We receive information about the world around us through our sense of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. These stimuli are selected, organized, and interpreted and from them we create a meaningful picture of our world.
Human perception is an active process in which we use our sensory organs to identify the existence of all kinds of stimuli and then subject them to evaluation and interpretation. Since the way we behave is influenced by how we perceive the world around us, perception is the very basis of how we make judgment on others, how we communicate with them, and how we adapt accordingly.
According to psychologist Blaine Gross (1995), the information we manage every day has two origins: external and internal. People, events, and objects are source of external information, while knowledge, past experiences, and feelings make up our internal world of information. Successful information is a combination of what they are experiencing (external) with what they know and feel (internal).
Although information processing is a universal phenomenon, it is nevertheless influenced by culture. It follows, therefore, that if culturally different people vary in their interpretation of reality, communication problems may occur. For example, several of the Asian cultures consider snakes, turtles, chicken feet, shark fins, and swallow’s nest as delicacies, whereas most Westerners baulk at eating these foods.
Similarly, while two Americans engaged in face to face communication expect direct eye contact as an indication of engagement and interest in the conversation, in Vietnam, it is considered polite to cast one’s eyes downward during some communication situations (A manager is speaking to an employee). The handshake is considered a common business protocol in many countries, but while a firm handshake is acceptable in the United States, a gentle handshake is preferred in the Middle East.
Violating expectations of culturally determined behavioral rules potentially impairs further communication. Consequentially, it is important for us to understand the nature of perception and how it is influenced by cultural experience.
Perception is connected to our beliefs, values, worldviews, and attitudes. Not only that, through perception comes the formation of stereotypes, prejudice, and racism.
How does that happen?
The perception process consists of three stages: selection, categorization, and interpretation.
- Selection stage: we are bombarded with an enormous array of stimuli as part of our everyday lives, but we are limited in the number of stimuli we can meaningfully process. This step travels through three stages:
- Exposure: where we selectively expose ourselves to certain kinds of information from our environment.
- Attention: Where we pay attention to a subset of elements of this information that is immediately and is relevant to us.
- Retention: Where we retain for later recall to be used in the future and is consistent with our beliefs, attitudes, and values.
- Categorization Stage: Although categorization helps to give incoming information a structure, maintain self-esteem, reduces uncertainty in our environment, if not used intelligently, it can yield a devasting outlook and results. Research show that when we categorize, we draw distinctions between ingroups (the group we belong to) and outgroups (the groups we do not belong to). Once we establish this, we create and foster biasing and filtering effect on perceptions. According to social psychologist Henri Tajfel, this process leads us to the perception that we (the ingroup) are who we are because they (the outgroup) are not what we are. People also tend to label members of competing outgroups with undesirable attributes, while labelling ingroups with desirable qualities. Richard Brislin (1981) claimed that we are all socialized to believe in the superiority of our ingroup.
- The interpretation Stage: While perception is an internal process, it is the external forces of culture that primarily determine the meaning we apply to stimuli that reach us. For example, American mothers may interpret assertiveness in their children’s speech as positive, whereas Indian mothers who observe the same behavior in their children might consider them disrespectful and lacking in discipline. Similarly, Australians regard an outspoken person as credible, while Koreans tend to consider constant talking as a sign of shallowness. In Canada, people tend to respond positively to a direct approach to resolving an interpersonal conflict, yet this same behavior is frown upon in most Arabian cultures.
The issue of interpretation becomes more complex when we factor in further variables such as age, gender, ethnicity, social status, and the relationship between communicators.
Misinterpretation of the information perceived has the potential to impede intercultural interaction.
In conclusion, Regardless of culture, humans process information in a similar way. However, the outcome of interpretation and the process of perception are not the same for all people.
Penelope Fitzgerald (British author) described this beautifully when he said:” However, no two people see the external world in the same way. To every separate person, a thing is what he thinks it is- in other words, not a thing, but a think.” Therefore, it is always prudent to evaluate the impact of our culture on how we think, behave, speak, or react.
Indeed, the influence of culture on perception and intercultural communication cannot be overstated.
Millar, Christopher (1996) “Building Illusions: culture determines what we see.” Peng, Kaipeng; Ames, Daniel, and Knowles, Eric (2001) “Culture and human inference: perspectives from three traditions.”