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This content is taken from the Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)'s online course, Intercultural Communication. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds Welcome back. In this segment, we would like to explain what interculture communication is with metaphors. Let’s pause a second and imagine that you have turned into a fish. How would you feel if you were taken out of water? Being like that fish actually suggests two contrasting phenomena. For most of us, culture is the natural environment that we grow up and generally feel comfortable in, as normal as the air that we breathe, which we don’t even think about. The context that most creatures find themselves moving unconsciously and comfortably is quite like the water a fish is in, but whenever we move out of or are taken away from the context, we might suddenly feel quite uncomfortable with the change of environment.

Skip to 1 minute and 5 seconds The cues we are accustomed to might be missing or mean something quite different. The known environment that we have come to expect might be altered, absent, or defined differently. Such changes may not be consciously or objectively visible to us, but subjectively we feel something is amiss, something is uncomfortable. We feel like a fish out of water. This is actually one of the first metaphors that guided the framing and developing of intercultural communication as a field of studies. It was noted in a Swedish scholar, Kalvero Oberg’s 1952 article on “Culture Shock,” where he described the out-of-water feeling as a disease due to the uncomfortableness in a new-cultural context.

Skip to 2 minutes and 2 seconds It was also noted in Edward T Hall’s first book, The Silent Language in 1957, which most consider to be one of the first publications that popularised the understanding of intercultural communication and the need for developing sensitivity towards culture differences. Therefore we hope our courses could help you become more aware of the water or the cultural context you have been placed in, understanding both the givens of a fish in water and the unexpected consequences of a fish out of water. So get ready to learn swimming with us in different waters and out of it as we move forward.

Feeling like a fish out of water

Metaphors often help elucidate the concepts in this course. We start with the idea of “being like a fish out of water” to explain the strange unfamiliarity that inter- or cross-cultural encounters can bring.

We are often as comfortable in our own culture as a fish is in water. To be “like a fish out of water” describes the cross-cultural condition, where we unexpectedly find ourselves out of our context or cultural comfort zone, confused by cues, misunderstanding meanings, and usually experiencing discomfort.

This metaphor was used as early as 1952 by Kalvero Oberg in his seminal article on culture shock, where he described the out of water feeling as a dis-ease, as uncomfortableness in a new culture context. It was also noted in Edward T. Hall’s book, The Silent Language (1959), one of the first publications to popularize the concepts of intercultural communication.

Reflect on some of those “out of water” challenges you’ve faced, or how you became aware of this metaphor and its helpfulness in dealing with past experiences. You might like to post such an encounter, or comment on those of others. Remember, we are all “swimming” in this intercultural process together!

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This video is from the free online course:

Intercultural Communication

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)