The Linguist

The Linguist 57,3 – June/July 2018

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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FEATURES CONSTRUCTING THE 'OTHER' When attempts at 'cultural awareness' lead to broad generalisations, it can, in effect, stereotype entire nations and their people, as with these illustrations of Russian and Chinese culture 24 The Linguist Vol/57 No/3 2018 H ow do you define culture? What is it for you personally, and how does it affect you in your everyday work? Is it food and festivities, getting out your kimono or Dirndl, waving a flag? Is it the customs and conventions you follow, mostly because that's what everyone else around you is doing, like queuing at the bus stop or rubbing noses? Or is it something deeper: values, beliefs and worldview, our cognitive DNA? If you are involved in the field of translation and interpretation, you are dealing with 'culture' constantly, and also intuitively. It is something we work with as a matter of course. Culture is a fuzzy concept, but a useful catch-all term for describing everything that we create in our society, including our relationships. As a self-appointed interculturalist, I spend my time at the coalface of culture, designing and delivering training programmes for those involved in relocating to a new culture or working in multicultural teams. My focus in this article is on culture and how our starting point can have a significant impact on where we end up. Do we race to categorise in order to reduce uncertainty? Or do we open ourselves to the plurality of perspectives that emerge from our interactions with others? Some choose to adopt an exclusive idea of culture, of 'us versus them', of loosely concealed colonialist attitudes and ethnocentric, nationalistic, protectionist posturing (how else to explain Donald Trump's recent description of certain African nations as "shithole countries"). Others mistake international exposure or extensive vacation time in foreign climes (which could even extend to years) for an automatic qualification in intercultural sensitivity. Unfortunately, the greatest barriers to developing genuine intercultural competence are arrogance and complacency: we live in a global village, so everyone does things in the same way (which just happens to be my way), right? Unfortunately, the tendency to cling to easy generalisations (or stereotypes) is strong: the Germans demand punctuality and require precision; the Chinese are highly sensitive to 'face'; the British are masters of irony and vagueness. These statements are ostensibly true, but clearly, on a one-to-one basis, they are problematic. Not all German or Chinese people are like that. And the British? Don't know what you're talking about, old chap. So where do the stereotypes stop and the fair cultural generalisations begin? Over 20 years, our understanding of the concept of culture has evolved. This is not purely an academic debate, but a reflection of creeping globalisation, of the opening up of borders and opportunities. Geert Hofstede coined the term 'collective programming of the mind' in the 1980s, 1 and many have leapt on his model to engage in categorising other cultures (nation states) as 'individualistic' or 'hierarchical' or 'feminine' in nature. The intercultural training field has used such frameworks extensively, but there is growing dissatisfaction with the paradigm, and a grudging acceptance that overgeneralising and reducing cultures to static values can be divisive and counterproductive. How have advances in crosscultural training and theory informed our understanding of 'culture'? Robert Johnson considers the limits of this 'fuzzy concept' Whose 'culture' is it anyway? © SHUTTERSTOCK/DANIEL BACHLER VIAWIKIPEDIA(CC BY-SA 2.5)

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