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Яндекс цитирования


O. A. Leontovich
(Volgograd, Russia)

Quest for Identity in an Intercultural Setting: Intercultural Transformation of Personality. In: Communication Studies 2003: Modern Anthology / Ed. Olga Leontovich. Volgograd: Peremena, 2003. - P. 6 - 19.

It's the moment when you stop worrying about grammar and accent, and allow the other language to possess you, to pass through you, to transform you. <...> To speak another language is to lead a parallel life, the better you speak any language, the more fully you live in another culture.
Barbara Wilson

The internalization of external sociocultural processes, which determine the aims, tasks, and content of intercultural communication, causes the changes, which occur in an individual as a result of adaptation to a new culture. S. Dahl refers to an individual as an open homeostatic system which actively interacts with the environment through communication means. Inside their own culture individuals maintain an equilibrium: "their worldview and actions are in line with their meaning structure." The change of environment and exposure to a new culture disturbs the equilibrium and causes stress. "To regain the equilibrium, the internal meaning structure has to get modified to accommodate the changed environment." This constitutes the process of active transformation (Dahl 1998).

A person in an alien culture often feels lost and desperate. The communicative behavior, traditional for his/her own culture, is no longer effective enough. This does not only happen to people with poor knowledge of a foreign language, but also to those who have mastered it, but are unfamiliar with the norms of functioning in a different culture. This once again proves that the knowledge of a foreign language is insufficient for true intercultural competence. On the contrary, people speaking a foreign language well, often experience an intense identity crisis abroad. Which tone of communication to acquire? Which genre to choose? How to express one's own individuality by means of a foreign language? Which cultural features to sacrifice and at the same time how to retain one's own self?

According to L. Festinger's theory, an individual placed in an alien setting experiences a so-called 'cognitive dissonance' - "an unpleasant state of arousal created when a person becomes aware of inconsistency among his or her attitudes and behavior." This dissonance motivates the person to modify attitude or behavior in order to re-establish consistency (Bootzin et al. 1991: 630). One needs time to become adapted to a new cultural environment and discover the forms and ways of self-expression by means of a new verbal and cultural code.

The contradiction between self-identification (avowal) and the way a person is identified by others (ascription) is one of the major reasons for a culture shock. The genesis of a culture shock is directly related to communication problems. People take the human ability for communication for granted and do not recognize the role it plays in their lives before they are faced with a communicative crisis. Ineffective communication causes pain, though people cannot always identify its source. The reason is not so much the level of linguistic competence, as the ability to decipher the cultural information encoded in nonverbal communicative signals, the psychological compatibility with representatives of a different culture, and the readiness to accept their values.

The differences in values are almost never expressed explicitly - they are usually encoded in the communicators' language and behavior. Their incorrect interpretation causes frustration and communicative errors. 'Otherness' in the behavior of an alien culture group can produce hostility and the desire to explain their 'wrong' behavior by attributing to its members motives bases on stereotypes. For intercultural communication it means that an individual will always judge others using oneself as a measure of 'correct' communication, value orientations, and other factors important for mutual understanding. Deviations will be regarded as strange and inappropriate.

As a rule, people experiencing a culture shock cannot clearly explain the reasons for their physical and psychological condition. At home they saw themselves as intelligent and interesting interlocutors. In a new culture they discover that they do not control the situation, but rather the situation controls them - hence the feeling of helplessness and dismay. Therefore some scholars refer to the culture shock as "temporary personality disintegration" (Education for the Intercultural Experience 1993: 143; Dahl 1998).

The alien cultural space is the sphere of operation of two opposite processes: convergence, which provides for the individual's adaptation to the new culture, and "divergence, when people try to emphasize their personal, social <…> identity." Generally, the tendency for convergence proves to be stronger (Crystal 1987: 51) and makes the individual search for effective forms of communication with representatives of another culture. It is accompanied by a modification of certain parameters necessary for successful communicative activities, namely:

  • cognitive strategies;
  • worldview;
  • ideosphere and thesaurus;
  • verbal and non-verbal means of information encoding;
  • character of self-identification;
  • behavioral paradigms;
  • value orientations;
  • communicative strategies.

Intercultural transformation presupposes that an individual has to pass through the stage of marginality, which is actually the peripheral position of a person in society. Marginality is usually referred to in connection with aliens and immigrants. A 'transitional personality' is seen as an isolated, lonely, and unprotected person, no longer rooted in his/her native soil and searching in vain for an opportunity to take root in a new medium, non-equivalent to the old one (Yerasov 1997: 250).

It is extremely difficult for marginal persons to enter a new society. They find themselves on the crossroads between two different cultures. On the one hand, the old roots still hold them tightly; the old world image is clear and familiar, their actions are guided by customary values. On the other hand, the old notions are no longer unquestionable; the images and ideas of the new life turn out to be attractive. As J. Nehru once wrote: "I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere. Perhaps my thoughts and approach are more akin to what is called Western than Eastern, but India clings to me, as she does to all her children <…> I cannot get rid of either that past inheritance or my recent acquisitions. They are both part of me, and <…> they create in me a feeling of spiritual loneliness. I am a stranger and alien in the West. <…> But in my own country also, sometimes, I have an exile's feeling" (Nehru 1941: 353).

Intercultural transformation may be regarded as a painful process of transition of quantitative changes into qualitative ones. A long stay in a different culture does not automatically provide for this transition: immigrants can live in their communities for years and never have enough exposure to the new culture in order to form an intercultural personality. There are numerous jokes (in reality - true life situations) which clearly illustrate this thesis, for example, the situation when an American enters a Russian store in Brighton Beach and the owner shouts to her husband: "Senya, come here, we have a foreign customer, he cannot speak Russian!"

Inability to understand one's own 'otherness' leads to alienation and stagnation. There is a feeling that life in immigrant communities stops. Е. Zemskaya gives examples when Russian immigrants use old names for new concepts (жалованье instead of зарплата; аэроплан instead of ; перо instead of ручка; старческий дом instead of дом престарелых; instead of медсестра). She also points out their reluctance to use words, which emerged during the Soviet times. The influence of the new environment is reflected in the inclusion of foreign words into the Russian speech (амбулянс, рефрижератор), the coining of word combinations based on foreign patterns (брать ванну, стекло антипулемет), as well as in the influence of foreign intonation, phonetics, and grammar (Zemskaya 1998: 42-47). Nevertheless, the acquisition of the vocabulary and other surface changes do not guarantee further development of personality, which resists the acknowledgment of cultural differences and conscious approach towards overcoming them. From this point of view it is interesting to cite a dialog from T. Tolstaya's essay:

Америка, год 1998, город - любой, русский магазин.

ПОКУПАТЕЛЬ - ПРОДАВЦУ. Мне полпаунда свисс-лоу-фетного творогу.

ПРОДАВЕЦ. Тю!.. Та разве ж творог - свисс-лоу-фетный? То ж чиз!

ПОКУПАТЕЛЬ (удивляясь). Чиз?

ОЧЕРЕДЬ (в нетерпении). Чиз, чиз! Не задерживайте, люди ж ждут!

ПОКУПАТЕЛЬ (колеблясь). Ну свесьте пол-паунда чизу.

ПРОДАВЕЦ. Вам послайсить или целым писом?

(Tolstaya 2002).

On the one hand, the participants of this dialog lack the Russian language means for adequate communication; on the other hand, they are still living within the system of old categories and values. It is difficult to imagine that the degree of their adaptation to American life is enough not to be considered 'aliens.' It is the same with the language use: the old language is unable to express all the realities and notions of the new life; on the other hand, it is not 'native' enough to serve as an adequate means of self-expression. The feeling of alienation is further aggravated by the context of communication, which is more favorable for the native speakers' rather than the immigrants' language and cultural habits. "For the language to serve as communication means," A. Leontyev states, "it must be backed up by identical or similar understanding of reality. And vice versa: identical understanding of reality and the coordination of actions in it have the opportunity of adequate communication as their prerequisite" (Leontyev 1997: 272).

For many individuals the stage of marginality is terminal - they never manage to go beyond it and attain full acculturation. The transitional stage, which acquires a stable character, "makes an individual a conglomerate of multiple social roles and cultural orientations. Such ambivalence often leads to depersonalization, creates inner stress, mental disorders, and breakdowns" (Yerasov 1997: 249).

However, though the people traditionally referred to as marginal groups are minorities and immigrants, E. Berry and M. Epstein believe that "strangers (чужие) do not constitute a separate group of people, but strangeness is incorporated into the entire cultural structure of society and is characteristic of the majority of individuals. <…> Therefore, temporary, or periodical, or partial 'enstrangement' (отчуждение) is inscribed in the very structure of the cultural life, as a resource of permanent innovation <…>" (Berry and Epstein 1999: 103).

M. Magomed-Eminov describes the process of personality transformation as "the transition of unconscious mental content into a conscious state, the realization of a previously subconscious incentive, the actualization of an unused potential, and the awakening of profound energy and resources" (Magomed-Eminov 1998: 220-221). The process of active transformation in intercultural communication requires a high intensity of intercultural contacts on both a quantitative and a qualitative level. The degree of the individual's assimilation depends on the initial attitude - willingness or unwillingness to become part of the new culture, degree of participation in the life of community, as well as the state policy in relation to immigrants (including language policy).

According to Kim, "temporary disintegration is viewed as an internal resistance of the human organism against its own cultural evolution. To the extent that stress is said to be responsible for suffering, frustration, and anxiety, it also must be credited as an impetus for learning, growth, and creativity for the individual" (Kim 1996: 311).

Individuals become adapted to the new environment through what Dahl calls "a continuous stress-adaptation-growth process," in the course of which their internal meaning structure is expanded beyond the borders of their previous cultural consciousness (Dahl 1998). Conscious attitude towards cultural differences becomes the force which leads the individual from the state of incomprehension, or even hostility towards the new culture, to its acceptance and almost full understanding.

As a result of intercultural transformation, an individual undergoes profound changes. M. Bennet suggests a developmental model, which envisages the transition from the ethnocentric stages (isolation and denial of cultural differences) to the ethnorelative stages: 1) acceptance of another culture through the formation of respect for behavioral and value differences, 2) adaptation (empathy and pluralism), and 3) integration. Bennet points out the interconnection and interrelation of the cognitive, affective, and behavioral dimensions, but warns that "the separateness of these dimensions is not always clear for each stage, nor should it be, since development is multidimensional" (Bennet 1993: 24). "Initial development is cognitive - the generation of relevant categories for cultural difference. The reaction to this development is affective - a feeling of threat to the stability of one's worldview." The behavioral development presupposes "joint activity towards a common goal" through "the consolidation of differences into universal categories." Bennet contends that all the three aspects are finally integrated in the operation of "constructive marginality" (Bennet 1993: 27).

The fear of losing one's cultural identity (cultural loss) has been discussed in numerous works in connection with the American multiculturalism and the problem of immigration (e.g. in: Lambert 1972: 180; Armitage, Hoffman 1989: 204). The transformation can, on the one hand, be expressed in the gradual loss of unique cultural traits and blind imitation of an alien culture, or, on the other hand, in the formation of an intercultural personality with different levels of cultural, linguistic, and communicative competence: from the monocultural stage through marginality to the bicultural or multicultural stage. The division into stages is relative, as in the modern world it is practically impossible to seclude oneself within the borders of one culture, and at the same time complete assimilation in a non-native culture is hardly achievable.

Evidently, the formation of a truly bicultural personality is possible only if an individual is born into a bilingual family or enters a new culture at a very early stage of life. Truly bilingual people "flit easily between tongues - an English set of vowels and mannerisms flow into Urdu patterns and intonations with scarcely a ripple - though they will talk casually about 'my Pakistani self' and 'my English persona.' But for those of us who came late into another language, it is always something of an odd experience to see and feel it happen, the moment when you become 'Italian' or 'Japanese'" (Wilson 1993: 159-160).

No matter how talented people are, they can never become one hundred percent bilingual if they come into a culture after their native tongue has been established and remains the leading one. "<...> there is a secret of nature, its law, according to which you can achieve perfection only in the language, with which you were born and which is spoken by your people," F. Dostoyevsky wrote (Russkiye pisateli o yazyke 1955: 542).

Intercultural transformation does not necessarily require full bilingualism. Significantly more important is cognitive flexibility, cultural awareness, and the knowledge of the ways to overcome them. The readiness of personality for intercultural transformation depends on the stability of the nervous system, educational level, personal qualities, and linguistic abilities. For some people the process of intercultural transformation lasts for months, for others it takes years, for still others it never ends. The traditional Russian inclination for self-criticism accelerates this process. For Americans, on the contrary, transformation proceeds slowly because of their self-righteousness and ethnocentrism.

It is possible to suppose that representatives of different nations have different degrees of predisposition for intercultural transformation. In this connection it is interesting to quote I. Ilyin's opinion about the difference between Russian and Western cultures: "All our culture is different, our own; <...> we have a different, special mentality <...> And at the same time our soul is open for Western culture, we see it, study and know it, and learn from it if there is something to learn; we master their languages <...> We have the gift of feeling and transforming ourselvess. Europeans do not have this gift. They accept only what is similar to them <...> For them everything Russian is alien, troublesome, strange, unattractive. <...> They are looking at us down their noses and consider our culture to be either mediocre, or some kind of big and enigmatic 'absurdity'" (Ilyin 2000: 389).

Different international organizations become a sort of 'training ground' for intercultural contacts. The communication within them entails constant code switching and the use of makeshift language of a creole (hybrid) type, when numerous borrowings are employed within the grammatical system of one's native tongue (Stepanov 1997: 716), e.g: панельная дискуссия or even дискуссия на панели (меня фрустрирует (хэндауты (handouts), etc. A similar thing happens when Americans who have spent a long time in Russia start to insert Russian words in English sentences:

With good friends, a healthy sense of humor, and a friendly babushka, you can handle anything life throws at you.

There will always be at least one person at the naked banya, whose body is far worse than your own.

I bought a venick for the banya at the market...

I come into the apartment and put on tapochki.

...never-ending homemade blinchiki s tvorogom.

If you have to choose between eating holodets and being run down by a trolley, seriously consider the trolley variant.

I used my medical spravka for toilet paper on a train...

(Red Tape 2001).

Experimental studies show that individuals who are successful in foreign language learning gradually acquire different aspects of behavior typical of a corresponding cultural group (e.g. see: Lambert 1972: 180). "When I speak Spanish," B. Wilson writes, "I find my facial muscles set in a different pattern, and new, yet familiar gestures taking over my hands. I find myself shrugging and tossing my head back, pulling down the corners of my mouth and lifting my eyebrows. I touch people all the time and I don't mind that they stand so close to me and blow cigarette smoke into my face. I speak more rapidly and fluidly <...>" (Wilson 1993: 159-160).

Transformation is underway when a person no longer feels a stranger in the new culture and can easily express one's own identity by means of a foreign language. W. E. Lambert distinguishes between an instrumental approach towards language learning based on utilitarian goals, and an integrative approach when an individual studies the language in order to understand the new culture and become part of the new community (Lambert 1972: 180).

American scholars use a number of terms to denote the highest stages of intercultural personality development: intercultural person (Dahl), multicultural man (Adler), mediating person (Bochner), etc. They also employ the concepts of maturity (Heath), ethnorelativism (as opposed to ethnocentrism - Bennet), transnationalism (Martin), global identity (Dahl), and transnational feeling (Dahl).

A transformed individual can act as a mediator bridging cultural differences in communication. According to S. Bochner, a cultural mediator is "an individual who is multicultural, functions in a transnational role, has a transcultural reference group, and obtains transcultural social support" (Bochner 1972). Bochner distinguishes two types of intercultural mediation: translating and synthesizing. Translating presupposes "the faithful representation of the cultural patterns of one group to another, while synthesizing calls for reconciliation of diverse patterns" (Damen 1987: 329).

The concept of transformation is closely connected with the idea of transcendentality. M. Mamardashvili defines transcedenting as "the ability of an individual to be transformed, i.e., to exit the borders of any culture, any ideology, any society and discover the grounds for one's being, which do not depend on what will happen in time with society, culture, ideology, and social movement. These are the so called personal grounds" (Mamardashvili 2000: 463).

Such identity is not part of a particular culture, but at the same time is not separated from it, as it exists on the boundary between cultures. "Multiculturally oriented persons appear to operate within what might be called a third-culture perspective," (Adler 1974: 27), which takes the form of "patterns generic to the intersections of societies" (Useem et al. 1963: 169). "Such a perspective is characterized by an openness to change, empathy, the ability to perceive differences accurately, <…> lower enthnocentricity, and ability to establish meaningful relations with 'strangers'" (Gudykunst et al. 1977: 424).

Thus it is possible to maintain that for adequate intercultural communication it is necessary not only to master the language, but also to learn how to think and feel as a native speaker - to acquire what I. I. Khaleyeva calls the formation of a 'secondary linguistic personality' (Khaleyeva 1989). Success in language studies is "to a great extent conditioned by mastering all the cultural baggage accompaning its use" (Seelye 1993: 43). Besides, "'a polyglot' has a more tolerant attitude not only to a language he is able to speak and to its speakers but to other languages and its speakers as well" (Ansre 1975 qtd. in Seelye 1993: 43). For successful intercultural contacts it is also important that intercultural personalities should be formed not unilaterally, but in both contacting cultures, i.e., that the cultures should be constantly moving towards each other.


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