Less is more. Marshall Singer's recent abridgment and revision of his now classic Intercultural Communication: A Perceptual Approach (Prentice Hall, 1987) is far better than the original. Time has shown that novel perspectives, earlier championed by the author, have become more familiar and acceptable among both anthropologists and interculturalists. His assumptions about intercultural communication have been borne out in subsequent developments in political and intergroup conflicts on the world stage.
Few can articulate as seamlessly as Singer does the relationship between culture and the polycultural nature of the individual identity in a multicultural world. His principal insight resolves the conflict between the power of culture and the uniqueness of the individual. He rescues those of us who have tried teaching about cultural specific values and behaviors, only to have accusations of "stereotyping" cast in our faces, despite cautious efforts to qualify what we have said.
Humans, Singer insists, are at once cultural beings, belonging to multiple, identifiable cultural or identity groups, with identifiable perceptions, values, beliefs and behavioral tendencies, sharing and knowing that they share a common perceptual framework. At the same time each of us is unique, no two of us having precisely the same constellation of group identities and experience. Individualists can resist being identified as members of a group, but do they not usually belong to a culturally identifiable group of individualists who share a similar perspective and value of not being grouped with others?
Having established these all-important distinctions in the early part of the book, the author then applies them to our efforts to communicate with each other. He addresses the micro level of individual face-to-face discussion as well as the macro level of national and international exchanges. Singer underscores the fact that communication is always intercultural. It is as much about sharing what we have in common (our perceptual identity)as is about negotiating what separates us (our "disbelief" systems). This is not a Pollyanna balancing act but a necessary perspective. The author is equally adamant in calling our attention to the often-tragic interplay of perception, power and history. We often have substantially different experiences of the same realities and different ideas about what should be done as a result, often produce horrific headlines and indelible memories..
That we work to know others and ourselves and to create intercultural and diversity learning opportunities is no luxury when there is increasing diversity in families, among friends and where we work. Singer's premises give breath and energy to such efforts, and, at the same time, spring them from the well-baited traps of sectarianism and political correctness. These "deviations" too, result from our belonging to perceptual identity groups. Culture persistents. Perception & Identity in Intercultural Communication confirms what many suspect, that the "melting pot" philosophy can regenerate itself even in diversity efforts.
Despite the challenge of communicating across cultures -- "I am who I am; you are who you are. Can we talk?" -- Singer remains sanguine about the future. He sees potential in the increasing numbers of channels of communication now opening up to us. Cable television and especially the interactivity of the Internet offer paradoxically complementary challenges for the new millennium. On one hand they can support our efforts to solidify, express and grow the cultural identities that contribute to our uniqueness. On the other hand, theu gift us with real (albeit virtual) everyday contact from people we could never have expected to communicate with or even know about in the first half of this century. They draw us into greater uniqueness via increased diversity as we participate in more and different identity groups.
Singer writes well. One hears familiar echoes without they're being so high context as to cause problems for the non-North American reader. Occasionally his stories and remarks, particularly in the latter part of the book, seem overly familiar, until one recalls that in the first edition many of these still-valid observations were eye-openers. Thirty-five pages of bibliography and a robust index complete the work, making it at once an solid publication for theoreticians and an eminently useful one for practitioners. It is a must read for academics, professional interculturalists and, especially for those involved in diversity work and training inside organizations.