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Zanne Cameron

Being Intercultural: The Language of Health

Healthy life icons in color circles
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Being intercultural is often defined strictly in terms of ethnicity and geography, when really each of us lives a multiplicity of cultural identities on a daily basis. Our interactions at work and with family and friends, our activities, faith, offline and online personas, all have their own overlapping and intersecting sets of beliefs, values and attitudes. Culture is experienced, lived and dynamic — it is not simply geography, the colour of skin or language; rather, culture is formed from the values, attitudes and beliefs that drive our interactions with others.

To “be intercultural” begins with understanding one’s own cultural prism. Learning the underpinnings of how our own values and beliefs drive our behaviour is like learning how to paint. Once we learn how to paint, we can begin to understand entire galleries more clearly. Understanding our own culture gives us access to a limitless colour wheel from which to communicate more clearly, write with greater depth and affect change.

As writers and editors, contemplating our words and the images we use from an intercultural perspective prevents us from blindly rewriting our own values and attitudes (essentially writing to ourselves) or writing unwittingly from within a cultural paradigm — while not necessarily wrong, conscious choice of language is always better. Whether or not we change our own values is always an individual choice, but understanding how culture works suspends the notion that our own values and beliefs are absolute and also opens up the possibility for multiple perspectives.

To provide an example, think of the beliefs that drive the language of health in popular North American media. A quick perusal of the web quickly provides a powerful cultural norm: Healthy is really hard to achieve, has an impossibly flat stomach and looks 10 years younger than anyone over the age of 30. Popular media also reveals a cultural norm that is intrinsically individualistic, and believes that what is truly healthy is somehow a bit yucky, whether it be exercise or healthy food.

So popular media balances the inherent yuckiness of health with a bit of sugar and promises of speed. These 10 exercises will get you thin fast. Chocolate milk is a perfect after-workout drink. (Because who would want to drink plain milk after a workout?)

Despite the international adoption of WHO’s social determinants of health, which describe health in terms of social connection, literacy, and psychological and economic stability, popular media is stuck to the cultural perspective and pursuit of health on individualistic, difficult terms.

So, what if popular media health messaging were turned on its head, and health was described in terms of social connection rather than being thin? What if health messaging focused on the importance of literacy and economic stability, and proposed that a healthy life was not dependent on looking young? How might the language and images change? More importantly, what values, attitudes and beliefs would change to create a new cultural paradigm, and what would contemporary culture look like if this became the new paradigm for health?

What are your own values and beliefs about health? Where do they come from? What might you change?

Further reading:

Look for Zanne Cameron’s next instalment in “Being Intercultural.”

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About the author

Zanne Cameron

Zanne Cameron earned her masters in Intercultural Communication in 2009 and has been working as a freelance writer/communication strategist for over 20 years. Currently she is the communication strategist for the Provincial Fitness Unit of Alberta.

3 Comments on “Being Intercultural: The Language of Health”

  • Anita Jenkins


    Excellent article. I love it when editors get to talking about content, style and tone, as opposed to mechanics.

  • Rosemary Shipton


    An interesting, thoughtful piece, Zanne. Thanks for posting …

  • Virginia Durksen


    I think you are writing here about the beliefs that drive the language of the health care industry. That’s not quite the same as what we think about individual health or the health of people generally. As part of challenging the language that reveals our assumptions, we should challenge the idea that the internet is anything more than a very thin and highly self-perpetuating slice of human culture. It is only one version of how we view health. Culture as such exists beyond the internet’s version of it.

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