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Cultural Awareness: Communication Packages

( Last of four articles of a Series by Scott Clift )

We have already discussed how our culture is comprised of just about everything we are, from the clothes we wear and food we eat, to our deepest core of values and beliefs which influence our behavior.

We turn now to look at how dissecting our culture will help us in our communication skills.

Think about this for a moment. Communication is not merely the words we use. Words are merely a vehicle by which we seek to communicate an idea or emotion. Words have no meaning aside from the meaning that we as individuals attach to them. When we communicate with others, we are seeking to convey the pictures in our minds, the feelings in our hearts, the desires of our passion, etc. These are experiential "packets", if you will, that through communication we seek to pass along to another person.

However, our experiences are unique to us. I can be sitting in the same room as fifteen other people, listening to the same person speak, and come away with a different experience of their communication than the 14 others who were listening. Why is this? Because of our background and heritage, our former experiences, our education, our fears, our sense of identity – just to name some of the elements. Because of where I am coming from, I may resonate with one thing the speaker says, while someone else will resonate with something completely different. And so we have differing experiences of the same communication.

But of course, communication is not just about the words that we use. It is about all the non-verbal ways we convey our packets of meaning as well. Intonation, voice inflection and volume, body language, subtle choices in words used or not used—all these things are combined with our words to enhance the packaging of our meaning.

Perhaps it is a bit simplistic to say, but communicating is complex business. We should never underestimate just how complex it is, however, or we will be lulled into assuming that meanings are being easily and flawlessly translated from one person to the next. All this discussion then begs the question, "How do we learn the rules for packaging our meanings?"

(See artists & order info below)
'Village Nurtures' - See artists & order info below.
Let me share an example from my own life. As a westerner, I frequently use a gesture to request somebody to come towards me. It may be across a crowded room where it would be impolite to yell, "Come over here!" to my friend. And so I wave them over to me, using a gesture with my palm facing up. Harmless right? Just a simple gesture? Not everywhere. In many places in Asia, one only uses a palm-facing-up gesture to beckon a prostitute. When one wants to beckon someone with respect , it is only done with the palm facing down, the fingers curling under the hand. So you can imagine my surprise when the Philipino bell-hop in a Manila hotel was outraged and fumed away from me when I beckoned for him to carry my bags.

The point is this. We learn how to package our meanings, both verbally and non-verbally, out of our general cultural backgrounds. While raising one’s voice in Culture A is a sign of passion and respected, in Culture B it is sign of disrespect. In terms of the words we use, your meaning attached to the word "Father" may be very positive, affirming, and a source of love. Yet for me, it may be a word that conjures a feeling of shame, indifference, or even hatred. Using the same word, two totally different meanings are attached because of prior experiences.

When we therefore assume that the meanings we attach to our own packages of communication are the same meanings that others attach, authentic communication will soon break down. When this happens it will not be surprising to find ourselves in conflict.

Our task at developing healthy and effective communication skills is therefore two-fold. First, we must challenge ourselves to be more cognitive of how we are packaging our meanings. We must become more aware of the cultural ways which inform our tendencies to use certain words, phrases, body language, etc. We must also learn to acknowledge how our packaging has been influenced by our personal experiences. This is hard work, for it means that we must deal with the emotions we carry with us, both negative and positive, that certain communication evokes within us.

The second aspect of our work around communication is to strip away our assumptions that others attach the same meanings as we do. We do this by asking questions which will help clarify what their culture is and what unique meanings they carry. At times this is as simple as understanding what kinds of stress the other may be under in the moment. At other times it will involve a discussion of past experiences. At all times it will require that we learn to strip away any notion of right or wrong ways of communicating, understanding that everyone communicates out of their culture and experience.

Artists Credits and 'blank' Art Cards as well as Art Card Ordering Info is grateful that our Cultural Awareness Series has received permission to display the artwork shown above and elsewhere in this Series. To see the complete display of the building's artwork visit the ECRC website at

The Faces of Our Future Reflect Our Past
The exterior brick walls of the Early Childhood Resource Center (ECRC) in Minneapolis, MN reflect our commitment to serving the children of our many pasts. Painted by local youth artists, our beautiful mural remains a landmark on the Lake Street corridor in South Minneapolis. Blank cards of portions of our mural may be purchased via the online order form. All proceeds contribute to improving the lives and education of children in our community.

Mural Artists:

Muralist/Director: Marilyn Lindstrom
Youth: Natchez Beaulieu, Constanza Carballo, Jose Curbelo, Adonijah Espinosa, Adrian Garza, Justin Kampinen, Warith Muhammad, Shani Nestingen, Nathan Pundt, Brett Stately, Aerin Vanhala, Dylan Wolking
Mentors: Carlos Menchaca and Mali Kouanchao
Youthworks/Americorps: Richard Garfield and Rachel Rendon
Guest Artist: Chris Darsow

MN CDEP's logo

Cultural Dynamics Education Project  (CDEP)
Created in response to Minnesota's changing demographics, CDEP educates child educators and care providers in the significance and dynamics surrounding each individual's culture. It is affiliated with the Early Childhood Resource Center (ECRC) in Minneapolis.
Please visit the CDEP website at

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