Reflecting Cultural Diversity in Communication Activities and Materials
The WHO Outbreak Communication Guidelines were developed to address the common features of communication across many cultures. The guiding principle of effective communication in a global context is that all communication activities and materials (including those prepared for the media) should reflect the diverse nature of societies in a fair, representative and inclusive manner.
Patterns of Cultural Difference
To be effective, media communication must be sensitive to cultural differences between and within the various regions and nations of the world. Culture is grounded in a group’s shared experience and identity, and in its relationships; both human-to-human and human to animals, objects, gods and the cosmos. Definitions of culture typically include elements such as:
- Meanings, interpretations
- Ways of expressing emotions and facts
- Rules, structures and theories for organizing experience
- Ways of interacting
- Beliefs, attitudes
- Sense of self
Several of the most important patterns of cultural difference affecting media communications before, during, and after a public health emergency are described below. These differences are a potential source of cross-cultural communication difficulties and must be addressed.
Different communication styles.
The way people communicate varies widely between and within cultures. One aspect of communication style is language usage. Across cultures, words and phrases are frequently used in different ways. For example, even in countries that share the same language, the meaning of the simple word "yes" varies greatly from: "definitely, I understand what you said" to "maybe" or "I'll consider it", along with many shades in between. Another major aspect of communication style is the degree of importance given to nonverbal communications. Nonverbal communication includes facial expressions and body gestures; it also involves seating arrangements, personal distance, and sense of time. In addition, different norms exist regarding the appropriate degree of assertiveness in communicating information. For instance, some cultures consider raised voices to be threatening or a sign of anger, whereas other cultures consider an increase in volume as a sign of excitement and commitment.
Different attitudes towards conflict.
Some cultures view conflict as a positive aspect of communication, while others view it as something to be avoided. In many cultures, open conflict and disagreements are viewed as embarrassing or demeaning – differences are worked out quietly behind the scenes.
Different decision-making styles.The roles individuals play in decision-making vary widely from culture to culture:
- In some cultures decisions are frequently delegated – i.e. an official assigns responsibility for a particular matter to a subordinate. In other cultures there is a strong value placed on according decision-making responsibilities to the individual.
- Although individual recognition and initiative are encouraged in some cultures, in others the collective good is emphasized, and individuals are encouraged to sacrifice individual recognition.
- Majority rule is a common approach in many cultures but in other cultures consensus is the preferred mode, or decision-making may be entrusted to an elder or exalted member of the community.
Different attitudes towards disclosure.
In some cultures, it is considered inappropriate to be candid about emotions, about the reasons behind a conflict or a misunderstanding, or about personal information. Questions that may seem natural to one culture may seem intrusive to another.
Different approaches to knowing.
Significant differences occur between cultures in the way people come to "know" things. For example, some cultures consider information acquired through cognitive means (such as counting and measuring) more valid than other, less tangible, ways of knowing (such as intuition).
Differences in discourse.
When communicating with one another, individuals will follow the assumptions and rules governing discourse within their respective cultures. Because significant variations exist in the rules for conversation across different cultures, message design must be sensitive and appropriately tailored. Rules for conversation cover such diverse areas as:
- Opening or closing conversations
- Taking turns during conversations
- Using silence as a communicative device
- Incorporating appropriate topics of conversation or discourse
- Interjecting humor into a conversation
- Using laughter and humor as a communication device
- Using gestures to make or emphasize a point
- Using storytelling and narratives as a communication device
- Speaking for an appropriate amount of time
- Sequencing of the elements of a speech or conversation.
In some cultures – particularly those with strong oral traditions – people often prefer storytelling and anecdotes as a conversation and communication device. Personal stories and anecdotes are useful tools for bringing information close in time and space to listeners. Stories in this tradition often presume a shared knowledge with the audience, do more showing than telling, imply linkages among a wide range of topics, and contain elements not necessarily presented in temporal sequence.
Assessing Socioeconomic Levels
In order to fully inform message design, national, regional, provincial and local socioeconomic levels also need to be taken into account and accurate profiles produced of variables such as:
- Income level (for example, mean, median and other characteristics)
- Educational level (for example, mean, median and other characteristics)
Socioeconomic factors affect virtually all communication decisions and choices, including:
- Choice of media formats (affected for example by what proportion of the population can read)
- Choice of media technology (affected for example by what proportion of the population own radios, televisions, and land-line and mobile telephones)
Implementing an Effective & Culturally Sensitive Media Program
Activities and behaviors to be considered when planning and implementing an effective media program sensitive to the needs of diverse populations include:
- Prepare, produce and disseminate information using diverse forms of media and graphic arts
- Identify target audiences with special information needs
- Advocate on behalf of those who will or should receive information to ensure its clarity and usefulness for the local end user
- Comply with official language requirements in all media communications
- Recognize the communication needs of special populations, including populations with low literacy levels and those with perceptual, linguistic or physical challenges
- Design, deliver and ensure availability of more traditional or alternative forms of communication to meet the needs of special populations
- Apply citizen engagement, public participation and public consultation techniques to foster feedback from local populations
- Take appropriate steps to enhance access to, awareness of, and use of communication materials by diverse populations
These guidelines should be adapted to meet local needs.