Д.Л. (dmitri_lytov) wrote,

My experience of intercultural communication

This is a short essay I submitted today at Carleton University. If any of my online pals are curious to know a little bit about my background, be my guests. Perhaps the most embarrassing feature of my experience of intercultural communication is that I learnt to describe as "them" all the cultures -- including my own native one. Perhaps it's too late to correct.

I have been an interpreter and translator for many years. When the Iron Curtain collapsed, I was still very young, and post-Soviet countries were craving information from other countries, which caused high demand for translation that surpassed the capacities available by far. This is why I started to translate long before I completed my BA in Linguistics and Intercultural Communication in Nevsky Institute (Saint Petersburg, Russia). It may look strange but I did not travel abroad until 2001, except for a short trip at the last school grade, and although I communicated with a lot of foreign partners of the companies I worked with, all of these contacts took place in Russia or Ukraine in settings familiar to me but not always comfortable (as I realized later) for the foreign partners.

At this stage of my career (for about 10 years) all the foreigners I communicated with were from Europe or North America (mostly Germans, then – in descending order – Americans, Poles, British, Scandinavians, French and Portuguese). Most of them, as one can notice, were from countries with the low context culture, and it may sound strange but among them I sometimes felt much more comfortable than among my fellow Russians. The people of the Western culture were more explicit in their thoughts and rarely hesitated to discuss the "boring" details of logistics, while Russians often had the attitude “if you are one of us, you must understand this without discussing”. In turn, the habits I borrowed from those contact sometimes shocked my Russian colleagues: they were not used to such a degree of overtness, even though I always tried to be polite. All the problems, however, were relevant only to the Russian business environment, while in informal communication I did not feel any constraints.

As I can look back at those events with my current experience, I think it may be explained by the difference in the business environment rather than the “ethnic mentality”. The business in the West has rich traditions with a long history, there are a lot of formal regulations and informal conventions about what is right and what is not. The post-Soviet business, on the other hand, is still in building, people easily find jobs and easily lose them, most business relations are short-living. Such an unsteady environment causes lots of disappointments, so often people value the fact of “being one of us” much more than the business efficiency as such. And yet the modern business environment in Russia looks much more "Western" than 10 years ago. Which means in turn that the communicative mismatch between people of different cultural background may often be relevant to short-term factors rather than historical traditions; the latter are often well known and may be bypassed on numerous occasions.

Shortly after my graduation my communicative environment changed dramatically. Over the next three years I was managing a large team of interpreters and translators providing service to courts of justice and law enforcement agencies. This environment had little relevance to my previous experience, as the crime in Russia had little relevance to the Western world. European languages were used on just a few occasions (e.g. for testimonies of tourists robbed by locals or interrogtion of illegal immigrants from Africa for whom Russia was rather a transit stop than a popular direction). Over that period most of my translator colleagues were people from post-Soviet states, mostly from the Caucasus and Central Asia (and so were, as one can guess, the parties of court proceedings and the persons interrogated). Communication with my new colleagues was challenging in the beginning but eventually provided me rich and valuable experience.

Quite predictable, these cultures could be described as high-context, which made me develop a new habit: while talking about anything with our team members, I had to figure out their motivation, which was never explicit, as talking directly about motives meant “losing the face”. I had to learn how to feel when I would rather not trust their “yes” or “no” but had to rephrase my request to get a more verbose answer (which did not guarantee a positive outcome anyway).

My last year before immigrating to Canada I worked as a college administrator combined with language teaching. My major challenge in this capacity was the gap between the overall knowledge of my students about the English- or German-speaking world, on the one hand, and their different mindset, on the other. English-speaking countries were too far away for them to truly understand what they were learning (and I have to admit that I also had wrong ideas about a lot of things in North America before moving to Canada). Currently I am in a similar situation: as a new Canadian, I already learnt how many things work here, but they are still foreign to me (and will probably remain foreign for the rest of my life). My kid, born in Russia, is currently much more Canadian than I am.

Cultural values, as such, are changing but inertial. The modern Russia is a good example: it has gone really far towards integration with the world’s advanced countries, but its historical traumas and frustrations still constitute a major obstacle. Too long have Russians been brought up in the “heroic” tradition to give it up so fast. People have not yet learnt how to enjoy such “plain and boring” things as family, business and property, and the power largely exploits this mental gap. It is not that people are much happy of the situation when the power creates stressful situations, but they have not yet developed well-working patterns of living without stress (which looks somewhat masochistic in the eyes of foreigners).

As our course is about linguistics, I am very much interested in discussions on the impact of the political discourse on language and the resulting misunderstanding between cultures using the same language, as is the case for Russian-speaking media on the post-Soviet space, or for English in the media of militant Islamic groups. I am also interested in the problem of language reforms caused by changes in the country’s cultural setting and its relation with neighbours. I am an advocate of replacing the Cyrillic script with Roman, and I want to use the positive example of the recent Romanisation in several countries, whether natural (Serbia, Montenegro) or caused by language reforms (Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan) in order to plan similar reforms on the post-Soviet space.
Tags: about myself, english, английский язык, межкультурное общение, о себе, перевод

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