When we talk about giving and receiving constructive feedback and critiques, many factors go into how we construct and receive these messages. One such factor is awareness of intercultural communication and the fact that people come from different cultures, even within our own main culture, and as a result, have different ideas about what is appropriate and what is offensive. Therefore, a brief discussion of intercultural communication is worthwhile.
While there are many definitions of culture, we will use the following: Culture is "learned, shared symbols, language, values, and norms that distinguish groups of people." A full explanation follows.
Cultural characteristics are not inherent to humankind; rather, they are learned by a group of people and shared by them. It is this shared system that draws cultural lines. Symbols are things that represent other things. Words are one type of symbol – they represent things or ideas. Symbols can also be gestures, such as making a fist with the thumb sticking up. In some cultures this is a symbol for something positive, while in other cultures it is a symbol for something very offensive. Symbols can also be images or other visuals. Examples of this are the eagle to represent the United States, or the color combination red, white, and blue -- also to represent the United States. Interestingly, the U.S. colors are not considered blue, white, and red, but distinctively red, white, and blue. In China red is the color of luck, and in some countries, pink is a color of aggression.
Language is also learned and shared by groups of people and helps comprise and distinguish a culture. There are currently an estimated 6,800 languages in the world. When people think of language, they generally think of it in terms of foreign languages or national languages. However, we are talking about language in a slightly different way, as well as that standard way. If you've ever been privy to a conversation between two colleagues in a field that is not your own, you probably understood very little. It's not that they were speaking a foreign language, per se; in fact, you actually understood almost every word. Rather, they were using jargon specific to their field, and words that have specific meaning within a context that may be different from your understanding of those words.
Values are assessments of good or bad. For example, people in some cultures value direct speech, while people of other cultures value a high degree of indirectness to send their messages. In the U.S., what you verbalize matters, while what goes unsaid holds very little weight. If you've ever been involved in a court case, or some other form of disagreement, you know that people rely on words that are said, and disregard what is unsaid. This is not true in all places of the world, however. Values generally govern how behavior is deemed appropriate or inappropriate by the members of that culture. Some cultures permit polygamy as a norm, while others have laws against it.
Norms are rules or expectations that guide people's behaviors. Traditions and celebrations of all sorts fall into this category. Whether and how people marry, and how people tend to their deceased are examples. Other norms are the foods that are typical to a culture, as well as the dress. It is a norm for today's young women in the U.S. to dress quite scantily in some geographical areas, while women of older generations, and from other countries, might find this appalling. Norms are all around us and part of our daily lives. They are such an entrenched part of the way we live that we usually don't even realize they're there. It is the breaking of a norm, however, that often marks a cultural outsider. Someone who "doesn't know how to dance" in today's nightclubs, or "doesn't know how to behave on a first date," are examples of cultural expectations that are typically unseen, until they are violated.
While culture exists, typically, on a national scope, co-cultures exist in multiplicity within our own cultures. These are smaller groups that are defined by the qualities of culture. That is, they have their own shared system of symbols, language, values, and norms that distinguish them from other groups. Examples of co-cultures are gender, age, ethnicity, geographical region, profession, socioeconomics, religion, and a host of others, including sexual orientation and athletic affiliations. In common speech, these co-cultures are often called "worlds," such as the "art world," the "dance world," the "hockey world," etc. This is a recognition, whether or not they realize it, of co-cultures and their unique characteristics and boundaries.
We each belong to multiple co-cultures, whether or not we are aware of it. A 22-year-old black Methodist female collegiate softball player in California belongs, at minimum, to co-cultures defined by age, ethnicity, religion, gender, college life, athletics, and region. Any additional hobbies and/or group affiliations she may have, such as belonging to a sorority, bring additional co-culture memberships. This young woman will view life from a very different set of symbols, language, values, and norms than an 85-year-old Asian Buddhist male retired airline pilot in Boston.
Each of us has our own way of viewing the world and our own experiences in it. Our experiences are unique to each of us, and therefore shape unique perspectives for us all. Each of our experiences forms a type of filter through which we interpret future events we encounter. This is the concept of perceptual filters. The idea of perceptual filters helps explain how people interpret the same situation, or same set of symbols, differently; our interpretations are based on our own unique experiences and knowledge base.
Co-culture memberships help construct our sets of perceptual filters. Since people of different co-cultures view the world slightly differently, by definition, they can also be expected to perceive the world slightly differently. A young black woman in Montana might have a very different interpretation of a smile from a young white woman than would an older white man in New York. Perceptual filters helps explain these different interpretations.
High context and low context has to do with the degree of verbal directness a culture deems appropriate. People in low context cultures tend to value speaking directly, saying what you mean, and not beating around the bush. They argue, and use words to attempt to persuade others. Unspoken implications are not heavily relied upon. Examples of low context cultures are North America and Western Europe. In terms of criticism, in a low context culture, a supervisor might openly reprimand an employee who mis-stepped, seeking to make an example of him or her. The supervisor would be very explicit in articulating exactly where and how the employee erred, what the expectations were, and the consequences for failing to meet them. Considerations of face threats are barely present, if at all. On the other hand, people in high context cultures rely greatly on nonverbal cues and behaviors to send messages and often consider direct speech rude and inappropriate. Cues in facial expressions and the voice -- such as tone, pitch, and volume -- embed messages that words don't. Examples of high context cultures are Koreans, Native Americans, and some Middle Easterners. Concerns for saving face of both the speaker and the audience are high. In a high context culture, the supervisor would not likely reprimand an employee in front of others out of concern for causing shame and threatening face. Criticism would more likely take place in private and would be delivered with carefully chosen words that seek not to offend, with a heavier reliance on nonverbal cues. Sometimes in high context cultures, messages are sent strictly through behaviors, while the utmost interpersonal politeness is preserved. For example, when mothers of a potential marital couple get together to discuss the appropriateness of their children's nuptials, the yes or no message is sent in the food and drink that is offered, and whether it goes well together or not.
Power distance is another cultural characteristic that can relate to giving and receiving constructive feedback and criticism. Power distance is a measurement of the expectation of deference among people with a large power differential. In the U.S., for example, many people of higher social rankings, such as CEOs and other leaders, insist on being addressed by their first names and spoken to "like a regular person." This reflects a low power distance culture. In this type of environment, giving and receiving feedback and criticism, even among those with very different levels of power, can be rather expected and commonplace. Conversely, in cultures with a high power distance, it would be considered extremely rude to address officials and other social leaders by their first names and not to speak with them while maintaining the appropriate deference do their position. In these cultures, feedback and critiques often roll only in one direction – downward. In fact, it is often difficult for students from cultures with a high power distance to ask questions in a U.S. classroom, because back home this is perceived as questioning the instructor's intelligence and knowledge, and is highly offensive.
The U.S. is a multicultural society. We often interact with people from all over the globe in our workplace and other communities. It's important to remember that people from different places have different ideas about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate, and whether -- and how -- to deliver feedback and criticism. Understanding some basic principles of cultural characteristics can help us be more sensitive to inadvertent offense to others.