Becoming globally competent: Understanding the Cultural Iceberg and what lies beneath the waterline

Berliner Donuts Hadough

In Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men two jurors had a heated exchange:

11th Juror: “I beg pardon, In discussing……”

10th Juror: “I beg pardon. What are you so goddam polite about?”

11th Juror: “For the same reason you’re not. It’s the way I was brought up.”

This reminded me of an intercultural encounter in Germany just after I had arrived to live in the country. I had walked into a bakery and while I was carefully gathering the correct vocabulary and syntax to ask for my German doughnut (Berliner), a local reminded me that I had pushed in and told me to go to the end of the queue. After going red in the face, I apologised and did as I was told. Although I knew she had every right to remind me of my seemingly rudeness, her direct style of communication had left me cold. I was ready to leave the store, but if you’ve ever stood in front of a showcase of German cakes, you’re not going anywhere, so I swallowed my pride, requested my light and powdery jam-filled Berliner and left the store.

As I walked home with jam between my teeth and icing up my nostrils, I felt the stereotypical view of German unfriendliness, had just been affirmed and I carried this with me for some time. I had not been aware at the time, but this early intercultural encounter and my reaction to it had been borne out of a lack of intercultural understanding. As a newcomer to Germany, I was unaware of the direct communication style of the German speaking community.  In contrast, my less direct style had left me feeling culturally shocked. As time went on and my linguistic and intercultural competencies developed, I caught onto the unwritten rules of the social game expected in Germany; I always went to the end of the queue and I used my words more efficiently; often omitting the cushioning devices so often used in Australian discourse so as not to cause offence or to seem too direct.  

I’ve just completed my AFS Global Competence Certificate Facilitator training and now know what I had done was to bridge my culture with that of the German speaking community. I had shifted towards a more direct style of communicating. According to Edward Hall’s metaphorical cultural iceberg, only 10% of culture sits above the water line. This is the visible behaviour, such as the language we speak. What is more interesting is the 90% that lies beneath the water, including communication styles. Do we rely less on context and spell things out explicitly through words or do we consider context and let others read between the lines of our nonverbal cues?

According to Craig Storti, Northern European and North American speakers have a low context style of communication in which speakers tend towards using words to convey meaning and these words need to be clear, precise and explicit. In contrast, high context speakers tend to be indirect, in which nonverbal cues are preferred and harmony is prioritised over disharmony. Although the UK is in general not considered to be a high context style compared with many other cultures, it is generally less direct than Northern European or North American. Australia, being culturally close to Britain, may mean that we also sit somewhere close to this along the direct-indirect continuum.

The 11th juror’s politeness was probably more in line with mine at the beginning of my journey into German culture, in which harmony is foremost. In contrast, for the 10th juror and the German speaker in the bakery store, communication should be clear, precise and explicit. What was needed on both parts was the suspension of judgement, recognition of the other’s cultural norms and a bridging or shifting towards the other.

As the world becomes more and more economically interdependent and we seek solutions to complex problems such as climate change and global pandemics, it is increasingly important that we dive beneath the water or into the jam centre of the cultures with which we need to negotiate. We need to become interculturally aware and more globally competent. If you are a teacher, global team leader or anyone interested in developing your intercultural awareness and global competencies, please reach out to me to hear more.  Let’s start the conversation…

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