Intercultural communication

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    Intercultural communication on water

    Successful communication requires cultural competence.

    How to bridge cultural gaps and increase your own cultural sensitivity?

    Bridging cultural gaps requires intercultural competences, such as the ability to recognise and acknowledge cultural differences. It also involves developing intercultural communication abilities and using these to adequately manage intercultural situations and interactions. Recognition starts with knowing one's own culture and values and respecting others. Respect in itself is culturally determined. Uniting, bridging gaps, reconciliation and acknowledging require two-way processes.

    How shall I talk of the sea to the frog
    If it has never left its pond?
    How shall I talk of the frost to the bird of the Summerland
    If it has never left the land of its birth
    How shall I talk of life with the sage
    If he is prisoner of his doctrine?

                                                                                      (Chuang Tzu), 3rd century BC

    Intercultural sensitivity can be increased by gaining an understanding about cultural differences (e.g. Hofstede model) and adopting an open and professional attitude towards the other culture. It is important to:

    • Be aware of your role and position;
    • Be aware of your own culture-specific background and how your culture defines your values and actions;
    • Start a dialogue on intercultural aspects, similarities and differences;
    • Find out how decision-making processes work; and, especially,
    • Be yourself!

    Understanding cultural differences

    A useful tool for understanding differences in cultures across the world is the one developed by Prof. Geert Hofstede (see He is one of the most cited authors regarding the world-wide classification of cultures. Hofstede defines culture as the "collective mental programming of the mind which distinguishes one group or category of people from another". His classifications give insight in the average pattern of beliefs and values of a culture.

    After a lengthy and extensive study at 50 national IBM offices in as many countries, Professor Hofstede found that cultures vary amongst five cultural dimensions, these being:

    1. Individualism and collectivism;
    2. Power-distance aspects;
    3. Uncertainty avoidance;
    4. Masculinity - femininity; and
    5. Short term and long-term orientation.

    There seems to be a correlation between the different dimensions, in such a way that collectivistic cultures tend to value large power differences and focus on uncertainty avoidance. Hofstede´s classification offers a valuable tool for recognising and understanding the behaviour of groups and translating the information thus obtained to water management.



    Suppose a Dutch consultancy wants to establish a water board in a particular country, e.g. a Benin RAMSAR wetland area. The following is a minimum to consider:

    • The national and international legal regulations regarding these sensitive ecological areas and the norms of the international community with regard to technical assistance (involvement of women in water and sanitation and other gender issues, participatory approaches, etc.);
    • Socio-economical aspects: fisherman who rely for their livelihood on fishing local species, the women who earn an income by drying, smoking and selling fish, etc. But also: interrelationships between different groups, linkages, cultural aspects; and
    • Institutional aspects: staff, capacities, working relationships, power relationships.

    These, however, are not enough to guarantee the sustainable and participatory management of these resources. One should be aware of Hofstede's 5 classifications with regard to his actions. For instance, if there are plans involving a change in the water board or its members, one should be aware that the decision making is collectivistic by nature, that the power distance is an issue in this society, especially when it concerns in-group/ out-group boundaries (2 tribes). And thirdly, that the society as such does favour women becoming active members as long as this is not threatening to the other aspects (power, uncertainty avoidance, collectivistic focus, etc.).

    This will imply that one has to discuss the issue with representatives of each group, investigate these issues and analyse whether they favour or disfavour the plan and which countervailing activities are needed