Despite our best intentions, we will always make mistakes when interacting socially, interpersonally and interculturally with others – after all, we are human. But knowing some of the issues surrounding intercultural communication will help you to adapt and interact successfully.
George Bernard Shaw, famous Irish playwright, once said, “The problem with communication…is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”
This is because language doesn’t only consist of the words you use with the literal meaning (denotation). As we discussed in the Triangle of Meaning, language is symbolic and carries with it connotative meaning – even images carry meaning.
When you first glanced at the image of Ronald McDonald above, what thoughts, memories, or ideas does this bring to mind, if any?
I remember when we were kids the first McDonald’s opened near our home. It was the drive-up kind with white and red tiles on the exterior and the golden arches attached to the roof. After church every Sunday we’d drive up in our old Plymouth station wagon, order our food and sit in the car munching on our French fries and sipping our root beers. As kids we relished (pun intended!) in this weekly treat. Yes, fond memories of how our parents treated us to McDonalds each week, and my brothers and I fought over who could sit in the back of the station wagon.
While McDonald’s smiling icon is recognizable to many people around the world, it always hasn’t had a positive connotation. Let’s discuss two business examples of Ronald McDonald by using the Triangle of Meaning – one unsuccessful and one successful.
Look at this relaxed version of a Ronald McDonald statue sitting outside a restaurant (actually from the island of Malta – the island off the tip of Italy and directly north of Africa). This statue brought outrage from the local residents. Why? Because of the positioning of his big feet, in an Arab culture, this figure would be considered rude and insulting. In Arab cultures, showing the bottoms of your feet holds both practical and deeply religious meanings. Since the bottoms of the feet are considered dirty, it is not what people would expect to welcome them into this eating establishment.
When we consider the Triangle of meaning, the images (symbols) that we use that can convey meaning. Remember the communicators – they are called Interpreters – this would be McDonald’s development team and Arab people. The symbol would be the figure of Ronald McDonald. The referent would be the meaning that Arab people would attach to how he was sitting and showing the bottoms of his feet.
McDonalds learned from this mistake, so let’s look at a successful form of communication that the fast food restaurant uses in Thailand. Thailand’s culture has a history of formal politeness and respect for people, so when you meet someone, you fold your hands and say the customary greeting, ‘namaste’. It only seems natural that the figure of Ronald McDonald would do the same – this is a successful way of communicating with people through symbolic images. The interpreters again would be McDonald’s development team and the Thai people. The symbol is the figure of Ronald with hands folded, and the referent would be the meaning of the hands folded at Ronald’s chest, which is a positive force that welcomes people into the restaurant.
The purpose of the Triangle of Meaning model is to help us remember that when we act as communicators (interpreters), we hope to select symbols that others will understand in precisely – or approximately – the same way we do.
The next time you encounter potential disconnect between a counterpart from a different culture than yours, consider how she or he might be interpreting what you are communicating and seek to clarify each of your understandings of the interaction. Miscommunication will happen, after all, we are only human and we need to try to be within the same frame of reference.