This paper presents a review of the literature relevant to the topic of intercultural communication in the hospitality industry. It begins with an examination of Brown and Levinson’s politeness theory, followed by a critique of Hofstede’s five cultural dimensions and Edward Hall and others’ theories of cultural awareness, concluding with a synthesis of the research on intercultural communication by leading commentators in this field. This analysis thus provides insight into the issues influencing the perception of politeness between the Spanish and English cultures in the hotel workplace.
In their 1978 and 1987 works on the theory of politeness, Brown and Levinson put forward a rational model of politeness, arguing that individuals across all cultures want to be approved of by others and free from unnecessary constraints, or positive and negative “face”, respectively (Greene, 1997). In response to their argument that politeness is a universal part of language, Watts (2003) contends that this theory is overly idealistic because it ignores the means by which individuals in society struggle with politeness in their interactions with others. He holds that these features of social interaction are more important than the role of politeness in intercultural communication. Using a practical example of politeness theory, O’Dowd (2003) conducted primary research examining the interaction of Spanish and English cultures in business situations and found that if participants perceived another person as being interested in descriptions of their own culture, they subsequently felt encouraged to communicate more but, if they felt their positive face was threatened by the other person showing a lack of interest in their cultural background, they were more reluctant.
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Geert Hofstede describes culture as the collective characteristics of members of one group of people (Hofstede, 2001; Hofstede et al, 2010). His theories search for meaning in the correlation between a country’s cultural indicators and his five dimensions of power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism, masculinity and long-term orientation (Vinken et al, 2004). In his most recent work, Hofstede adds a new sixth dimension of culture called “indulgence versus restraint” and introduces the concept of a “moral circle” to the debate (Hofstede et al, 2010). In a 1998 article, Hofstede builds on his earlier seminal works (1980; 1991) and further specifies that the main criteria for comparison are values and attitudes, also known as “constructs”. He acknowledges that there has been much criticism of his methodology of using nations as the units for studying and comparing culture, but nevertheless contents that many nations contain a sufficient amount of comparable aspects. Hofstede suggests that cross-cultural misunderstanding is often based on the dimension of value variation between cultures, with the Spanish having a more group-orientated culture than the English. When an activity is planned by Spanish people, it is much more common to invite a large group than just one or two others, demonstrating collectivism over individualism. In addition, Hofstede suggests that the English not only have a high level of individualism, they exhibit above average masculinity and lower power distance and uncertainty avoidance than the Spanish.
While Hofstede’s work provides a useful framework, there is large body of research that explores in more detail the definitions and role of culture and cultural awareness, and it is valuable in the analysis of these cultures in relation to the hospitality industry. Holliday et al (2004:3) describe culture as being a “fluid, creative social force which binds different groupings and aspects of behaviour in different ways”, and cultural awareness requires a fundamental understanding of this fluidity and how it impacts on various social interactions, particularly intercultural ones. The attitudes and perceptions associated with different national cultures exerts a strong influence on many business situations, including that of English receptionists interacting with Spanish customers, and the studies of cultural awareness by Edward T. Hall illustrate this point further. He describes culture as a “hidden force” and goes as far as to suggest that culture is synonymous with communication. When an English receptionist communicates with a Spanish customer, it is inevitable that each party will apply their own cultural framework not only in the way they communicate with each other, but in how they perceive the interaction. Other experts reinforce the notion that there are significant barriers to be overcome in terms of intercultural business issues (Larsson and Risberg, 1998). Bennett (1993) for one contends that it is important to be able to distance oneself from one’s own cultural backgrounds in order to understand others, and Byram (1997) goes on to suggest that sensitivity to issues such as directness and politeness in language is an essential component of intercultural awareness. These theories can all be applied to help English receptionists and Spanish customers to have greater levels of cultural awareness and sensitivity, thus enhancing the business relationship.
Building on the analysis in the previous sections, Charles (2007) points to the fact that English has become the accepted “lingua franca” of international business, and this is referred to by others as the “built-in bias” of the English language (Munshie and McKie, 2001). The hospitality industry is a prime example of this, and it has become accepted practice for customer-facing hotel staff to be able to speak English to come extent, regardless of the country in which the hotel is located. It is much less likely for an English receptionist to speak Spanish, for example. One expert has pointed out that frequently non-verbal communication can be misinterpreted. For example, she says: “Normally a handshake is brief but in Spain it may be prolonged for several seconds. This does not show deep personal warmth as it might somewhere else McLaren, 1998:137).” And as Welch et al (2005:11) point out, intercultural communication can actually be “an irritating reminder of what may be involved in crossing foreign cultures, and managing in a cross-cultural environment.” Based on extensive primary research, Charles (2007) recommends that businesses should increase their awareness of the importance of cultural diversity in communication and develop a better understanding of how individuals relate to each other across language and cultural barriers. Another commentator (Verluyten, 1997) has provided evidence of the importance of intercultural training and awareness in this process, the lack of which can lead to “disastrous” results.
This paper has presented a summary of the relevant literature and provided some interesting insights into the role of intercultural communication in the hospitality industry, especially between Spanish and English cultures. For one, an analysis of Hofstede and Brown and Levinson contributes to a better understanding the issues underpinning the differences between these two cultures and the various influences on people’s behaviour, such as politeness and individualism versus collectivism. In particular, the work by Hall and others demonstrates that learning a second language, not just English as is normally the case, is important in today’s working environment within the hospitality industry. A lack of cultural awareness especially can lead to barriers of miscommunication. For example, Spanish customers could potentially be seen as rude or overly direct by English receptionists who do not understand the cultural differences. The receptionists therefore often apply their own cultural background to the interaction and, as a result, expect a sometimes unreasonably high level of politeness. Communication can be significantly improved by efforts to raise intercultural awareness and sensitivity within the hospitality industry.
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