Developing of Cultural Identity and Perception of Foreign Cultures
(With examples of the characters in the movie ‘The Quiet American’).
In this critical analysis the question of how people develop their cultural identity and perceive foreign cultures will be answered. This is done through an analysis of the following points: First, different definitions (or attempted definitions) of culture are critically regarded. Then the role of identity in cross-cultural communication is examined, with focus on the creation of cultural identities just as different communication styles related to specific identities. In the third part of this paper the roles of stereotypes in cross-cultural communications are discussed with reference to their functions in society. Finally, the topic of nonverbal communication, especially attempts to describe nonverbal communication of a specific culture, is examined. In the conclusion the results of this paper are discussed and summarised.
The essay refers to the movie ‘The Quiet American’– in footnotes – to illustrate theoretical aspects with appropriate examples.
Culture is a complex and constantly changing phenomenon, so definitions of culture are quite numerous and differing. Brislin (2000, p. 23) refers to the definition of Triandis, Kurowski, Tecktiel& Chan (1993, p. 219), who see culture constructed out of objective and subjective elements. These elements have been selected because in the past they made survival more probable and allowed the participants to exist in ecological niches; they are shared by people who communicate in the same language and live in the same time-place. Even though this definition is obviously general, it cannot be seen as one accepted by all researchers in cross-cultural communication. Brislin (2000, p. 30) tries to define culture by constructing a checklist consisting of twelve points in order to prove if a specific behaviour or ideal is part of one’s culture or not. This checklist can be seen as a practical tool for people dealing with cross-cultural settings, but it is hardly a theoretical definition.
Raymond Williams (1962, cited in Lull, 1995, p. 130) defines culture as “a particular way of life”, which is shared by a community. The definition of Williams emphasises the dynamic character of culture which changes when we (as members of our own culture) change the way we talk, dress or work. At the same time Williams’ definition makes no distinction between “superior” or “inferior” cultures, furthermore everybody has their specific “way of life”. This can explain why this definition is still referred to frequently in the field of popular culture studies.
The dynamic character of culture is also described by Lull (1995, p. 132) who states that culture is “never a completely given or permanent state of affairs”. He also claims that the effects of globalisation leading to political states with many different ethnic groups and lifestyles make culture “a far more complex, personalized matter today” (Lull, 1995, p.130). This statement can not be overemphasised while we are living in a world which is forever changing, and throughout development of communication technologies the process of changing itself seems to be accelerating.
At this point an attempt to refer to as many definitions of culture as possible shall not be made, as this would go beyond the purpose of this essay. Important for our analysis is the result that definitions of culture can only be general and can never describe a specific culture. Culture is constantly changing and therefore dynamic. A description of a specific culture can only be accurate at a specific time. Thus, this description after publishing tends to be outdated.
Nevertheless there is the question how people in their society create their cultural identity. Martin& Nakayama (2000, p. 111) differentiate three approaches of how the construction of identity can be seen. The social psychological perspective emphasises that personal identity is built up by the self and at the same time in relation to a specific group membership. From a communication perspective identity is build up through communication with other people. In this way the dynamic character of identity is emphasised. The third approach goes even further: The critical perspective wants to analyse which forces – historical, economical or political forces – are behind the construction of identities. This approach seems to be the most appropriate in order to understand both the dynamic and artificial (i.e. constructed) character of identity. Identities therefore are not natural phenomenon but constructed by people or, more exactly, their societies with special purposes. If we have a look at ‘The Quiet American’ – which serves as a practical reference in this essay – the identities of Alden Pyle, Thomas Fowler and Phuong are not chosen individually by each character.
It is obvious that analysing which specific forces build up an identity is quite a complex process. Many forces in a society participate in the construction process, so identifying and isolating the forces is difficult and probably not possible in every case.
The important point is that identities – as the whole culture – are “never stable but are always changing” (Martin & Nakayama, 2000, p. 116). This is only logical because the society and its needs are changing as well, constantly forming new types and criteria of identities. Different kinds of identities can be observed, among them gender identity, age identity, racial and ethnic identities or religious identity (Martin & Nakayama, 2000, p.118–127).
 In the movie we can differentiate the three identities of the main characters: The American idealist, who behaves as “a man of action” and intends to change Vietnam (“We are here to save Vietnam from all of that.”); the British realist, who respects the status quo; and finally the Vietnamese identity, which is broken due to European colonialism and invasion. It is obvious that these identities are mainly constructed by the national societies. The individual identity of the characters can only be built up within the fixed framework given by their societies.
 Perhaps one of the strongest identities that can be found in ‘The Quiet American’ is the religious identity of Fowler’s wife. Even though she is not a visible character her strong religious identity is always present through Fowler when he speaks about his planned divorce to Phuong or in the form of her letters: “I don’t believe in divorce. My religion forbids this.”