Safety Handbook for Journalists

2. Cultural Intelligence

What is cultural sensitivity?

Cultural sensitivity begins with the understanding that there are differences among cultures. Furthermore, cultural sensitivity includes placing value and understanding of this diversity.

Consider the following:

  • Developing an understanding of another ethnic group. This usually involves internal changes in terms of attitudes and values.
  • Awareness and sensitivity also refer to the qualities of openness and flexibility that people develop in relation to others.
  • Cultural Knowledge. Familiarisation with selected cultural characteristics, history, values, belief systems, and behaviours of the members of another ethic group.

How can you develop cultural awareness? One can never learn everything about another culture; however, there are practical, everyday steps that can be taken to develop our cultural awareness.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Develop awareness: take a look at your own biases and prejudices, become aware of cultural norms, attitudes, and beliefs, and value diversity.
  • Don’t allow cultural differences (preferences) to become the basis for criticism and judgments.
  • Build friendships of mutual respect and a desire for understanding; Be natural and show genuine care about that person.
  • Take time to listen. Explain or ask questions. For example, “Would you help me understand?”
  • Acquire knowledge about other cultures by attending classes or seminars, reading books or watching movies about other cultures, and attending cultural events/festivals.
  • Developing a culturally competent attitude is an on-going process. It is important to view all people as unique individuals and realise that their experiences, beliefs, values and language affect their ways of interacting with others and the larger community. Also, be aware that differences also exist within cultures. It is wrong to assume that all share a common culture.
  • Cultures are like icebergs; 90% of an iceberg is out of sight and very little can be determined about it. A person’s outward appearance may lead to assuming stereotypical opinions. What is not visible to us immediately can often adversely affect us culturally.

Some key cultural factors to bear in mind when on assignment are:

  • Concept of time.
  • Perception of a person’s personal space.
  • Conversational patterns.
  • Roles in relationship to gender and age.
  • Body language and eye contact.
  • Be conscious of filming or taking pictures of females.
  • Eye contact
  • Maintaining eye contact in one culture may be a sign of honesty and openness whilst it may display a lack of respect in other cultures. In humans, eye contact is a form of non-verbal communication. In the West, it is thought as a committed, meaningful way of communication, although in other regions around the world, it can be interpreted as a disrespectful gesture.

Spoken & written language and their meanings:

  • There can be lots of confusion or misunderstanding caused by words that have more than one meaning. People are more likely to understand if information is relayed in a correct, simple, context.
  • Never make negative comments about another person or their family.
  • Never form a judgmental impression based on an initial meeting.
  • Don’t be impatient or interrupt someone by cutting them off.
  • Never be sarcastic or demeaning if someone does not understand.

Non-verbal communications include your hand gestures, body language and posture, touching, facial expressions, tone of voice and eye contact. Make sure you’re being culturally sensitive when communicating!

Effective communication should always consider common communication barriers. Always ask for feedback if questions are misunderstood, especially when interviewing a source for information. If using a translator, ask them to verify all information, as misinterpretation can cause conflict of interests. Observing a person’s body language and facial expressions give an indication of attitude or disposition towards another person. Equally, when cultural intelligence or local knowledge is not taken into consideration, these affectations can be misinterpreted. In addition, ensure the translator is competent in the language and the subject matter about which you need to communicate.

Cultural Awareness

In many cases, a story can only be accurately conveyed when the cultural situation in that particular country or region is taken into consideration.

In particular, some countries have multiple cultures, so research into regional culture is also very important, for example, in Afghanistan. Additionally, cultural issues can adversely affect your personal safety.

Acknowledging the Cultural Knowledge Divide

Defining culture is no easy task. Culture can differ by family, traditions, religion, nationality and workplace. For example, in certain Islamic countries, one must be aware of ten cultural sensitivities.

Some useful tips:

  • Have a no-alcohol policy and always mirror the people who you are with.
  • Do not shake hands or use your left hand for eating, as this is offensive.
  • Do not show the soles of your feet in any way.
  • Do not wear shoes in houses.
  • Never touch Arab women.
  • Never inquire about Arab females, especially wives.
  • Do not show affection in public.
  • Do not use illegal narcotics.
  • Never wear religious jewellery.

Topical questions to avoid:

  • Religion
  • Politics
  • Personnel inquiries 
  • Support for military action

Some tips to bear in mind:

  • Punctuality – do not expect everyone to be punctual as it is less important than in Western countries. Patience is the key factor in these circumstances
  • Always make sure you are on time you are expected to be.
  • Status is usually very important; respect it.
  • Never discuss non-appropriate subjects
  • Face to face communication is always best. Your presence means a lot.

Some tips for cross-cultural communication:

  • Be complete, clear and pay attention to the other person’s response.
  • Be alert for different meanings especially for body language.
  • Avoid metaphors.
  • Define any jargon used.
  • Avoid the over-simplification of terms as it may seem insulting.
  • Re-word statements if the other person has difficulty understanding.
  • Seek confirmation of understanding, especially when dealing with delicate subject matter.
  • Acknowledge cultural differences without bias and be consistent.
  • Be sensitive to cultural stands on social issues like gender roles and drug use.
  • Research the cultural background of the person, if possible.