Monica Rector

Cross-Cultural understanding: How to live and survive in a Foreign country or meanings of everyday life : The American ghost.


Most people who go abroad encounter features in their host culture that they may find disturbing. Reaction to these alien aspects of the new culture can dampen the entire experience in the country, resulting in various kinds of negative reactions. To adapt positively and effectively to the host culture, it is necessary to overcome the negative responses. The best way to challenge these shortcomings is to name these negative aspects, face them, and come to terms with them. But the biggest problem is that most of this dissonance derives from non-verbal behavior, and therefore they are mostly insidious "ghosts" that are very real, but difficult to grasp.

I faced this problem ten years ago when I came to the United States from Brazil. Verbal communication was not an issue, but adapting to the culture, with its non-verbal and societal indicators, was difficult and painful. Non-verbal behavior is so deeply engrained in the communicational system that it is not often explained or acknowledged by native speakers who, most of the time, are unconscious of this phenomenon. I am therefore putting this experience into words in a book that I intend to title something like, How to Live and Survive in the United States. Learning another culture, developing relationships with people you meet, communicating efficiently, and adapting to the environment is a complex task that I hope to help simplify.

In this paper, I want to pinpoint some of these dissonant aspects, analyze them and demonstrate that facts matter less than the understanding of a frame of mind. I will discuss: 1) culture learning as a concept different from "traveling", 2) attitude and traits on which to focus, 3) action and thoughtful reflection, 4) cultural topics, and, 5) cultural relativity and values. Cultural topics will be exemplified through what our senses perceive: a) image, b) sound, c) taste, d) touch, and e) gesture. Cinesics, proxemics and chronemics present the most difficult problems, and are responsible for a large percent of miscommunication as will be shown.

Each aspect of non-verbal communication has a code or codes. These codes are signals that have to be deciphered because they point to hidden systems of cultural belief. Furthermore, they are charged with ideological significance. As Jack Solomon states in his book, Signs of our Time, what we call "culture" is, "a system whose influence [is] so pervasive that we often don't realize it exists, just as we don't notice the air we breathe." By focusing on the non-verbal aspects of behavior, I intend to transform into words some "ghosts" of the American culture.