One movie that, to me, reflects how mistakes in communication can occur between cultures is the movie “Coming to America.” It is a film about a rich prince from the fictional African country of Zamunda, named Akeem who has his every need met by servants, and who has had a bride selected for him (Folsey and Wachs). Instead, he wants to find a woman who loves him for himself, and decides to go to the United States to find his bride. The movie shows how he, and his main servant Semmi, come to America, live in a poor part of New York City, and try to adjust to the culture of life in America, all while trying to find a woman for Akeem (Folsey and Wachs). There are multiple differences that they have to overcome, including financial, language and culture.
The characters use verbal language to express their identities. Akeem is usually a happy man, especially when he first comes to America. On his first day, he steps out on his balcony and yells out a greeting to the city (Folsey and Wachs). The response from a neighbor, is not quite as positive, with a curse word thrown in as well (Folsey and Wachs). Language is also used to classify people into stereotypes. In the barbershop, there are several African-Americans who talk fast, along with a white Jewish man who talks in a heavy accent (Folsey and Wachs). The African-Americans are loud when they discuss Muhammed Ali changing his name, or Joe Louis being the greatest fighter who ever lived (Folsey and Wachs). Meanwhile, the Jewish man makes his point quietly, then calls the African-Americans “putzes.” (Folsey and Wachs).

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There wasn’t really a language barrier, in terms of Akeem and Semmi speaking English. However, there was some misunderstandings. In one scene, Akeem, trying to impress the girl of his dreams Lisa, in their first meeting while working at McDowell’s (a McDonald’s knock-off), tells her to think of him when she thinks of garbage (Folsey and Wachs). What he means is that she should call him when she wants her garbage pail emptied, but it comes off strange to her (Folsey and Wachs).

There are also some non-verbal communications. For instance, Lisa’s father, at first, treats Akeem and Semmi like hired help. Then, after they stop an armed robber, he’s more polite, but still treats them as workers (Folsey and Wachs). Not until he finds out that Akeem is a rich prince does he suddenly start trying to be Akeem’s friend (Folsey and Wachs). The father uses proxemics by putting his arm around Akeem. Another proxemics example is when Akeem and Lisa are sitting on a swing set talking, starting to become close friends. One example of Kinesics is when Lisa’s sister sees her ex-boyfriend coming in from the rain. She gives him a flirty look (Folsey and Wachs). She shows her motivation that she wants a boyfriend. Chronemics is used when Akeem is trying to stall Lisa until he can talk to his parents about how much he loves her, instead of getting married to the woman they chose for her (Folsey and Wachs). Akeem is in a rush to try to keep them separate, but ends up failing in the task, leading to Lisa finding out that he is a prince (Folsey and Wachs).

The interpersonal communication compared to my culture is different. For instance, in one scene, Lisa’s father, who had been brown-nosing Akeem’s parents, takes a stand for her after his father says she’s not worthy of his son (Folsey and Wachs). Akeem’s father wants a traditional way of life for his son, while Lisa’s father knows she is independent and non-traditional. In another example, Lisa’s boyfriend takes Akeem to a basketball game, and, while Lisa politely asks him if he understands the game, the boyfriend makes rude remarks about African culture (Folsey and Wachs). Culture influenced my perception of Lisa’s father. At first, he seems like a hard-driving businessman who is clueless about how to treat Akeem and Semmi, except as hired help, and as someone who cares only about money. By the end of the movie, after standing up for his daughter and rejecting Akeem’s father’s offer of $2 million for having their lives disturbed, you see that he has a good heart and cares for his daughter’s feelings (Folsey and Wachs).

The film portrayed some cultural rituals, such as dances, and how they might treat royalty, such as having flowers thrown at their feet as they walk (Folsey and Wachs). It also showed how traditional culture can clash with modern culture. Had Akeem listened to his father, he never would have married Lisa, and might have spent his life unhappy being married to a woman he didn’t love (Folsey and Wachs). It showed several cultural worldviews. Zamunda had a hierarchical world view, in which Akeem’s father was in charge and his mother was submissive. By the end of the movie, his mother asserts herself by telling the father to “put a sock in it,” while telling him their son is in love (Folsey and Wachs). Egalitarianism also comes up when Lisa’s father stands up to Akeem’s father, telling him that in America, there are no kings and he doesn’t have to listen to him (Folsey and Wachs).

While the movie portrays a mythical country, it shows that other cultures are different than our culture and we should respect that not everyone is similar to us, even though we may have differences. While there are differences, good communication can help in bridging those gaps, and lead to both sides having a better understanding of where each is coming from when confronting an issue.

  • Folsey G. and Wachs R. (producers), Landis J. (director) (1988) “Coming to America”, United States, Paramount Pictures