis was the “Islam in America” campaign that published weekly advertisements in local newspapers across the United States in 2003. The campaign targeted the general audience including writers, publishers and the general citizenry. Beyond the role that the mass media needs to engage in, the roles of governments and individuals are vital (Tareen), especially if people from the two cultures are to attain assimilation and integration. Governments also need to help the citizenry overcome some of the biases held towards the two cultures by overcoming the “ideological principle of antagonism” that has characterized American-Islamic relations in the past (Hamada). There is no doubt that there are suspicions from both sides and hence opinion makers in the Islamic culture; just as is the case with leaders and opinion makers in the American culture.
Yet these parties have an important role to play in helping the masses overcome these suspicions.
For effective cross-cultural communication to occur between adherents of the American and Islamic cultures, there has to more deliberate action from both sides in order to change people’s perception regarding the “other” culture. As has been noted in this essay, stereotypes formed mainly from hearsay and imaginations have always characterized relations between Americans and Muslims. In the post 9/11 world, Americans have become particularly suspicious of the Muslims because of widespread association of terrorism with Islam (Ahmed “Islam” 26). Muslims on the other hand, having suffered rejection, mistreatment, and suspicion from their American counterparts have a deep-rooted perspective of the American as an arrogant person who cares little about the well-being of the other person. The situation can be described as “Muslims are for Americans what the Russians were for Churchill’ as noted by Ahmed (“A Journey”). Apart from these stereotypes clouding people’s judgment, they also affect how people from the two cultures communicate.
The communication process between the American and Islamic cultures is made worse by the fact that one is a high-context culture, while the other is a low-context culture. For effective communication to occur therefore there has to be a compromise between the two. Usually, the immigrant who needs to communicate effectively takes the responsibility of learning about his or her host culture and conforming to the same, and as observed in this essay, the process requires both dedication and patience. As Shaheen has observed, relationships between adherents of the American and Islamic cultures are dominated by long held cliches and stereotypes (65). As such, for successful cross-cultural communication to occur, people in both cultures would need to find effective means to contest and overcome the stereotypes. More importantly, people in the two cultures must be willing to overcome their prejudices and ignorance by adopting change. Both sides must also understand that any vilification based or religion or race is wrong.
Through Muslims and Americans humanizing each other, there is a possibility that people from the two cultural divides can establish effective communication relationships. In the contemporary globalized world, adherents of both American and Islamic cultures will need each other for economic, political, or social reasons. Their relationships can only be successful if there is effective cross-cultural communication.
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“Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in the American Popular Culture.” Occasional Papers Series (1997):1-91. Tareen, Amra. America’s Schizophrenic Muslim Policy- Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam.
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11 Dec. 2010. Theis, Rolf. “Muslim Americans in American Society- and in German Classroom.
” American Studies Journal 52.1. (Sept. 2008). Web.
10 Dec. 2010. Zaharna, Rhoda.
“Bridging Cultural Differences: American Public Relations Practices & Arab Communication Patterns.” Public Relations Review, 21(1995): 241-255.