Cross-Cultural Communication and the Psychology of Selves


Cross-cultural communication seminars have become fashionable over the past few years. They provide participants with a wealth of information about the target culture – historical, social, political and economic. Driven by the imperatives of an increasingly interdependent global community, people are becoming more knowledgeable about other cultures than ever before.

And yet, armed with all this information about the target culture, is the businessman or woman really prepared for the experience  of dealing with people who may have very different attitudes, values and belief systems? Here, intellectual knowledge is not enough. We need practical tools and skills to handle our emotional reaction to that which is strange, unexpected, bizarre or shocking. We may have great products or services, a great price and a great potential market. But if we cannot deal with the psychological dimension of cross-cultural communication, getting a sale can prove very hard.

In the course of travelling and living in a variety of different cultures and helping individuals who wish to communicate with others outside of their cultural milieu, I have discovered a new meaning to the term cross-cultural. I believe it covers a wide spectrum of which the international dimension is just a small (although probably the most visible) part. At its most basic level it is about intra-personal communication – how we relate to the inner cast of characters (or selves) that make up our psyche. The next step is the inter-personal – how our inner selves communication with those of other people. Expanding from this we have inter-group, inter-departmental, intra-corporate, inter-corporate, inter-regional, inter-racial, and international.

I have come to understand that no matter where our focus of attention is on this spectrum, the same basic principles apply. They are described in the concept of The Psychology of Selves. This model provides us with a new paradigm for facilitating cross-cultural exchanges – one that takes us to a meta-level understanding of what is going on when people with different cultural backgrounds try to communicate with each other. The concept includes the following ideas:

1. We are all (no matter what culture we are raised in) multiple personalities (sometimes called selves, sub-personalities, parts, complexes, I’s, or energy patterns). We commonly express this in phrases such as, “A part of me wants to do this and a part of me wants to do that; and a part of me doesn’t know what I want to do!”

2. Our culture and early socialization process encourages us to develop some of these selves strongly. These become our primary selves. Different cultures develop different primary selves. For example, white North American culture tends to develop a Pusher self that makes people work hard, a Scheduler self that gives a high priority to time and structure, and an Intellectual self that places a high value on the rational and analytical. Each self is distinct and autonomous.

3. For every primary self with which we are identified, there are one or more disowned selves of equal and opposite energy. Although these are not encouraged to develop by the culture in which we have been raised, they still exist at a subconscious level. For example, the disowned energies corresponding to the primary selves above would be a Take-it-easy self, a Go-with-the-flow unstructured self, and an Emotional or Intuitive self.

4. Each disowned self is projected onto some person or some thing or some culture.

5. The individuals and cultures of the world that we judge, reject and hate, or, conversely those we overvalue, can be seen as direct representations of our disowned selves.

6. Each person or culture we judge, reject and hate, or, each person or culture we overvalue, is a potential teacher for us. In order to learn from these disowned selves, we need to step back and see how the basis of our reaction is in fact a disowned part of us.

These principles can be seen at work most clearly in the stereotypes we use to describe other cultures. “Those Mexican are so lazy” does not really tell us too much about Mexicans – who would describe themselves as “easy going.” But it does indicate that whoever says this has a strong Pusher as a primary self. “Those Italians are so emotional” tells us that the speaker is identified with a Rational primary self. It thus becomes clear how another culture can hold the disowned aspects of our own. Mr. Nakasone, a former Prime minister of Japan, once said at an international forum, “The Unites States and Japan are like a husband and wife”. This is a very exact metaphor; in marriage our partner frequently holds our own disowned selves – which is why we find them at times both attractive and irritating!

Cross-cultural training should more appropriately start with these meta-level understandings of the dynamics of intra-personal and interpersonal communication. It should encourage the perspective that all inter-cultural interaction is a potential learning experience – not just about the other culture, but most of all about our own. To modify an old adage, we should “know our selves “.

Being able to embrace all our many and varied selves gives us a powerful tool for dealing with any inter-personal, inter-cultural situation: conscious choice. Without choice we risk being run by the autopilot of our primary selves and locking others into stereotypes.

It is the ability to see the other in us that most enhances international business communication. Our intellectual knowledge of other cultures becomes much more meaningful when built on the experience of our many selves within.

John Kent