Intercultural Communication: Challenges and Pitfalls

By Edith Sizoo

This article is based on two books, What Words Do Not Say and Responsibility and Cultures of the World, the result of intensive intercultural dialogue about the question of to what extent key notions, when translated into various languages, still convey the same meaning. This initiative was inspired by the concern that cultural interpretations of commonly used concepts are steeped in ways of thinking which cannot be taken for granted outside the boundaries of the cultural context concerned and thus create implicit misunderstandings that are mostly ignored.

HRH King Juan Carlos of Spain (left) shares a traditional Maori greeting of a hongi with Maori elder Gerrard Albert during a visit to New Zealand in 2009 [Getty Images]

Communication between people from different cultural backgrounds is known to be full of pitfalls; it is a challenge to understand these. For instance: while the British colonizers, having conquered New Zealand, said "the land is ours," indigenous Maori kept saying "the land is us." In other words, Western people see the land as something they can "own," an object to be explored, conquered and exploited. The Maori, on the contrary, see the human species as one element of a larger whole, which consists of all that lives, "the woven universe." They identify themselves with the land as a gift from Mother Earth passed down by ancestors to hold and take care of for future generations. Translating the Western concept of "ownership" creates misunderstandings, for it relates to individual rights, while in the indigenous view ownership relates to the community and each member's responsibility to the group as well as to nature.

This is one of a myriad of examples of "what words do not say": the cultural connotations and underpinnings of words, which are self-evident to those who belong to a given culture but not to others. Each word, beyond its translatable meaning, is generated by a vision of the human being, of society, of the visible and invisible world. However, it also happens that the words do resonate in other languages, but that the functioning of the concept differs in different cultural contexts. A case in point is the topical use of the notion of "responsibility."

Why Responsibility?

Humankind is confronted with new challenges in the fields of technology, economy and social relations worldwide, causing equally unprecedented crises. These pose new ethical questions and choices to be made between values. The globalization process causes ever-increasing interdependence internationally. This is making the exercise of responsibility more complex and less easy to control. Politicians fail to come to grips with the idea of co-responsibility at the international level; as a consequence, many responsibilities are left unspecified and are therefore not allocated.

Responsibility: What's in the Word?

The relational dimension of responsibility is universal. Although there are hardly any symmetrical equivalents to be found in the languages of the world for the English word responsibility, the idea of responsibility in the sense of taking care of what is valued in a broader environment resonates everywhere. The European word, which is derived from the Latin, respondere, shows the inherent relational nature of the notion of being responsive to others. The words used in other languages usually spring from different linguistic roots, but all refer to a relational ethics. For instance, the Hebrew word ahraï contains the word "other" (aher) and the word "brother" (ah). In Hindi, uttardaitva means the response that is due to others, implying a charge. Makarand Paranjape writes, "For most Indians, to be responsible simply means to do one's Dharma, that is, one's obligations toward oneself, one's family, friends, profession, the state, ancestors, other forms of life, the gods."

Responsibility is also seen everywhere in the world as a charge, a burden, that must be assumed in order to create the conditions for living together as a group of human beings. For instance the Lingala word for responsibility, mokumba, is a synonym for "weight" and "pregnancy."

Assuming Responsibilities

While rights are claimed, responsibilities are assumed. But not for the same reasons everywhere, nor for the same things. The distinction between duty and responsibility is less marked in non-Western cultural contexts. In the latter, duty is perceived as a constraint defined and imposed by others, while responsibility is related to a personal commitment out of free will. The idea that one may assume a responsibility by one's own choice entails that one can also be held to account for the consequences of one's acts.

Eighty-two-year-old He Zouyi of China, who coproduced a Naxi-English Dictionary with explorer Joseph Rock, translates Naxi pictographs [© Michael S. Yamashita/CORBIS]

In the African context, this distinction is usually less clear-cut. It is not so much a matter of a human choice; rather, it is the "social order of things"--that is, the social, divine or cosmic order in which everyone must play her or his role and assume the tasks or duties that go with them. Even the ancestors are responsible for the protection of the living members of their extended family.

In the Chinese context, on the contrary, the individual prefers to shy away from personal responsibility unless that would imply losing face. Yu Shuo writes, "The concept of ‘responsibility' (ze ren) reflects the typically paradoxical nature of Chinese thought. It refers partly to those who wield authority, who are automatically deemed responsible, whereas for other human beings, their only duty is to obey their superior. The refusal to assume individual responsibility can also be seen in people's refusal to voluntarily sign a contract, a charter. Giving assistance to people trapped in a blazing building does not come from a feeling of moral compulsion but rather as a public demonstration of one's goodness."

For indigenous peoples in India, the Philippines and other places, the vision of the individual as an integral part of the cosmic whole means there is not much question of being responsible out of free choice. One thinks rather in terms of "shared identity": the self is the other. Sylvia Guerroro writes, "In the Philippines pakikipagkapwa is viewed as the overarching primary value. At the root of the concept of kapwa is the unified single identity of the ‘self,' an identity shared with other human beings and even with non-human forms of life." Thus in these contexts, the idea of responsibility would be expressed by terms like "taking care" or "being a guardian."

Ways in Which Responsibilities Are Exercised

"Accounting for" the exercise of responsibilities seems to be more pronounced in the full European meaning of the word responsibility (originating in Roman law) than in resonating words in non-Western languages. The different cultural views of why and how to assume responsibilities--for whom and for what; whether and to whom to account for the consequences of one's acts--are often underestimated if not altogether ignored in the global discourse. There is a growing consciousness that "responsibility" is a key notion to face the crises of today. Intercultural dialogue is indispensable for at least two reasons: avoiding intercultural misunderstanding and enriching the meaning of words. These two processes start with listening and observing, immersion in the world of sounds and signs and gestures, with searching for the common and the different, learning before judging, and finding out "what's in a word." For words tell different stories to different people.

Edith Sizoo was born in the Netherlands in 1939 and holds a master's degree from the Free University of Amsterdam. She is a multilingual sociolinguist and international coordinator of the International Charter of Human Responsibilities initiative. She has coordinated several intercultural research projects and edited several books. For more information about Responsibility and Cultures of the World: Dialogue around a collective challenge, visit