The AFS Support Volunteers works with four basic AFS relationships: the participant’s relationship with the new culture, with the host family, with the natural family and the participant’s understanding of him or herself. The most effective way that a support volunteer can assist these relationships is by fostering effective communication.
The Support Volunteer, by providing the skills for effective communication within AFS circles, also provides him or herself with effective skills for life. Listening and interviewing skills—both able to be learned—can be utilized in your family, your job, and your community. The more you use them, the keener and more developed they become.
In order to improve one’s skills in communicating, it helps to understand your cultural influences and values.
A person’s values:
- are colored by personal and national cultures,
- shape one’s view of the world,
- determine how one communicates with others, and
- might conflict with the values of another culture.
In understanding and recognizing your own cultural bias, you begin to prepare for a cross-cultural experience and are able to relate more effectively with AFS participants.
- Each “culture” includes a closely-knit pattern of assumptions, behaviors, values, and practices that works for the people who share it. Every cultural system has an impact on its people in determining how the world is perceived, how the “self” is experienced, and how life is organized within that culture. The perceptions you carry are as specific and unique as your fingerprints.
- We communicate verbally and non-verbally. How we process our communication varies with our cultural heritage: Some cultures use an entirely different system of logic while others recognize experiences for which another’s language provides no equivalent. Our language organizes our thoughts.
- A third of all non-verbal communication is based on the tone of our voices; over half is based on our facial expressions. It is necessary for us to be aware of our own behaviors and of how others read us because our mannerisms function just as strongly as the spoken word and may convey meanings quite contrary to what we are saying.
- In order to be an effective support to AFS participants, you must understand how you view the world, as well as the background of the participants. How they relate to you is colored by who they are. Since an AFS volunteer cannot expect the participant or family to be completely aware of their own assumptions in communicating, the volunteer must try to learn to speak from both sides of the issue.
In working with a participant, the volunteer can consider whether the participant is from a society that is more “individualist” or “collectivist” and whether this is a factor in their communication norms.
The five most strongly individualist cultures in the world are located in the United States, Australia, Great Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands; other Northern European countries rank high on this scale as well. These cultures highly value the following characteristics:
- personal goals
- personal enjoyment
- free choice of groups to which to be loyal
Individualist cultures also tend to view time as immediate and the future as something foreseeable.
More than two thirds of the world’s population—70 percent—belong to collectivist cultures. The most strongly collectivist societies include those of Venezuela, Colombia, Pakistan, Peru, and Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Turkey, Greece, Portugal and most other cultures in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America are highly collectivist as well. These cultures emphasize and value:
- loyalty to a specific group and distrust of those in other groups
- honoring parents and elders
- accepting one’s position in life
- preserving one’s public image for the sake of the group
These cultures operate in a vastly different time frame than individualist cultures in that their time frame encompasses generations and even centuries. It can be said that culture and communication are two sides of the same coin: Both are systems that operate to enable human beings to establish and maintain relationships with one another.
- The AFS Support Volunteer takes this entire overview into account when attempting effective communication. In doing so, the support volunteer works against his innate ethnocentrism. We are all ethnocentric in varying degrees, sharing the view that one’s own culture sets the standards by which all others are measured.
- When left unrecognized, ethnocentrism prevents us from appreciating and understanding another culture on its own terms. Recognizing ethnocentrism makes it necessary for us to observe without evaluating, to suspend judgment in order to understand, and to be patient in our dealings with others.