Social workers, psychologists and educators alike, have a responsibility to develop cultural competencies. This implies a commitment to creating an environment of mutual understanding. “Cultural competence refers to the process by which individuals and systems respond respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, and other diversity factors in a manner that recognizes, affirms, and values the worth of individuals, families, and communities and protects and preserves the dignity of each” (NASW, 2000b, p. 61).
Therapists focus on interactions with diverse clients and new situations everyday. Developing cultural competencies is essential towards meaningful communication. Research on person perception has suggested that the information we glean from others can be affected by factors such as appearance, stereotypes, and culture (Wang, 2009). The competency statements for review focus upon communication style (verbal and nonverbal) and how communication can influence others perceptions. In addition, a competency statement regarding high-and low-context communication from different cultural socializations is discussed.
Most models of counseling assume that the spoken word is understood. However, when working with cross cultural clients, a host of deficits linger, which may lead to distance, vulnerability and misinterpretations. Verbal communication is important but can be easily misinterpreted across cultures. Words are powerful, but often forgotten. How one perceives the words is most often remembered. Words and what they mean in a cross cultural setting have a major role in a therapeutic setting.
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To fully understand a culture, it is necessary to understand the se of the cultures metaphors. Metaphors have their own historical origins and are culture specific (Laungani, 2004). The understanding of intrapersonal process of communication is essential and fundamentally important when working with ethnic clients. The therapist needs a clear understanding of the client’s subjective experiences, personal goals, daily behaviors and other significant areas to ensure communication value (Laungani, 2004). When verbal messages are unclear, we tend to look at nonverbal cues (LeBaron, 2003).
During a therapeutic encounter between therapist and clients of different cultural backgrounds, it is imperative for all concerned to be vigilant and sensitive enough to read correctly the different verbal, non-verbal, and other physical cues the client knowingly or unknowingly may display to the therapist (Laungani, 2004, p. 196). Nonverbal communication is especially important in intercultural counseling situations because of language barriers (metaphors), set mannerisms, and cultural unfamiliarity.
Research has agreed that nonverbal messages convey more than half of the affective meaning of each message (Launganie, 2004, Edmonds, 2010, Wang, 2010). Many emotions are similar across cultures, how they are expressed and interpreted is culture-specific. For example, a person of Japanese decent may smile as she relates details of a death in her family. For a Westerner, who understands a smile to mean happiness, this expression may seem cold and unfeeling. Based upon cultural beliefs in Japan, it is not appropriate to inflict the pain of grief on others (LeBaron, 2003).
The understanding of high-and low-context communications from different cultures is significant because it plays an integral part in understanding and developing a relationship. “Direct and indirect styles of communication correspond to the concept of high-and low-context cultures. The United States is considered a low-context culture because of the linear and direct style of communication. On the other hand, China, Mexico, and Egypt are termed “high-context cultures” because communication is more contextual, process-oriented, and less rushed” (Fouad, 2007, p. 3).
In examining the cognitive style of communication, Brooks (2004) noted that Americans follow a predictable sequence in their thought process. They tend to organize their thoughts in a linear fashion before speaking. Speakers, who have a more relaxed view on time, tend to meander to the point, such as Asians. Arab, Russians, and Africans, tend to insert stories and go off on tangents (p. 143). Cultures tend to attribute different levels of importance to nonverbal and verbal communication. High context cultures rely more on the unspoken word.
They are concerned and focused upon the context and the person’s knowledge of the rules for communicating. For other cultures, a clear understanding of the message is less important because nonverbal behavior and the context are understood. Middle East, Asia, and Latin America are examples of high context cultural groups. United States and Canada are considered a low context culture because they place less importance on nonverbal communication and rely heavily on the spoken word (Fouad, 2007).
According to (LeBaron, 2003) high context settings such as Japan or Colombia, understanding of the nonverbal message is more important than the communication as a whole. Therapists need to be aware of these differences so they can model appropriate behaviors for others (Fouad, 2007). “Gudykunst (2001) conceptualized high context communication to include the following communication styles: being indirect, inferring meaning, interpersonal sensitivity, using feelings to guide behavior, and the using silence.
In contrast, low context communication includes: being dramatic, dominant, animated, relaxed, attentive, open friendly, contentious, and impression-leaving” (Park& Kim, 2008, p. 47). An emerging body of research has documented that “Asian cultures tend to adhere to high context communication styles, while European cultures tend to adhere to low context communication styles” (p. 47). Communication styles can be rational or emotional. For example, Brooks (2004) stated that Americans are considered to be more rational. On the other hand, Southeast Asians prefer to keep their emotions stable.
Russians are known to be highly emotional (p. 144). In chapter 3, Fouad (2007) addresses the cross-cultural interactions with others. According to Fouad (2007) “sensitivity and understanding about different cultural scripts for verbal and nonverbal behaviors are essential because of the different formal and informal norms across cultures” (p. 43). This is an important message because you cannot have rapport and empathy without understanding, sensitivity, and knowledge of multicultural behaviors and values. Effectiveness with a client from another culture is dependent upon making educated choices involving communication.
LeBaron (2003) noted that “all communication is cultural; it draws on how we have learned to speak and give nonverbal messages” (p. 1). The way we communicate to others depends upon the situation, individual personalities, and our mood. This coupled with a variety of cultural influences we already have can influence our communication choices. Communication is interactive and plays an important influence on the effectiveness of our relationship with others (LeBaron, 2003). Although some emotions are universal (a smiley face inserted in emails), others are subtle and often misunderstood (a wink).
Facial expressions may be the only form of nonverbal communication that may be considered universal. Cultures interpret body language, gestures, posture and carriage, vocal noises (shrieks and grunts), and degree of eye contact differently (Edmonds, 2010). Gestures can be easily misinterpreted. For example, nodding your head up and down within the Western culture, suggests you agree. However, in the Middle Eastern culture, it means the opposite. Nodding your head affirmatively in the Middle East is a sign of disagreement. Moreover, in Japan, a nod is just a signal that someone is listening (Wang, 2010).
Edmonds (2010) shares that the “OK” signal made by forming a circle with the thumb and forefinger refers to money in some countries, while in others, it’s extremely offensive reference to a private body part. Eye contact is another variable that is extremely important. In some cultures direct eye contact is valued. However, in other cultures, averting eye contact is a sign of respect. A simple gesture of thumbs up, may readily offend someone from a different culture. In Iran, this gesture is considered to be vulgar. Shaking hands when greeting may seem innocent, but in some countries this is rude behavior.
In the Middle East, you should not hand an object to another person with your left hand. The left hand in the Middle East is reserved for personal hygiene (Edmonds, 2010). Others may be shy and touching is considered an intimate behavior. There are specific rules for personal space across cultures. There are different ideas about space when having a conversation. Research shows that Americans tend to prefer a large amount of space. Europeans tend to stand closer together when talking. It is suggested that this may be due to the fact that Europeans are accustomed to smaller places.
Americans on the other hand, are used to larger homes and countryside’s (LeBaron, 2003). Personal space is not a concern for some cultures. Italians and Latino’s allow for open kissing with strong and long embraces to greet one another, whereas in the United States, such contact may be considered too sexual. Further studies have shown that Asian children cannot be touched on the head or it will damage the child’s soul. Each of these variables influences communication efforts (Edmonds (2010). As clinicians, we must strive to learn all we can about the culture of our clients.
Remer (2007) introduces the butterfly effect. This effect refers to “those small differences in initial conditions may have severe consequences for patterns in the long run” (p. 93). Miscommunications can lead to frustration and a lack of trust, thus destroying a relationship. Conflict can easily occur or escalate if miscommunications are already in place. As an agent of change, this writer values diversity as an opportunity to learn. Professional expectations should never be lowered, they need to be developed and maintained in order to improve the quality of culturally competent services.
Sensitivity and knowledge should be heightened in order to be a successful agent of change. Striving to be cross-culturally competent is a life long journey. It begins with each day being viewed as an opportunity to learn more about another person. Competence implies that one has the confidence and the capacity to function effectively outside of their culture zone. Despite the madness surrounding social service agencies, this writer is committed to supporting members of underrepresented groups.
It is paramount to be committed to incorporating a wide variety of verbal and nonverbal communication skills in response to direct and indirect communication styles. A simple glance can affect the message you are sending and how others perceive you. Moreover, it is important to have a strong sense of self awareness. One must be accepting, comfortable and open to new and unfamiliar ways of communicating in order to broaden personal perspectives. The main focus is to remain objective, know that there are cultural differences, be able to identify subtle behaviors, and to trust your intuition.
Alternative ways in which a therapist can be actively involved in cross cultural communication may include checking with clients for the accuracy of your interpretation when unsure. Raising a question about interpretations demonstrates interest, validation and establishes trust. Therapists may choose to move outside of verbal exchanges and use acting, puppets (young children), drawing, music, story telling, collage making and journaling. By allowing clients to be your teacher, one can enhance the relationship and establish competence. As an agent of change, specific objectives are to be met.
First, diversity training should be offered. Coworkers will be asked to band together and search for consultants or facilitators to assist in the planning. Second, embrace research and gain as much knowledge as you can about your client’s culture. Third, frequent consultations with supervisors and colleagues are important to obtain performance feedback. Collaboration with others is an excellent way to remain grounded. As a therapist working with cross cultural clients, it is important to remember that although your mouth is closed, your body is talking.
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