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May 26, 1997

Culture clash: New video by sociologist Dane Archer offers tips for improved cross-cultural communication

By Jennifer McNulty

M&M's, the milk chocolate melts in your mouth, not in your _____.

The advertising slogan is so familiar that anyone living in the United States can finish the sentence. Indeed, a U.S. Embassy official in Africa asked an American citizen who'd lost his passport to recite the jingle as a test of his citizenship.

This real-life story is just one anecdote featured in a new video called A World of Differences: Understanding Cross-Cultural Communication, by Dane Archer, a UCSC professor of sociology. The 30-minute video is the latest in Archer's series on nonverbal communication.

"Culture is 10,000 different things, and we take our own culture for granted until we're immersed in another culture where the rules, language, expectations, and gestures are different," said Archer. "The same is true when people from other cultures visit the United States. If we strive to recognize and understand the differences that separate people from two cultures, we can improve cross-cultural communication."

Rituals, customs, language, and diet vary by culture, as do notions of appropriate touching and "personal space."

Archer's lively video is filled with entertaining examples of cultural blunders. One woman recalls the embarrassment she felt in China when she realized--too late--that standing on a restaurant chair (to place a basket on a high shelf) was a cultural misstep. A young man who was raised in Kenya describes moving to the United States and being overwhelmed by the array of treats available at a convenience store. A woman recounts traveling in Egypt with her family and her father being offered 10,000 camels for his four redheaded daughters. A Japanese man demonstrates the difference between a nod that indicates agreement and a nod that simply signals that he is paying attention, while a Filipino man says he felt very uncomfortable when his American mother-in-law gave him a "deep hug." Even sign language varies in different cultures, as evidenced by a segment that recalls the misunderstanding that ensued when a deaf American named Scott signed his name (the gesture for "t" in American Sign Language is the same as an obscene gesture in Denmark).

The potential for conflict exists whenever people from different cultures interact. With so many differences among cultures, misunderstandings are inevitable, said Archer. Indeed, he noted, cross-cultural "sojourners" experience a mix of emotional highs and lows that typically follows a pattern of (1) initial enthusiasm in the new culture, (2) disillusionment and culture shock, (3) renewed enthusiasm prior to departure, (4) poor adjustment on re-entry to the home culture, and (5) a final recovery.

Archer offered three general guidelines for greater success in cross-cultural interaction:

"The challenge is to guard against ethnocentrism," said Archer. "There really is no universally 'proper' way of doing things."

Archer, who has written two books on the topic of nonverbal communication, has produced six videotapes on the subject. Previous videos cover international differences in gestures, vocal paralanguage (the nontext parts of speech, such as pronunciation, intonation, accent, and emotion), the human face, and important verbal and nonverbal clues used in communication. His tapes, each of which is accompanied by an instructor's guide, are being used in more than 2,000 universities and colleges around the world. Instructors use them in courses that range from anthropology and sociology to linguistics, speech communication, and psychology, and they are also used in cross-cultural training programs offered by government agencies.

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