Intercultural communication is a process during which people gain new perception experiences. Still, numerous cultural patterns and stereotypes can impede the clarity and effectiveness of intercultural communication. Besides, when participants are not paying attention to the non-verbal messages they are sending or lack the verbal culture, communication may not take place at all. This paper aims to discuss cultural issues addressed in the movie Coffee and Cigarettes in terms of cultural identities, differences, stereotypes, traditions, conflicts, and misunderstandings.
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The movie Coffee and Cigarettes, directed by Jim Jarmusch, was chosen for the subsequent analysis. The film consists of eleven short films, each featuring Jim’s favorite actors and musicians drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and having intriguing, mysterious, and sometimes really weird dialogues about their life (Jarmusch, 2003). It stars Bill Murray, Kate Blanchett, Jack and Meg White (The White Stripes), Alfred Molina, Steve Coogan, Isaach De Bankolé, Renée French, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, GZA and RZA (Wu-Tang Clan), and other celebrities.
It should be mentioned that the verbal and non-verbal communication of all characters is well nuanced, and the cultural identity of each character is greatly accentuated in the film. It seems logical, as scientists consider cultural identity to be the key element of intercultural communication. Moreover, verbal and non-verbal communication is widely seen as the main instrument for transmitting communication messages (Baldwin, Coleman, González, & Shenoy-Packer, 2014, p. 91).
The film also actualizes cultural-psychological issues like the perception of time, the meaning of preceding events, striving for consistency and cognitive balance, attribution as the locus of control, the importance of self-perception.
In the short film Strange to Meet You (1986), Stephen Wright meets Roberto Benigni in the street cafe. It looks like they have set the meeting in advance. Roberto tries to establish tactile contact with Steve, shaking his hands enthusiastically when meeting him. He seeks a shared emotional experience putting questions like “A good cafe, isn’t it?” “Do you love me, don’t you?” “Good coffee, they say coffee is good for health.” Stephen says that he “loves coffee,” that “coffee is considered to be unhealthy,” and initiates a strange monologue about how coffee affects his dreams.
Roberto tries to interrupt him by patting his shoulder and asks if Steve knows his mother. He speaks his phrases loudly as if he does not hear the interlocutor. Steve replies, “No, why should I know your mother?” and ads that it would be nice to freeze coffee and sell iced coffee on sticks like iced Pepsi Cola. It is hard for Roberto to keep track of Steve’s quick speech; he is getting angry and says he does not understand anything. Roberto is more interested in the atmosphere of the cafe and enjoys a new environment.
Steve is more interested in a meaningful conversation, but he cannot start it with Roberto. The tension between the interlocutors is gradually growing since no one wants to change their communication strategy. As a result, Steve offers to switch to hear each other better, but this does not help. Confused and angry, Roberto is looking for an excuse to leave and asks Steve if he could see a dentist instead of him, Steve agrees.
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It makes sense to figure out what went wrong in the characters’ communication. Roberto, who belongs to a more openhearted ethnic group, was trying to find common ground, relying on similarities of emotional experiences (Shiraev & Levy, 2016, p.152). He also attempted to use emotions as an evaluation, but to no avail – the gloomy northerner Steve turned down all his attempts (Shiraev & Levy, p. 161). At the same time, Roberto did not understand why Steve was trying to tell him about his dreams and fantasies because, in Roberto’s culture, dreams are not given much importance (Shiraev & Levy, p.110).
Thus, the psychological tendency of northern cultures towards individualism and looser relationships between people comparing to the southern lifestyles, more prone to collectivism and tight connections, could become an obstacle to effective communication.
Finally, the characters were speaking different languages in the most literal sense of the word. Therefore, even the considerably high level of personages’ social development could not reverse the fact that nonverbal messages are only a part of the communication process (Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, & Roy, 2017, p. 59). Most likely, that is why the heroes of Strange to Meet You initially did not have a single chance to understand each other.
The main characters of the short film Twins (1989), Joie Lee and Cinqué Lee, a guy and a girl, African-Americans are chatting, smoking, and drinking coffee, sitting at a table in the cafe. They are dressed stylishly, and almost identically, their faces are relaxed; the gestures of their beautiful, well-groomed hands are simultaneous. Suddenly, a waiter Steve Buscemi, a white American, wedges into their dialogue. He spills coffee, begins to wipe it roughly with the crumpled napkins, and starts a conversation, wondering if they guys are twins. The waiter says they remind him of Jenny and Michael Jackson.
Steve asks permission to sit down, takes a seat between the twins, asks which of them is an evil twin, and tells the story about the evil twin of Elvis Presley. The twins listen to him half-ear, adding sugar to each other cups; they are not feeling enthusiastic about the story. Joie says that Elvis Presley was buying hits from African-American singers and composers, paying 10 dollars for composition, and lists Elvis songs and the names of their authors.
The waiter says that according to his theory, it was the evil twin of Elvis; Joie objects, “So this is normal then, aye.” Cinqué adds that Elvis claimed that he could only see people of color when they were cleaning his shoes. The waiter replies that the ‘king’ could not say such things. The chef calls the waiter, so he pats them on the back and leaves. The twins escort Steve through an offensive toast and continue to drink their coffee. The girl scolds her brother that he is wearing her sweater and her shoes and that he does not have his style.
The first thing one may notice when watching the Twins short film is how sharply and unexpectedly Steve breaks into the personal space of the twins. He is not aware of the first principle of cultural dichotomy described by Shiraev & Levy (2016), which states that “there are fewer differences than one might think” (p. 44). For some reason, Steve does not notice his tactlessness, and the modestly aggressive reaction of the twins does not impress him. He has a stereotypical idea that youngsters should be open to communication, and he is happy with everything.
As for the content of the conversation, the second part of the principle of cultural dichotomy may be applied. Namely, “there are more differences than one might expect” (Shiraev & Levy, 2016, p. 45). The twins should have a different attitude to Elvis than Steve since they belong to another ethnic group. Twins and Steve have entirely different values; they are feeling good about totally different views (Shiraev & Levy, p. 291).
Besides, the twins are much younger than Steve, which also has an impact on their perception, as young people are much more vulnerable and susceptible than adults (Shiraev & Levy, p. 211). It is because they are only shaping their cultural identity, while the identity of an adult is already formed. To avoid misunderstandings, Steve should have paid attention to the stereotypical nature of his perception and show a little more tact and sanity.
In all eleven short films, Jarmusch presents the most trivial issues from an uncustomary angle. Those Things Will Kill Ya and Delirium deal with patterns of health, science, and spirituality. Champagne shows the differences in attitude to the life and death of the atheist and believer. The plot of No Problem is based on a cultural pattern of self-help. Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil illustrates the desire for control over the forces of nature inherent in Western cultures. Since the truth is born in the collision of different opinions and views, watching the Coffee and Cigarettes movie makes people think about the deepest and most significant layers of human life.
Thus, the cultural issues addressed in the movie Coffee and Cigarettes were discussed. To summarize, personages of the Strange to Meet You short film were initially doomed to communication failure since communication cannot take place in the absence of its verbal form. At the same time, the waiter should have shown more tact and sanity to avoid the misunderstanding between the characters of the Twins short film.
Baldwin, J. R., Coleman, R. R. M., González, A., & Shenoy-Packer, S. (2014). Intercultural communication for everyday life. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.
Jarmusch, J. (Director). (2003). Coffee and Cigarettes [Video file]. Web.
Samovar, L. A., Porter, R. E., McDaniel, E. R., & Roy, C. S. (2017). Communication between cultures (9th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Shiraev, E. B., & Levy, D. A. (2016). Cross-cultural psychology: Critical thinking and contemporary applications. Abingdon-on-Thames, UK: Routledge.
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