Warming up: A first impression on Culture
"The picture shows a postcard. What do you think is its country of origin? What kind of situation is depicted here? What time of day? What is the attitude towards time felt here? Is the situation taking place at home or in the office? To what income level does the situation refer? Would a man send this postcard to a man? To whom would you send the postcard, and to whom would you not?
All of the questions listed here are related to culture in some way, and most of them have to do with communication. However, if speaking about intercultural communication one might expect the question about the country of origin to be more relevant than the other ones. This is because in common understanding, intercultural communication is generally taken as an interaction between representatives of different countries. In this interpretation, the national culture appears as a homogenous entity with sharply-defined boundaries.
In this unit, we will try to avoid this rather widespread reductionistic view and look at culture as a complex dynamic phenomenon. One of our focuses will be on the person not shown on the picture: Is the person a female or a male, how old is the person, does he/she enjoy the arrangement of flowers and colors, the design of the china-ware, the crystal vase and the crochet-work on the table, or rather, does she or he find it a bit strange? We will look at the person’s involvement in different cultural contexts as closely linked to his or her simultaneous belonging to different social groups like nation, region, religion, profession, generation, gender etc. We will also ask what happens when the context of acting is not the familiar one. We will look for answers working with the term ‘identity’ and observing how it is influenced by uncertainty.
The underlying idea of the meta-theoretical level of this module is that the individual is ‘moving’ throughout various cultures and in doing so, he or she is continuously generating new definitions of the self. These definitions are co-existent, they may change over time, some of them may at a certain point become more important than others, they may be reinterpreted etc. The thus-equipped individual is an interpreter and mediator between cultures. In some tasks, you will be encouraged to refer to your own experiences with what you have perceived as an ‘other culture’. Then you may feel this module is about you as well.
By the way: The postcard is from Moldova. It has been chosen for this introduction to represent Eastern Europe as the geographical reference area of this module. Is the information about the country of origin relevant for your perception of the post card? It presumably is. Can you imagine why? Read the Excursus:
Excursus: Categorizing, worldview and culture
By saying ‘The postcard is from Moldova’ we link the postcard to our image of Moldova and all the things we connect mentally with this country. We categorize an object (the postcard), that is, we give the object an actual position in the worldview we have in our mind. Doing so, we shape both our perception of the object as well as the relevant part of the worldview in our mind. This cognitive work, however, does not occur with the act of categorization alone (= the information ‘The postcard is from Moldova’). Rather, it is induced by preceding text parts, in this case, by the question ‘Which country do you think this postcard is from?’. Thus, a different question, for example ‘Which international NGO is the editor of this postcard?’ would organize the subsequent cognition in the recipient differently, as potentially each of the questions asked in the Warming up do.
The idea to begin the present module by showing how an object is embedded in different cultural contexts and how these contexts are stimulated by text production is taken from the Cultural Psychology as represented by Ernst E. Boesch or Jürgen Straub. Boesch suggests the following definition of culture:
‘Culture is a field of action, whose contents range from objects made and used by human beings to institutions, ideas and myths. Being an action field, culture offers possibilities of, but by the same token stipulates conditions for, action; it circumscribes goals which can be reached by certain means, but establishes limits, too, for correct, possible and also deviant actions. The relationship between the different material as well as ideational contents of the cultural field of action is a systemic one; i. e. transformations in one part of the system can have an impact in any other part. As an action field, culture not only induces and controls action, but is also continuously transformed by it; therefore, culture is as much a process as a structure.’ Boesch, Ernst E. (1991): Symbolic Action Theory and Cultural Psychology, Berlin: Springer, p. 29."
Magdalena Tellus, revised by Heidi Denzel de Tirado: Warming up: A first impression on Culture. 1st Chapter of Unit 1 of the Intercultural Communication. © East European Studies Online; 2010.