Since September 2011, I have been traveling all over the world; I have spent 7 months in Togo (West Africa), 6 months in Freiburg, Germany, and now 4 months in Los Angeles. One of the things you become aware of when living abroad is how differently people communicate. These differences can be very subtle or very bold, depending on how much a given culture differs from your own.
Marie Ebenezer has spent seven months in Togo, teaching English in grade 6.
Adjusting to the life in Togo was a much bigger challenge than coming to Los Angeles, because Togo’s culture was so radically different than what I was used to. This was, if nothing else, because I had to completely rethink the way I communicated – the German or European way that I had been practicing all my life was no longer appropriate. The challenge was not that I had to speak French (which is my second native language), but that I had to adapt to a new culture and therefore to a new way of communicating. The entire dynamic — idioms, gestures, conversational patterns — was different. From my experiences in these three continents, I have noticed the following major differences in the way people communicate.
Language is the most obvious tool of communication, and every culture has its own — or many. (While people in England obviously speak English, it is undeniably different than the way Americans speak). If you don’t speak the language of a culture, you have to rely on gestures, pictures and facial expressions. Since I speak English very well, language has not been a barrier for me in Los Angeles. In Togo, however, language was a big obstacle — Togo has French as an official language, but many people only speak the tribal language “Ewe.” I didn’t understand anything people were saying to me – or, a lot of the time, about me. This can be frustrating. If you are so different from everyone else, then you need to explain why you are different, and what your own culture is like, to experience mutual understanding. Expressing myself became a real hurdle. I quickly learned the basics of the local language, and many people did speak French, but it was never enough to engage in a meaningful conversation. So, during my time in Togo, I never really felt like I connected with anyone in a substantial way. Certainly, language is only a small part of culture, and you also have to face differences in values, religion, education, customs, etc.
MEDIA AND THE DIGITAL AGE
It’s a fact that media and communication go hand in hand. I have, however, seen a big discrepancy in how much of our communication goes through the media and digital devices. In Los Angeles, everybody has access to the internet, print media and broadcast, and everyone owns a cell phone and a computer. You can hardly escape this wave of communication, and we almost always use our cell phones or computers if we want to reach someone.
In theory, you could get all of these things in Togo. The big issue, however, is that accessibility to the media is expensive. Televisions are fairly widespread and so are cell phones (but hardly any of them are charged with sufficient money). Newspapers are rare. The internet is available in internet cafes, but – as you can imagine – it is very, very slow. It is almost impossible to watch a video online, and I can remember waiting for several minutes for a picture to upload on Facebook.
New York City is a great example of the ubiquity of digital media.
Think of how many texts and e-mails you write, of how many videos you watch online, of how many tweets and Facebook posts you read. How far away is the next screen or newspaper? In Togo, hardly any communication goes through print, digital, or social media. Most of it is oral communication, and if you want to talk to someone, well, you go over to their house and talk to them.
Surely, there has been an evolution of how we communicate. Not too long ago, we did not have digital media at our disposal. In Togo, however, media as such is hardly available. Oral communication is a long lasting tradition in many African countries, and this tradition is definitely threatened by the changes in communication that are going on globally.
It’s clear that different cultures use different means of communication. In our society, digital and written communication has replaced oral communication to a certain extent. The media is, however, only a small portion of how we communicate. One of the biggest challenges in intercultural communication is the subtle aspects of a culture, which can throw you off if you are not used to them. These become clear in daily interactions between people.
Written communication has been establishing itself slowly in Togo.
In Togo, for instance, it is a sign of respect not to look the person you’re talking to in the eyes. I found this rather odd, especially because I did not know about this custom, and it changes the dynamic of a conversation. Imagine talking to a student who does not look you in the eyes when you are asking them a question – wouldn’t it seem like that student is insecure or evasive?
As a German, I was also bewildered by how common the phrase “I love you” is used in America. In Los Angeles, a mother says it to her child and best friends say it to each other. I hear it all the time. When I heard it for the first time, it made me extremely uncomfortable, because in Germany, this expression is only used among lovers. Germans assume that their parents and friends love them, but we don’t explicitly say it.
Our way of communicating is riddled with these small features. Most natives won’t even notice them, because they are embedded in our culture, and culture is not something you consciously carry out. This is why, a lot of the times, when you immerse yourself in a foreign culture, you learn more about yourself than you might expect. If you are faced with a different culture, you are bound to reflect on your own – and I can only encourage everyone to do this, because it is truly enriching.