Intercultural Competence: Interpersonal Communication Across Cultures.
By Myron W. Lustig and Jolene Koester
ISBN 0321081773

Lustig and Koester hail from San Diego StateUniversity and California State University, respectively. This is the fifth edition of this practical guide to cross-cultural communications. Complete with a six-page subject index, dozens of photos, charts and savvy quotes from poets, politicians and artists, this is an easy-to-access work for those who want bridge religious, linguistic and politico-philosophical gaps. The book is aimed at instructors.

The almost 400 pages are conveniently broken down in 12 chapters, with the first three chapters introduced by these words from Eleanor Roosevelt: "We have to face the facts that either all of us are going to die together or we are going to live together, and if we are to live together we have to talk." The accent of the book is on competence, skills and understanding. Arguments are frequently rooted in U.S. centric statistics: if U.S. global trade has now reached $2.5 trillion yearly, it stands to reason that there is what the authors call an "inextricable" linkage to the world economy. It also follows that certain competence is required to bridge the gaps that remain in culture, thought and language - even though trade may have already started to close these lacunae.

If the world was a village of 1000 people, we learn there would be 606 Asians, 138 Africans, 114 Europeans, 51 North Americans, 86 Latin Americans and 5 Australians. As well we would find 335 Christians in that village, 218 Muslims, 151 Hindus, 60 Buddhists, 57 people practising other religions and 142 atheists or non-religious. Even if this sort of snap-shot is useful, the reader may rightfully wonder whether this old-world classification is useful: either ethnically or religiously. After all, though both "ASIAN" what does a Catholic Filipino farmer have in common with an atheist commodity banker from Beijing? But Lustig and Koester's approach seems to be first to make the reader aware of his global, cultural surroundings.

As a testimony to its practical objectives, this work contains several tests and work sheets, often entitled "TRY THIS." These encourage instructors and students to write, compare and analyze their own identities and cultures. Each chapter has several further readings suggestions and key websites are also listed as well as a list of more than three dozen documentary, educational films.

The multitude of short and snappy testimonials from doctors, social workers, engineers and business people who have traveled, worked and raised families cross-culturally are the gems of this work.

Perhaps the most tedious dimension of the book is its theoretical framework and theoretical posits which seem to remain precariously - if not dangerously - balanced on common stereotypes, namely that race and religion continue to usefully define us.

But Lustig and Koester are also aware that asking the right questions is key to resolving our theoretical and practical dilemmas: they wonder if we should always do as Romans do when in Rome? They ask whether there may still be a right and a wrong in a relative community where everyone does what they deem culturally correct? And they pose the perhaps crucial question as to whether all cross-cultural contacts should be encouraged? One might even argue whether some dialogue with certain groups should be initiated at all? In answering these fair but not new questions, the authors seem to rely on an ethical theory system where tolerance and critical thinking set the tone for what is termed "the internal dialogue that all competent intercultural communicators must conduct."

This approach of course begs the question of what the building blocks of the ethical system are, and what their philosophical source is? If there is going to be an ethical filter for what may be "tolerated" and "engaged" in dialogue, who calibrates the filter? Which language, what history, what injustices govern the vocabulary that permits the filter to function as a separate or of the ethical and the moral?

Before we can pretend to set boundaries and impose a mechanism or a rule-system, we have to ensure that we have invited - not just described -- everyone. In this thinking, I prefer John F. Kennedy's less optimistic, but still inviting quotation cited toward the conclusion of the book where the U.S. president argued that "if we cannot know our differences, at least we can make the world safe for diversity… our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures…"

Unfortunately, the book spins on an Anglo-American axis. And there is little in this work to carry the reader beyond what has now become the refrain of the chances and the risks of globalism. One would have also expected that a call for cross-cultural conferences, web-castings, simultaneous conferencing and other modern-day, 21st century tolls would have a place in the tool-box that Lustig and Koester offer.

close this window to return to Pluri Vox Book Excerpts page