Archive for the ‘Interculturality: avenues of reflection’ Category

All humans are disposed to wear clothes. Indeed, the topic of clothing encapsulates many specific cultural and identity-related issues in that it reveals hidden features of social structures and symbols. More specifically, the way people dress is a means of both conforming to and deviating from a same code.

Lipovetsky goes so far as to throw into question Bourdieu’s concept of social distinction: « In the history of fashion, values and modern cultural meanings which elevate Novelty and the expression of individual human identity in particular have been the ones which exercised the greatest influence.”

Thus, the role of clothing as both signifier and signified is a highly relevant topic of inquiry in the field of intercultural and terminological studies, with social groups sometimes referring to themselves and one another using terms related to their clothing and their appearance (goths, punks, chavs, etc.).

Clothing: a signifier and signified for sociology

We are approaching clothing as a particular signifier of a general signified. It is an individual and collective expression of a cultural and social structure and atmosphere.
In so doing, we are appealing to Barthes’ remarkable work in History and Sociology of Clothing, a foundational text for our subject. We will start by clarifying the generic terms clothing and costume.
A semantic distinction is made between these two terms by attributing functional qualities to clothing and aesthetic qualities to costume. Barthes qualifies this dichotomy as a « psychological illusion » which consists in stating that clothing corresponds to the sum total of individual instincts. Sociology sets itself the task of transcending this illusory divide between functional and aesthetic qualities. The belief that there is a « tendency for any item covering the body to integrate an organised, normative, formal system enshrined by society » is particularly relevant to us.

Following this logic, we must conclude that costume deals in axioms which vary according to the culture in question, « both a system and a heritage, an individual act and a collective institution”.
This formulation of the problem is of special interest to linguists working on differences in editorial process as it is expressed with reference to the concept of language. Language and costume, as complete structures consisting of a network of norms and forms, are thus considered side by side, lending our subject a breadth and relevance ideal for the practice of culturally-specific information processing in graphical interfaces.

Nowadays, marketing and advertising sectors use values in order to differentiate and position their brands with regard to rival brands. Values are at the heart of many segmentation and positioning decisions. Nevertheless, consumers’ and marketers’ values vary depending of their culture, and marketing and advertising will be effective only if these values match. Indeed, the only way for a marketing program to become a success, is to do everything possible so that the marketing mix of the product corresponds to the values of the consumer.

A strong brand is a brand whose values match the consumers’ values. Marketing consists in adding values to products, and advertising is the instrument used for achieving this. Values play an important role in consumer behavior. Adding values to a brand creates associations of ideas into people’s minds, and help them distinguish the products between them. Values associated with brands provide consumers with standards for making comparisons.

But currently, the predominant tendency seems to be that every consumer is the same, whatever their culture, and wherever they live in the world. Moreover, it can be noted that this tendency is widespread in Western countries, which have already been swallowed up by American hegemony.  But what do Western marketers and advertisers believe that the same strategy fits every cultural group?

A mere assessment is sufficient to understand the origin of this mistake: anywhere in the world, students in marketing and advertising are taught the same theories on values, elaborated most of the time by American, or at least western authors. We can quote for example Rokeach’s “Value Survey”, a study of values and lifestyles taught and applied worldwide, although the values studied are typical for American culture.

In reality, people are socially determined by the group they belong to: as there is no universal culture, there are no universal values. Indeed, when they are translated into other languages and within other cultures, values sometimes become meaningless. People’s values vary by culture, as well as researchers’ values. If there is no match between the culture on which a research model is based and the culture of the country where it is applied, the outcome will be meaningless.

It is important to understand that the values of one culture cannot be used indiscriminately in another one. Values are so diverse that marketing and advertising strategies can no longer use American values as a basis for applying the same strategy to all cultural groups. Several new models are currently being developed, to help international companies to develop global products and to differentiate them by using the core values of national cultures.

Some interesting links in English for further reading:

What Is Values-Based Marketing?

Steve Jobs lesson on marketing: Values and belief

Some interesting links in French for further reading:

Les grandes marques en campagne sur leurs valeurs

Les valeurs : éthique ou marketing ?


Global Marketing and Advertising: Understanding Cultural Paradoxes, Marieke de MOOIJ, Sage Publications

The Nature of human values, M. ROKEACH, Free Press

Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values, G. HOFSTEDE, Sage Publications

Advertising worldwide, Marieke de MOOIJ, Prentice Hall International

   Though some musical genres are known in the whole world and tend to be globalized, there still are many others that we are not used to listen to and that we generally like to hear because they sound exotic. To a European ear, for instance, samba is very festive whereas traditional Chinese music is relaxing. Thus, both arouse interest and curiosity among the European people, and can be used by them in certain circumstances, but do not actually become part of everyday life in European cultures. Why is each one of these musical genres, among many others, peculiar to a culture? Why do other cultures not borrow them as they did with jazz, pop music etc.? Edward T. Hall’s work helps us to understand this phenomenon.


In Beyond Culture Edward T. Hall introduces the phrases being in sync and being out of sync, which he also deals with in The Dance of Life. Sync is the abbreviation of syncing which may be defined, in the fields of communication, kinesics, and cinema as the coordination of motions of several individuals who are interacting. In the 60s, William Condon showed, by analyzing several films of people talking to each other frame after frame, that the motions of individuals who are interacting tend to be synchronized. Sometimes the individuals are not even aware of these motions (blinking or movements of the little finger), and sometimes the movements are wider (nods) and the individuals seem to dance a choreography together without being aware of it.

   It was noticed that these movements usually happen at the same time as stresses on syllables of speech. This shows that there exists a link between speech and motion rhythm which we are not aware of, when talking. Even more, syncing is already present in the behaviour of a new-born: long before being able to talk, a baby synchronizes his or her motions with the speech of a person who is talking, whatever language is used. Edward T. Hall draws the conclusion that syncing is innate and universal and that it is a fundamental element of speech. However, when growing up, we get used to the rhythm of our own language and cannot be in sync with somebody talking in a foreign language anymore. Therefore rhythm forms a part of culture which is totally unconscious. And peoples invent musical genres according to the rhythm of their language, which enables individuals to create links with their interlocutors. Thus, according to Hall “music represents a sort of rhythmic consensus, a consensus of the core culture”. We are all immersed in a “sea of rhythm” of which we are not aware and which is a factor of group cohesion between natives of a culture.

   If an individual cannot be in sync with a rhythm, he or she will not be in sync with a piece of music based on the same rhythm either. And, although the attraction of the exotic is real, the assimilation of a foreign musical genre in our own culture is difficult when its rhythm is not ours. That is why many musical genres are peculiar to a culture: we can assume that the appropriation of a musical genre by a culture depends on the ability of its members to be in sync with this musical genre thanks to a rhythm which is familiar to them.


Many surveys have shown that people who play an instrument or have musical skills have more aptitudes for foreign language learning than others due to a higher ability in perceiving and closely reproducing accents. And having the right rhythm and accent when we learn a foreign language is crucial for at least two reasons. The first reason is that rhythm, accent, and intonation convey intentions, ton, humor, innuendos an so on. The second reason is that, in a deeper level of awareness, rhythm, accent, and intonation make it possible to be in sync with a native interlocutor and thus to attract his or her attention and have a bigger impact.

   In addition to misunderstanding, rhythm discrepancies between people may also generate stereotypes and prejudice. Indeed, rhythm and the way of moving linked to it are a form of nonverbal communication. Edward T. Hall gives us the example of the way of walking, which is very different in each ethnic group: the Anglo-American walk is fast and confident whereas the Latino-American walk is boastful. To an Anglo-American, a Latino-American could seem proud or even swanky, and to a Latino-American, an Anglo-American could look authoritarian: we often think that the way people move is an index of their characters. In reality, lending a character to a cultural ethnic group just on the basis of their appearance is a stereotype. The way of moving is not a matter of character, it is once again a matter of rhythm.

Learn more:

Website dedicated to Edward T. Hall

Studies :

An empirical comparison of rhythm in language and music

Cross-Cultural Perception & Structure of Music

The role of rhythm in discriminability of languages (in French)

Culture is a tremendously hard concept to define. The process of defining involves distinguishing a concept from another, that is to say, establishing semantic boundaries. It is partly because culture is everywhere, since it includes every effort the humans make to turn the earth they live in into their home. We all look after somewhere to go back to, something that we could refer to as a home, and the sweeter the better. That’s why it seems as complex as it is enriching to study the meaning people give to space. How they manage to make something they have been forced to deal with (in that case, the fact of being born in a particular location and at a particular time) their own way of life? Every culture gives space style and structure.

E. T. Hall, coming up with the proxemics theory, which can be defined as the conceptualization of patterns in the treatment of space within specific cultures, has made this effort of distinguishing and naming the ways people dealt with space and people according to their personalities and the environment they live in. The perception of the human space is dynamic: it is embraced as a place where actions happen, feelings grow and risks are taken. Human space is thus something that can be crossed and experienced and therefore structured and negotiated. The way of life of an individual hence reflects on how the personal and cultural space is structured. Despite the fact distance-dealing changes depending on cultural and personal semiotic habits, four prototype modes are considered: the intimate, personal, social and public distances. This tension between universal and culturally-marked behavior is highly interesting within the framework of intercultural communication studies.

Experiences of cohabitation with strangers (what we can also call « international flat-sharing ») express, in that light, the negotiation of private space in a cross-cultural context. Indeed, it is interesting to note how quickly space is divided and symbolically appropriated by each flatmate. For instance, it is striking to note that some of the most commonly used dishes (cups, for instance) are taken over. Unofficially but perceptibly enough, the two international flatmates will elect a favorite cup and stick to it. This appropriation of space and spatial objects tends to make clear what belongs to who and how the two belonging modes can combine. It also contributes to creating landmarks and implicit rules. For instance, the strategical splitting up of functional areas in the bathroom is quickly defined. The toothbrushes, which are all at once ones of the most used, common and private items to be found in the bathroom, are set aside from each other, on the opposite sides of the cupboard preferably. The same organizational remark goes with the inner fridge, where the food items are separate depending on the beholder, showing more strikingly the different alimentary habits.

Similar responses could obviously be observed within an intracultural context. But the intercultural aspect comes only to reinforce the meaningful structuring of private space. Indeed, the fact that the flatmates are not part of the same culturally determined approach to space makes the need of compromise and effort for a harmonized cohabitation even stronger. For instance, since the Spanish flatmate will use a lot of oil in his cooking, he will furthermore be expected from the French to clean the stains up, since it’s part of the intercultural differences. Researchers have proven that anxiety, flexibility and tolerance were both part of the consequences and prerequisites of intercultural communication. Adam Kiss called this sense of social exertion in the intercultural encounter empathy (document Word). It is a controlled attitude aiming at dealing with intercultural discrepancies which can cause anxiety at not being understood or not understanding the other one. This empathy concept enlightens that the shared space needs to be structured and appropriated in an understanding manner. How one notifies the other where his/her private area starts is also very enriching to study in this context. An open door of the room means that even though the flatmate is in his private space he/she is able to interact whenever the other one shows up to his/her door. A semi-open door may either suggest an ambiguous solicitation or just a external sign of willingness to compromise and show empathy. A closed door would clearly show the flatmate is unavailable and not to be disturbed.

Intercultural flat-sharing represents a specific space for intercultural problematics to be observed. It shows how deeply and interestingly space reflects on individual and culture, and how culture reflects on everything.

To be continued:


William J. Ickinger, Sandra Morris (Tulane University)



                                                                                                                                                                                     Z. W.

At a time when differences between people seem to disappear gradually, and when American hegemony is establishing itself in fields like music, economy, cinema and food, are we witnessing the end of all cultural specificities? It could be good to wonder about the real meaning of the expression “universal culture”: what does it really reflect? Is there indeed a global culture, identical everywhere on the planet?

This is what some great philosophers and anthropologists seemed to maintain from the 1940’s, like the American George Murdock, who published a list of “cultural universals”. This specialist is not the only one to have dealt with this subject, since the French Claude Lévi-Strauss and the American Donald Brown also agreed on some patterns, traits, or institutions that they considered to be common to all human cultures worldwide. In this list could be found activities and values as diverse as cooking, eating, staying healthy, and yearning for happiness.

However, these “cultural universals” have to be considered cautiously: for example, even if the fact of eating is a universal principle shared by every human being on earth, we have to stay careful on a point. If people do eat wherever they live on the planet, the way they do so varies tremendously from culture to culture, from state to state, and even from region to region.

For example, the gastronomic meal of the French has just been inscribed by the UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, because it “plays an active social role within its community and is transmitted from generation to generation as part of its identity”. At a time when fast-food industry invades the world, this is the exact kind of cultural trait which is worth preserving from globalization.

Photo: Pascal Xicluna/

Thus, it is possible to identify some universals common to all human groups, such as eating, trying to stay healthy, dressing, having a religion, etc. But the way these universals express themselves within the different cultures is diverse, and it comes to everybody to preserve these differences, so that they do not disappear totally to the benefit of a globalized culture.

Some interesting links for further reading:

The gastronomic meal of the French on Unesco’s website

George Murdock’s biography

“Cultural universals”

BBC Radio programme “Culture and Globalization”


Global Marketing and Advertising : Understanding Cultural Paradoxes, Marieke de MOOIJ, Sage Publications

The Common Denominator of Culture, George Murdock, Columbia University Press

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The impact of Confucianism on interpersonal relationships and communication patterns in East Asia

June Ock Yum

            Confucianism is a rationalistic and pragmatic philosophy that has stood for the basic social and political value system for over a thousand years in the countries of East Asia, especially in China, Korea and Japan.

Confucianism is based on four principles : humanism, which depends on the concept of reciprocity and brings together the qualities of the ideal man; faithfulness, which enables people to look beyond personal profit and to work in favor of the common good; propriety, which allows humanness thanks to social order; and wisdom.

The essence of Confucian doctrines is related to social relationships, as opposed to the North American emphasis on individualism. Indeed, East Asians tend to differentiate relationships according to the level of intimacy, the status involved and the particular context, whereas North Americans apply the same rules to everybody in order to respect their individualistic values. And since relationships in Confucian cultures must be based on mutual reciprocity and trust, personal relationships are often mixed with public relationships, which is far from being the case in North America, where private life is seen as a haven from the pressure of competitive public life. Moreover, unlike North Americans, East Asians distinguish in-group members and out-group members very thoroughly, which involves a strong sense of longevity of membership and loyalty to a particular group. Informal intermediaries to initiate a new relationship are necessary in Confucian cultures, whereas North American intermediaries have to have an objective point of view.

Confucianism principles have a strong influence on communication patterns in East Asia. Indeed, communication is seen as an infinite interpretive process, which means that the relationship is in flux. Unlike North Americans, East Asians believe that this process is more important than the outcome of the communication in itself. Moreover, the contrast between familiar and formal forms of speech is way stronger in Confucian cultures than in North American’s, and honorific languages cannot be altered, even after a long acquaintance. This shows how important the distinction between relationships is in East Asian countries. In these countries, indirect communication is the most used mode, which is meant to preserve the other person’s face and involves a strong ability of inference and rationality from the hearer. Such an indirect communication is also used in North America, but it is actually more essential to communicate in a clear, precise and explicit way. Finally, East Asian communication centers on the receiver, which means that it is necessary to practice anticipatory communication in order to understand the implicit meaning of what is being said. Along with indirect communication, receiver centeredness is meant to spare the sender embarrassment. On the contrary, North Americans give priority to the way senders formulate their messages.

If both Confucianism and individualism suffer from certain defects, the solution for them both is ironically to be receptive to others.

Moreover, the unavoidable growing globalization will probably reduce the number of East Asians who favor traditional Confucian relationships.

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juillet 2017
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