Google+ Blueprint for Football: [Cross Cultural Communications Series] Managing Culture, and Ethnicity

Thursday, September 5, 2013

[Cross Cultural Communications Series] Managing Culture, and Ethnicity

This is the fourth part in a series of six articles by Dr Ian Lawrence and is based on the work he did on his paper "The Sport and Cross-Cultural Communication: Applications to and from Professional Soccer in the English Premier League"

There are a number of areas involving ethnic or cultural issues in soccer where managers can play a crucial role in fostering positive outcomes. The policies and practices adopted by managers will often determine whether the longer-term outcomes for their sport code are successful or clouded by controversy or conflict. Some examples are racism and discrimination in sport, initiatives for ethnic and cultural pluralism in sport, recruitment and turnover, and motivation and involvement.

Racism and Discrimination
Racism has been evident towards members of non-dominant ethnic groups in many sport settings around the world. Recent literature and media coverage has highlighted concerns about racism in many sporting codes in the UK. Non-white players have been harassed and discriminated against by white players within the same team, players from opposing teams, and by racist spectators. The relative lack of opportunities for players not of Anglo-Celtic origins has led to the development of teams composed primarily of one or more (non-white) ethnic groups. The formation of these teams is likely to have been, in some cases, a result of the ethnic barriers maintained by white sport managers. 

Soccer codes of conduct have lacked rules and penalties relating to racist abuse by players. Managers on occasions have allowed players perpetrating racist abuse to escape without penalty. Racist abuse, along with bullying and other forms of harassment has undoubtedly prevented many ethnic minorities and other non-white players from entering a number of sporting arenas, or prevented them from being promoted into senior management.

Cross-Cultural Misunderstandings ... A Global Perspective
Cross-cultural communication is one of the most important, yet neglected aspects of intra-organisational relations, and therefore, deserves closer analysis. Contrary to what many assume, an increase in interaction between people of different cultures does not usually expand cross-cultural understanding, but instead, reinforces our awareness of our own culture, which actually heightens the probability that conflict will ensue.

Therefore, managers must recognize the values that they share with people of other cultures in order to understand the values of those cultures that differ from their own. If they cannot relate on an individual level, units cannot connect at higher levels of international systems. Buzan and Little  state that, “interaction is fundamental to any conception of a system. Without interaction, the parts or units are disconnected and free-standing”.

If cultural interaction can have substantial effects on any given formal system it would benefit the system to increase cross-cultural understanding so that this type of interaction does not result in conflict. Transmitting ideas can occur at the individual level, and does not necessarily require the intervention of larger units, such as states. Yet, every individual exists within a larger unit within the system. Therefore, we cannot undermine the significance of improving relations between individuals, as this influences the level of understanding that permeates the entire club. 

To best facilitate cross-cultural communication between various actors within the any system it is clear that person-to-person communication between people of different cultures must be improved before we can ameliorate cultural communication problems between groups both on and off the soccer field. 

In other words, I would argue that this process must first take place at an individual level. I also defend the notion that conflict in general most often begins due to misperceptions of another’s intentions and/or motives. By gaining an understanding of perceptions and perspectives of individuals of cultures other than our own, we decrease the chances of misinterpreting others’ actions, which then reduces the chances of creating conflict.

I would suggest that it is the language of sport that can be shared cross-culturally, and it is those aspects that allow us to understand others’ intentions and motives. While we may not be capable of understanding every spoken language that exists within the current professional soccer club, we can utilize those languages that can be understood by anyone, as they reveal the internal characteristics of a culture. These characteristics can only be revealed through shared cultural experiences, and soccer can provide a channel for cross-cultural communication. 

However when misunderstandings do occur it is necessary to have awareness that another’s motives for initiation of conflict can be the root to managing the conflict. The ‘levels of interpersonal conflict model’ (LICM) recognizes the need to assess the motivation and behaviour of the actors involved at five levels of interpersonal conflict: (1) problems, (2) disagreements, (3) contests, (4) fights, and ultimately, (5) war. 

This model, while not a theory of behaviour, can help answer questions about personality and structural factors that influence change, beneficial approaches to given conflicts that will create a desirable outcome and dynamics reflected by specific interpersonal conflicts, to name a few. This model can be very useful for those people studying international relations (and the microcosm of a professional soccer club), considering the distinct theories that exist, regarding how international relations operate.

The type or structure of the club that employs activities in cultural relations is less important than the actual method used by the club management to generate understanding of others’ perceptual frames of reference

Belief Systems
Understanding another culture involves understanding another’s belief system, and not just another’s spoken language. Research that has addressed the question of the impact of belief systems in international relations, argue that a belief system is like “a set of lenses through which information concerning the physical and social environment is received. It orients the individual to his environment . . . [It also] has the function of the establishment of goals and the ordering of preferences”. 

Therefore, returning to the LICM model, which is based on the theory that understanding the motivation of another’s initiation of conflict is essential for conflict prevention, it is clear why knowledge of others’ belief systems is so important within any multicultural organisation such as a soccer club. In essence, in order to understand one’s intentions, one must understand another’s beliefs. 

The creation of a multi faith prayer room for the players and staff of Bolton Wanderers F.C is evidence of a growing acknowledgement by synergistic managers that an appreciation and sensitivity towards a player’s spiritual orientation may be key in facilitating their development both on and off the field.

One’s beliefs cannot be considered right or wrong, but rather, cultural values inform its
members as to what can be considered as such.  Normative values, or those which express themselves within a culture by prescribing behaviours that members of the culture are expected to perform combined with beliefs, help shape attitudes. It is logical to argue that all three – beliefs, attitudes and values – are formed not only through the direct experiences of an individual, but also through vicarious and shared cultural experiences and perceptions. It is clear, then, that beliefs, attitudes and values are intertwined, and in order to understand one’s motives, we must look to not just one’s attitude, but an entire belief system.

In order to improve understanding between individuals at clubs, managers must pay attention to both verbal, as well as non-verbal forms of interaction.   Hence, it is imperative to understand that the code, context and the meaning are linked to one single occurrence. When spoken words are taken out of context, for example, individuals do not learn what was actually meant by the specific utterance, and the entire meaning is lost. 

While it may very well be impossible to have face to face contact with every individual that staff communicates with, improving their relations at a personal level can help to increase cultural understanding of the groups or units that these individuals represent. While images of a team could never be entirely representative of reality, professional clubs comprised of individuals who have interacted cross-culturally with others will be more likely to develop perceptions or images of others that are closer to reality.

Any aspect of intercultural relations will include language, which can be shared by people of all cultures. Nonetheless, language can be thought of as a form of cultural expression as well. Typically, most teams within the Premiership encourage their non-English speaking players to enrol on intensive language courses at the first opportunity. 

While language can be shared, it cannot fully express one’s thoughts, nor can it be considered a universal medium. Rather, language is part of a particular culture that can be learned and also shared by people of various cultural backgrounds. The ability to share language, however, does not negate the need to understand the internal culture of those individuals who communicate with one another.

It is important to understand that while speaking the language of the individuals with whom managers communicate can facilitate the exchange of symbols, it does not necessarily facilitate the exchange of meaning. Individuals, then, may use language to convey their thoughts, but can never escape the notion, as coined by McLuhan in 1964, that “the medium is the message.” In other words, the spoken message rarely reflects what one entirely means, and therefore, intercultural communication consists of more than sending and receiving spoken messages between two people of different cultures. 

Moreover the exchange of persons adds significant value to intercultural relations. We cannot ignore the silent languages of cultures, because it is this language that reveals the internal characteristics of a culture.

In today’s modern society, it can be difficult to recognize the importance face-to- face communication, as technology provides a plethora of communication channels that allow for the exchange of words. English culture especially has developed many low-context forms of communication. 

In other words, English culture utilizes low-context systems out of necessity, as it is more conducive to fast and efficient transfer of information. When large volumes of information must be transferred, it is difficult to use high-context communication because the coded, transmitted part of the message contains a very small part of the actual information. 

The problem with low- context communication, however, is its reliance on the explicit code. In intercultural communication, the receiver of messages does not always hear what the sender intended to say. With email or telephone conversation, for example, while it is possible to interpret a message based on the tone or style of writing, the lack of face-to-face contact prevents the two communicators from seeing the physical context, which may entail valuable information. 

Dr. Ian Lawrence is a Senior Lecturer in Sports Business Management and Marketing at the Leeds Metropolitan University.

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