Global Matters: Communicating across cultures

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A straight line may be the shortest distance between two points, but most of us have discovered that when it comes to communication, not everyone opts for the most direct route.

Some people simply have difficulty getting to the point. Others prefer to couch their communications in nuance and subtlety. Still others deliberately take a circuitous route to communication, even to the extent that the entire concept of a “point” is less meaningful than the means in which a message is conveyed.

When you take the limitless variations in the ways people communicate, even in a single language, and overlay it with the complexities and influence of culture, you have a recipe for confusion and misinterpretation. Small wonder, then, that those of us in the majority culture, accustomed as we are to our local norms of communication, find it challenging, even frustrating, to understand why so many messages get garbled, whether they are communicated to listeners around the world or, indeed, around the corner.

Navigating the nuance and impact of cultural influences on communication may seem like the stuff of graduate school theses, but as Maine’s immigrant population grows, and as our young people prepare to enter an increasingly diverse global workforce, the ability to communicate – and to understand not just the “what” but the “why” – becomes a vital workforce skill.

But how do we teach young people cross-cultural listening and comprehension skills, when so many of our teachers, mentors and role models are themselves less than fully aware of the complexities of cultural influence? How do we better understand our own neighbors, and our professional colleagues, when many of us have had little exposure to the influences that shape every aspect of human interaction?

Enter Laura Val, a self-described “global nomad” whose personal odyssey, coupled with her talents as a photographer, documentarian and storyteller, puts her in a unique position to equip young people, and those who teach and guide them, with the tools they need to communicate, co-exist and inspire each other in increasingly complex business and social environments.

Val, who was born in Romania, raised in Israel, and, prior to her move to Maine in 2002, employed in graduate administration at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., has observed first-hand how different cultural influences impact the ways in which we communicate and interact. In the course of her extensive travels, she has noted how some cultures engage in “circular” communication, while others favor a direct or linear approach.

She’s seen how some people communicate in the most animated, demonstrative, even argumentative fashion, while others speak softly, eschewing eye-contact and “confrontation.” And, she’s observed how, for example, when a circular communicator encounters a linear listener, there is often a profound disconnect and lack of understanding, just as there is when an aggressive communicator interacts with a more passive, quieter listener.

Motivated by her desire to bridge these gaps in understanding, Val has formed a non-profit organization called Celebrating Human Creativity, or CHC, which provides teachers and students with tools for understanding the many different modes and influences on communication. CHC has also developed complementary instructional curricula and online resources that illustrate in a number of contexts not only how we communicate, but how young people can engage with each other critically and productively across cultural lines.

CHC’s ultimate goal is to create a community of “young globalists” who not only understand each other, but inspire each other through the development of online communities and interactions featuring many aspects of their lives and their aspirations.

Of course, guiding the students to the point at which they not only understand but adapt to different modes of thinking requires that teachers and mentors understand the big picture, and the details, as well. So, CHC is working to provide training to teachers in a number of school districts around the state. Many teachers who have had the benefit of the training are experiencing those “A-ha!” moments when formerly obscure or inexplicable situations take on meaning.

“For me,” Val says, “it’s about young people having a better understanding of their differences, and a greater appreciation for their respective cultures. When young people gain these understandings, they are better able to live together, work together and resolve conflict together. We are teaching students, and we are teaching teachers, how to acquire and share these vital, 21st century life skills.”

CHC’s Web site features a short and engaging video, and also explains the pillars on which the CHC vision rests. Those with an interest in learning more can visit

Whether you communicate in a linear fashion or take a more circular route, however, CHC’s hopeful message is clear: give our youth the tools they need and they will build a better world.

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Perry B. Newman is a South Portland resident and president of Atlantica Group, an international business consulting firm based in Portland, with clients in North America, Israel and Europe.