In 2018, a firestorm erupted when an advisory panel of the Texas State Board of Education recommended that seventh-grade social studies curricula no longer describe the Alamo defenders as “heroic” because it is a “value-charged word.”
Reaction was swift. Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted, “Stop political correctness in our schools.” Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush declared, “This [is] politically correct nonsense ... .” Thomas Lindsay of the Texas Public Policy Foundation opined, “This twisting of history deprives our students of the truth.” And State Board of Education chair Donna Bahorich told the press that the Alamo defenders’ sacrifice was “pretty heroic.”
By contrast, the Texas Democracy Foundation saw the Alamo monument as “dedicated to the American fear ... of Mexican agency that firmly and directly contested agendas of white supremacy in early 19th-century Texas.” Thus, “race had everything to do with Texas independence and with how we remember the Alamo.”
The point here is not to take sides. Rather, the storm over a single word illustrates the challenge when people of different cultures try to communicate.
The values of your culture seem so natural, you act on them without thinking.
The challenge of intercultural communication is: How do people communicate when the values they each take for granted are fundamentally different? As the 2018 controversy demonstrated, what may be “heroic” is not valued the same in all cultures.
Intercultural communication starts with a way to identify cultural values and be mindful of differences. Some cultures put the most value on the individual; others give precedence to the honor of the group.
Some cultures expect power to be equally distributed; others accept that authority figures (elders, teachers, clergy, officials) are owed respect and deference. Some cultures tolerate risk; others prefer the stability of tradition. Some cultures value competition; others emphasize caring. Some cultures prize freedom; others value duty. And some cultures assume that ethics never change, while others value flexibility.
The Texas establishment, then, saw the Alamo defenders as heroic because its culture values individualism, populism, risk, competition, freedom, and unchanging ethics. These values are not “wrong.” Rather, the challenge lies in the assumption that all cultures necessarily share (or should share) the same values or that a person’s own cultural values are superior to those of other cultures.
When that happens, intercultural communication becomes impossible. People and communities lose the opportunity to learn from each other’s perspectives.
They lose the opportunity to work out problems in ways that allow everyone to be heard and their values respected.
Intercultural communication can bring anxiety and uncertainty. You can’t be sure how the other person will react to your words. But by being mindful that cultural values differ and by not assuming that your values are universal or superior, you can check your anxiety and uncertainty. You can communicate.
Since I moved to Victoria a decade ago from one of the big cities back East, I’ve been enriched by the diverse mix of cultures in South Texas. And this lesson often impresses itself on me in a personal way. With our warm and sunny climate, I love to work out at Riverside Park. But it struck me one day that I do so alone.
The big-city culture in which I was raised values individualism, even to the point of leaving your extended family and home region for the sake of your career. Those values aren’t wrong.
But on weekends in Riverside Park, I often see extended families gathering for food, fun, and just to enjoy the moment. Their values have prompted me to examine my own. To my benefit, I now see and appreciate the values of community and diversity in a new way.
With its vibrant mix of cultures and neighborhoods, Victoria can be a model for good intercultural communication.
We can solve problems. We can live together. We can learn from each other. But it begins with mindful and respectful listening.