Towards intercultural understanding

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The study of intercultural issues is by no means a new area. People have interacted with others from different cultures throughout our history in wars, religious journeys and exchange of goods. They have also been well aware of the difficulties these encounters may cause. Even though the history of intercultural contact is long, it has never before reached the magnitude of today's world. Earlier it was only people in certain professions or status that had the contact to the foreign cultures. Nowadays even the most isolated and marginal groups of people have the opportunity to interact with people all over the world. Intercultural interaction has become a reality of everyday life for almost everyone. The growth of interdependence of people and cultures in the global society of the twenty-first century has forced us to pay even more attention to intercultural issues. 
There are several reasons for the development of the world into a global village of today. The development of technology has enabled a constant flow of information and ideas across boundaries. Communication is faster and more available than ever. Also the development of transportation has increased face-to-face contact with people from different cultural backgrounds immensely. These developments, in turn, have affected the world economy. The business world is becoming more international and interrelated and international economies face a true interdependence. Widespread population migrations have changed the demographics of several nations and new intercultural identities and communities have been born. Cultural diversity and multiculturalism are the realities of working and domestic life everywhere. In the process of migration and general internationalisation the idea of a national identity has changed. International alliances and subcultures inside the nations have caused a de-emphasis on the nation-state. 
In order to live and function in this multicultural environment as effectively and meaningfully as possible, people must be competent in intercultural communication. Intercultural education has been brought up in many countries since the 60s. Previously, however, these educational programs have mainly concentrated on acculturating immigrants and other minorities into the majority population of a nation. With the new technology in communication and education we can now go further than this. The goal is to make the intercultural learning interactive so that both parties teach and learn from each other. Located almost at the opposite sides of the world, Finland and South Africa are very interesting partners in intercultural terms. 
Intercultural sensitivity and intercultural competence
Intercultural sensitivity is a quality that enables people to achieve a multicultural mind-set. It can be defined as a "positive drive to accommodate, understand, and appreciate cultural differences in promoting an appropriate and effective behaviour in intercultural communication". The continuum ethnocentrism-ethnorelativism relates to the issue of intercultural sensitivity. Intercultural communication scholars have advanced many components of intercultural sensitivity. These include ethnorelativism, which will be discussed in detail at the end of this text, respect for cultural differences, adaptability, perspective-taking, open-mindedness and acknowledgement of other's needs.
Intercultural communication competence has several definitions, the same way culture has. According to one of these definitions, intercultural communication competence is "the ability to effectively and appropriately execute communication behaviours to elicit a desired response in a specific environment" (Chen & Starosta 1998). Intercultural communication competence has four dimensions: personality strength, communication skills, psychological adaptation and cultural awareness. Examples of these might be the ability to stay positive in stressful situations, the skills to use appropriate nonverbal communication cues, the strength to survive culture shock and the ability to be aware of and maintain own cultural identity without jeopardizing intercultural relations. 
Barriers to intercultural communication 
Laray M. Barna (1997) has identified six stumbling blocks in intercultural communication. These refer to the main causes of frustration and misunderstanding in intercultural encounters. The first one of them is the assumption of similarities. This refers to the naive assumption that since we are all human, we are all basically alike. The reason for this assumption might also be our discomfort in dealing with difference. In any case, as we have learned by now, people

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Barna, Laray M. 1997: Stumbling Blocks in Intercultural Communication. In Samovar, Larry A. and Porter, Richard E.: Intercultural Communication - A Reader (8th ed.). Wadsworth, CA, USA.
Chen, G-M. and Starosta, W. J. 1998. Foundations of Intercultural Communication. Allyn and Bacon. USA.

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