Nonverbal communication also involves the notion of cultural space – the contexts that form our identity – where we grow up and where we live (not necessarily the actual homes and neighborhoods, but the cultural meanings created in these places). Our identities and views are formed, in part, in relation to cultural places. Each region has its own histories and ways of life that help us understand who we are. Our decision to tell you something about the cultural spaces we grew up in was meant to communicate something about who we think we are.The meanings of cultural spaces are dynamic and ever-changing. Let’s look at some specific cultural spaces that we can all identify with – our homes and our neighborhoods.What happens when people change cultural space? Traveling is frequently viewed as simply a leisure activity, but it is more than that. In terms of intercultural communication, traveling changes cultural spaces in a way that often transforms the traveler. Changing cultural spaces means changing who you are and how you interact with others. Perhaps the old saying “When in Rome, do as Romans do” holds true today as we cross cultural spaces more frequently than ever.
People often change cultural spaces through migration from a primary cultural context to a new one. Migration involves a different kind of change in cultural spaces than traveling. With traveling, the change is temporary and, usually desirable. It is something people seek out. By contrast, people who migrate do not always seek out this change. Many immigrants leave their homelands simply to survive. But they often find it difficult to adjust to the change, especially if the language and customs of the new cultural space are unfamiliar.
Home is the immediate cultural context for our upbringing. It involves issues of status, and the home is not exempt from issues of status. For example, the social class of an American home is often expressed nonverbally – from the way the lawn is cared for, to the kinds of cars in the driveway, to the way the television is situated, to the kinds of furniture in the home. These signs of social class are not always so obvious for all social class positions, but they often provide important clues about social class.
Even if our home does not reflect the social class we wish to be in, we often identify with it strongly. We often model our own lives on the way things were done in our childhood homes. Home is variously defined as specific addresses, cities, states, regions, and even nations. Although we might have historical ties to a particular place, not everyone feels the same relationship between those places and their own identities. Some people have feelings of fondness for the region of the country where they grew up. Others feel less positive about where they come from.
The relationship between various places and our identities are complex. Where you come from and where you grew up contributes to how you see yourself, to your current identity.
Neighborhood is a living area defined by its own cultural identity, especially an ethnic or racial one. Cities typically developed segregated neighborhoods, reflecting common attitudes of prejudice and discrimination, as well as people’s desire to live among people like themselves. In these segregated neighborhoods, certain cultural groups defined who got to live where and dictated the rules by which other groups had to live.Many intercultural communication misunderstandings occur due to nonverbal messages. It is particularly difficult for an individual to learn the nonverbal codes of another culture. Even if someone knows the nonverbal code of another culture, the unintentional and unconscious nature of nonverbal communication requires that such understandings must be practiced until they become natural to the individual. For a stranger to learn to communicate effectively with the Japanese, for example, requires years of living in Japan. There are some ways to speed up this slow process. Reading literature about intercultural communication and taking training courses on this topic may help, but attaining a high level of intercultural competence in nonverbal communication requires very intensive effort.