Culture is dynamic and thus complex. Culture is fluid rather than static, which means that culture changes all the time, every day, in subtle and tangible ways. Because humans communicate and express their cultural systems in a variety of ways, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what cultural dynamics are at play. Consider, for example, a conversation about a person’s attitude or feelings. In this type of conversation, Albert Meharbian 1 found that people pay attention to (a) the words, or what is being said; (b) the tone, or how the words are said; and (c) the visual behind the words, often called the body language. All of these are aspects of culture that are interpreted differently depending on the cultural context. Add multiple layers of culture to the conversation—such as time, power and authority, emotion, age, gender, religion, nationality, and even previous intercultural interactions— and communication at a cross-cultural level becomes complex and hard to manage. The following is an example of the dynamism of cultures:
Sheila is the director of marketing for a social services agency. She provides feedback to one of her managers about how to improve services. Sheila sits behind a large executive desk and is leaning forward. The employee sits with her arms crossed, leaning away from Sheila.
If you were observing this scene, are you able to tell from the body language what each person is thinking? Why or why not? What cultural factors might be present?
In the example, Sheila’s body language can be interpreted as any of the following: eager to assist or help, intensely interested in what the employee has to say, aggressive and wanting more information, or needing deeper engagement in the conversation. Her employee’s body language could mean any of the following: protective, suspicious, not caring, or relaxed. To understand the dynamics of culture in this example, you would need to pay attention to the things you do not see such as:
- Is Sheila older or younger than her employee?
- What has been their working relationship?
- Does Sheila naturally lean forward when speaking with her employees?
- What is the tone of voice in the conversation?