Intercultural communication- When up is down & down is up

Have you ever been in a situation where up seemed down & vice versa, where the ‘rules’ didn’t seem to apply?

As I was waiting to upgrade my mobile phone chip recently I looked down at the ticket stub the agent had given me to indicate where I was in the queue – number 098. I looked up at the screen that listed the numbers (pictured above). I looked down again. Back up. My number was nowhere to be found.

I waited a minute. Checked the screen again. Same story.

Puzzled, I then had an even more puzzling talk with the clerk.

Then the penny dropped.

I was expecting my number to appear at the bottom of the list & move up the closer I was to being served.

Nuh uh. Numbers appear at the top, only when it’s your turn to be served & move down the list after you’re served.

And so it goes, living in a culture that I wasn’t born into. As a transplanted Canadian living in Kenya, I frequently don’t understand what’s going on around me (& that isn’t just because I don’t speak Swahili).

This cultural balancing act can be confusing & frustrating, but ultimately fascinating. It boils down to building my intercultural resilience muscles.

Let’s take a closer look.

What is culture?

Culture is …

  • What makes meaning in our lives
  •  The collective programming of the mind that divides us into groups
  • The interpretive lens through which we view the worldSources: Binns, B; Yukon College; Plog and Bates; Huber, M.; LeBaron Duryea.


Does a fish see the water it swims in?


Culture is so big we often can’t see it (especially if we’re surrounded by those who have a similar culture).

Some components of culture ….

Culture is made up of a ton of elements, such as:

  • How one gains respect
  • Family
  • Gender roles
  • Communication
  • Roles of community
  • Education (value and type of)
  • Role of leisure
  • Sexuality
  • Material possessions
  • Child rearing
  • Role of work
  • Conflict
  • Role of the aged & the young
  • Time
  • Ethnicity


Intercultural communication

Defining culture broadly, like above, means that almost every communication is an intercultural communication. For example;

  • If you’re communicating with a colleague who is a different gender from you, that’s intercultural communication
  • If you’re communicating with someone from a different generation from you, that’s intercultural communication
  • If you’re communicating with someone who has a different form of education, a different view of the role of work or leisure or of the role of the young &/or aged, those are all intercultural communications

Even though almost every communication is an intercultural communication, culture is rarely at the centre of our awareness when we’re communicating.


So how do we put culture in the centre of our communications?

You can improve your intercultural communication skills by focusing more on the right hand column below than the left.


So the next time you find yourself in a situation where up is down and down is up, consider the role that culture is playing. And move forward by asking lots of questions, observing, finding more than one way to deal with the situation, working collaboratively and staying away from a simplistic grocery list approach. It’s not easy but it’s always interesting.


Your turn – take action:

  • Think about what intercultural communications you’ve had recently. How did it go? What helped &/or hindered the communication?
  • Check out this intercultural communication video (2:42 min). Obviously there will be lots of individuals who don’t fit these categories, but the images are thought provoking.
  • Feel free leave a comment below & let me know your intercultural comments or questions.

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2 Responses to “Intercultural communication- When up is down & down is up”

  1. Dorothy Mukhebi Says:
    June 23rd, 2017 at 8:04 am

    I love this! Components of culture that many do not see except women and gender

  2. Lee-Anne Ragan Says:
    June 28th, 2017 at 2:51 pm

    So glad it struck a chord Dorothy. Culture can definitely be tricky like that.

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