Asian Multiculturalism in Communication: Impact of Culture in the Practice

Asian multiculturalism in communication: Impact of culture in the practice of public relations in Singapore

This study aims to understand the role of cultural values in influencing public relations practice in Singapore. Given that Singapore exhibits a hybrid of cultures, it purposes to comprehend how multiculturalism is operationalized and to uncover if the values that have a greater influence on organizational communication resemble those in individualistic or collectivistic societies. Using Gudykunst’s (1998) seven dimensions that influence individualism-collectivism on communication as a guide, this study interviewed 20 public relations practitioners in Singapore.

Our findings showed that although the patterns expressed is slightly more consistent with those found in collectivistic cultures, it does not resemble collectivism in entirety. Multiculturalism in Singapore displays a blend of certain cultural hybridity, which is aligned with it being a multicultural cosmopolitan city that embodies Western modernity while retaining its Asian values. Our findings further reinforced the idea that public relations professionals need to be multicultural themselves to effectively communicate with culturally diverse stakeholders in today’s globalizing era of multiculturalism.

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In the last few decades, scholars in global public relations (PR) have called for more research and education in multicultural communication (Macnamara, 2004; Sriramesh, 2003). This charge has become more urgent today given the increasing number of multinational organizations operating in an ever internationalizing economy that are endlessly “globalizing”, “globalizing” or “globalization” (Chaney &Martin, 2014, p. 3)to remain competitive.

The need to understand multiculturalism in our field is further accentuated by large scale human migrations across the globe that has resulted in multicultural communities even within many previously ethnically homogenous countries (Koenig, 2015). Essentially, being culturally competent to communicate effectively with culturally diverse publics both intra- and inter-countries has never been more critical.

2. Background:

why Singapore Singapore provides an intriguing context to examine the impact of multiculturalism on PR practice. Multiculturalism in Singapore is state-sanctioned to preserve harmony among the Chinese (74.3%), Malays (13.3%), and Indians (9.1%) (Ortiga, 2014; Department of Statistics Singapore, 2015a).

Even though the Chinese form the majority, Singapore’s founding Prime Minister LeeKuanYew established a multicultural national identity amalgamated from the Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Others (CMIO) cultures (Chua, 2003; Lai, 1995) instead of construing an underlying Singaporean identity (Ortiga, 2014).

Although the CMIO has been criticized as compelling Singaporeans to fit the idealized characterization of their respective ethnicities, critics conceded that it was an essential element to unite a young and diverse society (Lai, 1995).

Faced with globalization and capitalism, the focus shifted towards creating a hybrid ethnic-centric Singaporean identity that preserved traditional cultures, and unite Singaporeans in a network of shared culture so that they were “better equipped to appreciate, understand, and adopt other cultures” without being conflicted (Goh, 2010). Multiculturalism thus functioned as codes for intercultural interaction established in a social setting (Goh, 2010).

3. Cultural-Communication framework

3.1. Cultural constructs of individualism and collectivism

A major dimension used by many scholars to examine and compare similarities and differences across cultures and behaviours within societies is the concepts of individualism and collectivism (Hofstede & Hofstede, 2001). Individualism refers to an individual’s emphasis on independence, self-reliance and promotion of the self, and the concept is often found in Western societies like those in the United States or the United Kingdom (UK). Collectivism underscores the importance of interdependence, in-group solidarity, loyalty and promotion of the group and is frequently emphasized in Asian societies
such as China and Japan.

3.2. Framework

According to Gundykunst’s (1998) individualistic and collectivistic perspectives on communication, culture has a direct influence on communication. Individualism and collectivism are manifested in unique ways and to understand communication in any culture, it is essential to discern the patterns associated with both sets of cultural values. Gundykunst’s (1998)
the framework identified seven communication dimensions that differentiated the practices commonly found in both cultures.

4. Method

In PR research, qualitative tools are effective in obtaining information about perceptions, views and attitudes of the target group. These research tools have the potential to achieve increased awareness of the collaborative dialogue, in addition to collecting data that are capable of providing insights from the perspective of the participants (Weerakkody, 2009). It further
allows the understanding of the construct under examination, i.e.

multiculturalism, which interviewees use as a basis for their views and thereafter for researchers to interpret the evidence − a “stock of explanation” to answer the research questions (Anderson, 1987, p. 330). It is, therefore, useful to adopt qualitative research methods for this study to explore the cultural and societal contexts within which the practitioners operate.

4.1. Principal primary method: In-Depth interviews

This study employed in-depth interviews as the principal method for answers to the research questions. Face-to-face interviews with 20 communication practitioners were conducted to better understand the influence and impact of multicultural values on practice. Two sets of questions were prepared − the first pertained to general questions relating to the importance of cultural values when communicating with multicultural stakeholders; and the second, descriptions of how cultural values are operationalized according to Gundykunst’s (1998) seven communication dimensions.

4.2. Accompanying primary method: rating exercise

In addition to the in-depth interviews, a simple rating exercise similar to a “scorecard” was used to accompany the participants’ responses given during the interviews. This scoring exercise applies only to Gundykunst’s (1998) framework of
the seven communication dimensions that differentiated the practices commonly found in both collectivistic and individualistic cultures.

After providing descriptions on how each of the seven cultural dimensions influences communication in their organization, on a scale of 1 to 10, participants were asked to “quantify” their views and to rate their responses, i.e. the extent to which they think the cultural values that influence their practices resemble those in collectivistic cultures.

Participants were asked to only give a score on collectivism. For example, after providing a description, participants were asked “How would you rate the extent it resonated with collectivistic cultures.

On a scale of 1 to 10, is it more or less collectivist?” instead of “How would you rate the extent it resonated with collectivistic or individualistic cultures. On a scale of 1 to 10, is it more collectivistic or more individualistic?” This is because both constructs of collectivism and individualism are not bipolar and hence, a unipolar scale will generate more accurate answers (Pelham & Blanton, 2012).

4.3 Data collection & analyses

To obtain in-depth information from participants, data for this study was collected through face-to-face interviews over a month from 21 March to 15 April 2016. Each interview lasted between one and a half and two hours. All interviews were audio-recorded and subsequently transcribed for analysis. Semi-structured interviews were adopted as they provided some degree of flexibility to delve further into the participants’ responses (Singleton, Straits & Straits, 1993).

Interview questions were divided into two categories. The first set of questions posed related to the importance of culture when it came to crafting messages and designing communication collateral directed at audiences who differed in race, religion and language.

Questions included “Can you describe how culturally diverse are your stakeholder groups?”; “Is it difficult or easy to manage communication with a group that is so multicultural?” and “Are cultural values important to your work and to what extent do you integrate culture into the designing of communication collateral?”

5. Findings and discussion

The first research question examines the role culture plays in the communication efforts of PR practitioners.

5.1. Impact of cultural values in public relations practice

All 20 practitioners interviewed reported that they managed multicultural stakeholders in their role as communication professionals. Whether the audiences they communicated with were in Singapore or Asia-Pacific, the stakeholder groups were extremely varied and very diverse.

For those whose roles focused only on Singapore, they comprised the major ethnic groups − Chinese, Malays and Indians as well as many different expatriate communities who resided in the city-state. For others who managed Asia-Pacific communication, the stakeholders would further include the Thais, Japanese, Koreans, Indians and Australians, etc.

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