Yoonjoo Cho, PhD, University Teacher in Intercultural Communication

Key Question: Why is it important to critically engage with the notion of ‘culture’?

What is culture? 
The study of intercultural communication (ICC) is a fundamentally interdisciplinary field that has evolved throughout the 20th century. The roots of this field can be traced back to pre-departure training developed for US government officials in the 1940s. Since then, ICC as a discipline has gone through multiple shifts in terms of how we understand human beings, communication, and knowledge. At the heart of this dynamic evolution, is a debate on how to define ‘culture’ – yes, the ‘culture’ that we constantly think about, discuss, and function within in our daily lives. Although we tend to define ‘culture’ in an extremely narrow way (for example, we understand it as ‘national culture’), ICC scholars  have argued that we should expand our understanding of ‘culture’ and even challenge it, as it would allow us to establish a critical awareness of human experiences and society. 
Indeed, there is no consensus on the fundamental question of what culture is. In other words, it is nearly impossible to pin down one clear definition of this concept. Think about the words that you can combine with ‘culture’ (such as, national, religious, media, regional, pop, street, food, and the numerous others you can come up with too, I am sure). In this sense, ‘culture’ is an extremely mundane word that is part of our everyday language and conversations, but it can also be aparticularly dense and multifaceted concept. Therefore, exploring various definitions and understandings of ‘culture’ is similar to standing in the middle of a maze, just like Alice in Wonderland. To find our way out of this confusing and overwhelming maze, we must search for a direction on an ‘intellectual map’, and the map would show two different options to get there. (Much like when you search for a direction to get somewhere else on Google Maps, it usually shows several options for reaching the final destination.) Let us label the two most widely used options ‘have’ culture and ‘do’ Culture.
‘Have’ Culture: Culture as entity 
The ‘have’ culture option defines ‘culture’ as something that we possess. This option is called a ‘functionalist’ approach to understanding culture. One of the fundamental assumptions of this option is that human behaviour is predictable, and ‘culture’ is a fundamental variable allowing us to predict that behaviour, especially different communication patterns. This option is straightforward, as it provides us with a clear benchmark for ‘how to talk and behave’ when interacting with people, for example, those of different nationalities. In other words, the strength of this option is the ability to identify so-called ‘cultural differences’, thus potentially preventing or resolving the misunderstanding and miscommunication derived from those differences. This is widely popular within the field of ICC as well as amongst the public due to its emphasis on the generalizable patterns of human behaviours.  
The ‘have’ Culture map is perhaps the same as the ‘quickest’ option on Google maps when you search for directions. That is, following this option can be fast and efficient, but we also need to consider whether we are missing something when following this shortcut. For example, we can simply ask, ‘Can we really predict every single instance of human behaviour and communication?’ We all know we cannot, simply because human communication can be fuzzy and idiosyncratic in a reality mostly derived from human agency. That is, human beings are not simply a photocopy of national value machines. Rather, we make autonomous, context-specific decisions in our behaviours and communication that do not necessarily align with national values. Most importantly, insensitively using this option, in other words, not only identifying but also exacerbating differences, could lead to a rigid understanding of human beings. We may use this shortcut option to ensure some level of certainty and predictability whilst navigating a heavily information-filled world; however, when we overly rely upon it without exercising critical awareness, the result could be stereotyping and othering.
‘Do’ Culture: Culture as social process  
This is the moment we turn our attention to the ‘do’ Culture option, which understands ‘culture’ as something we enact. This approach emerged from a relatively small number of scholars in the field of ICC who cast a critical eye on the notion of ‘culture’ as something that we possess. They argued that culture is more than the one and only variable determining our behaviour. Rather, it is an emergent social construct which is constantly created and negotiated through a range of social interactions in situ. The ‘do culture’ perspective, which is called the ‘interpretive approach’, enables us to recognize the seen-but-unnoticed aspects of both human experiences and human beings themselves. That is, ‘culture’, especially ‘national culture’, may affect our communication and social actions, but our everyday communication and social actions also constantly create different ‘small cultures’. For example, graphic designers working in a global firm can create their own small culture based on the common interests and practices that they constantly engage with in their everyday professional lives. Therefore, their shared ground established through joint activities and mutual engagement is a more important part of, for example, being productive in the workplace than are the different national cultures of each designer.
Let us embrace both maps! 
Just as the second or third quickest option on Google Maps allow us to see something unexpected or more interesting along the way, the ‘do culture’ perspective enables us to experience a more nuanced and deeper understanding of other human beings. It may not be the quickest way to understand other people, but it provides us with valuable insight – not only ‘nationality’ but also other identities and related social actions account for who you are. Therefore, ‘being intercultural’ is a rather complex process, as it asks you to become aware of both differences and commonalities. In that sense, ‘being a global citizen’ is an ongoing process of travelling back and forth between these two opposite sides of the road. However, do not forget you have two maps in your hands – the ‘have’ culture and the ‘do’ culture, which can be mutually complementary. Both have strengths and weaknesses; thus, it is important for us to use them sensitively depending on the context.

References and further reading:
Jackson, J. (2012) The Routledge handbook of language and intercultural communication. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. 
Martin, J. N. & Thomas K. Nakayama (2022) Intercultural communication in contexts. Eighth edition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. 

Last modified: Tuesday, 12 September 2023, 11:03 AM