INTERCULTURAL COMMUNICATION SKILLSDocument Transcript
INTERCULTURAL COMMUNICATION SKILLS
• To appreciate the importance of effective intercultural communication skills in
today's business world
• To heighten your awareness of differences in communication styles across
cultures and some key factors that may influence business communication across
• To develop attitudes conducive for effective intercultural communication
Consider the following scenarios:
The US marketing manager of a major car producer was finding it increasingly difficult to work in
Japan. In meetings, the Japanese colleagues hardly ever said anything. When they were asked
if they agreed to his suggestions they always said "yes", but they didn't do anything to follow up
the ideas. The only time they opened up was in a bar in the evening, but that was getting
stressful, as they seemed to expect him to go out with them on a regular basis.
A North American was working in Indonesia as a consultant to banks on disaster recovery. At
one of his presentations to a client – an Indonesian bank, he suggested that individual employees
who did a good job ought to be given greater recognition by which he meant singling them out for
praise in front of their colleagues. His audience was horrified.
A Singapore businessman in Saudi Arabia is keen to secure an important deal. He has a tight
schedule, and can’t afford to waste any time. His frustration increases because he has to wait for
ages to get an appointment with his Saudi partner. Meetings never start on time, and when they
do, there are frequent interruptions, with people coming in to get papers signed. The Saudi
partner even takes phone calls when his visitor is in the room.
Fatimah, a Malaysian graduate student, works part-time in a chain drugstore in California. One
day while helping her unpack a new shipment of toiletries, Mr Hayes, the manager of the store,
invites her to take a break and sit down and have a cup of coffee with him. Shyly, she accepts.
Mr Hayes chats with her casually, but notices that when he speaks to her, Fatimah looks down
on the floor and seems disinterested. He believes she is being disrespectful and reprimands her
for it. She is surprised by his anger.
A negotiation is taking place to discuss the costs of renovating an office space in China for a new
US company. Mr Jones then asks, “Okay, then, how much will everything cost? Just give me a
ballpark figure.” Mr Zhang and Mr Li look at each other with a rather puzzled look. Then Mr Li
hesitatingly gave an estimated cost. In response, Mr Jones says, “You can’t be serious. That’s
going to cost us an arm and a leg!” The Chinese became a little uncomfortable.
In each of the above scenarios, we see people of different cultures communicating with one
another and how their different cultural orientations result in problems or misunderstandings in
the communication. With more and more companies going global in today’s changing business
environment, it is not at all uncommon to walk into an office and to find ourselves looking at a
multinational multicultural workforce. In fact, this is becoming more and more the norm these
days. Coupled with the easy availability of sophisticated means of long-distance communication
like the email and videoconferencing facilities, today’s business environment, even if confined to
your home country, will more likely place you in communication situations involving colleagues or
clients whose cultures are different from yours. So, in order to succeed at the workplace today, it
is important for you to develop effective intercultural communication skills.
In subsequent sections, the following topics will be dealt with: definition of culture; fundamental
cultural orientations; verbal communication; non-verbal communication; culture’s influence on
written business communication; and tips on how to communicate effectively across cultures.
1 Definition of culture
Bovee, Thill & Schatzman (2003) define culture as a shared system of symbols, beliefs, attitudes,
values, expectations, and norms for behaviour. It is “the coherent, learned, shared view a group
of people has about life’s concerns that ranks what is important, instills attitudes about what
things are appropriate, and prescribes behavior, given that some things have more significance
than others”. (Varner and Beamer, 1995: 2)
It is useful to take note of a few points about the above definition:
• Culture is not something that we are born with, but rather it is learned, imparted to us
through our upbringing and exposure to the practices and rules of conduct of the culture of
which we are a part.
• Culture is shared by a society and members of a society agree about the meanings of things
• Culture teaches values and priorities, which in turn shape attitudes.
• Culture prescribes behaviour and members of a society usually behave in ways that they
think are appropriate or acceptable in their culture. However, what may be acceptable or
appropriate in one culture may be unacceptable in another culture.
In the movie Seven Years in Tibet, Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian living in Tibet, was asked by the
Dalai Lama to build some sort of a movie theatre in Lhasa. In one scene, while he and a group of
Tibetans were digging the piece of land on which the theatre was going to be built, their shovels
and spades uncovered earthworms in the ground. The Tibetans made a big fuss about this and
work on building the theatre had to be stopped for a while, much to Heinrich Harrer’s amazement
and frustration. Work only resumed after all the earthworms were safely collected in containers
and transferred to another location.
What do you think happened? Why did the Tibetans make such a big fuss about the
earthworms? Why was Heinrich Harrer amazed and frustrated by what happened?
The iceberg is a good analogy to use to illustrate the concept of culture in which the part above
water that can be seen illustrates tangible expressions of culture like behaviour, clothing and food
while the part below the surface represents the underlying attitudes, beliefs, values, and
meanings (please see picture below).
Photo by Cliff Wassman
To be effective in communicating across cultures, it is not enough to recognize differences in
behaviours. Of greater importance is striving to understand the underlying factors responsible for
those differences. We also need to accept what Mole (1996) has pertinently pointed out – that
very often the way others do things is not different out of stupidity or carelessness or
incompetence or malice, though it may sometimes seem that way. Most people do what seems
the right thing to do at the time. And the judgment of what is right is rooted in beliefs, values,
attitudes, as well as habit, tradition and accepted norms. Therefore, the first important step
towards more effective intercultural communication is to increase our awareness of those crucial
underlying factors starting firstly with our own cultures then proceeding with the target cultures. It
is only with a better understanding of these factors that we can then communicate more clearly
and build more meaningful relationships with colleagues, customers, suppliers, and other
individuals both locally and internationally.
At any one time, each of us belongs to more than one culture, the most obvious being the culture
of the country in which we live. Other cultural entities include an ethnic group, a religious group,
or even a profession that has its own specialized ways of doing things. Given the constraint of
time, the emphasis in what follows will be on communication across national cultures. It is very
important to note that statements made about any culture are mere generalizations about cultural
norms; they are not absolute truths, and exceptions must be allowed as individuals in the same
culture do not necessarily behave according to the norms of their culture. The norms of a culture
also change over time. As members of a particular culture realize that a practice or custom no
longer works, it will be substituted with something else that is viewed as more acceptable, though
change usually takes time.
2. Fundamental cultural orientations
To understand the belief systems and fundamental values that are at the heart of culture, it is
useful to examine some fundamental cultural orientations, the categories of which remain the
same though the specific orientations differ from one country to the next. Five main cultural
orientations will be looked at: (a) how contexting and face saving affect communication; (b) how
the individual is viewed in relation to the group; (c) how time is perceived; (d) how status is
accorded; and (e) how decisions are made. Note that these are “orientations” or
“tendencies”. Avoid stereotyping any group of people by assuming that everyone belonging to a
cultural group shares exactly the same cultural behaviors, beliefs and traits.
2.1 How contexting and face-saving affect communication
All communication occurs in a context. The more two people share knowledge and experience,
the less important it is for them to express directly what they wish to say or write. The less they
share, the more they must express in words and gestures to be understood. This is the concept
of contexting. Cultures can be placed on a continuum from high to low context, NOT a
dichotomy between high and low contexts.
In high-context cultures, examples of which include most Asian and Middle Eastern countries,
people rely less on verbal communication and more on the context of nonverbal cues,
environmental settings, and implicit information, shared by the parties in the communication, to
convey meaning. As a result, they can appear as rather indirect and vague in their verbal
communication. In contrast, in low-context cultures such as the United States, Switzerland and
Germany, people rely more on verbal communication and less on circumstances and non-verbal
cues to convey meaning so they are very direct, precise and explicit in their communication.
Face-saving is the act of preserving one’s outward dignity. Though people of all cultures are
concerned with face saving, the value attached to the maintenance of status and respect varies
significantly from culture to culture. Usually, the more highly contexted a culture is, the more
importance its members attach to face saving.
Very often, the indirectness that characterizes the communication in most high-context cultures is
to a large extent a strategy to avoid causing another person to lose face. In that sense, it can be
viewed as consideration for another person’s sense of dignity. However, to people coming from
low-context cultures, this indirectness may be seen as dishonesty, suggesting that the speaker
may have something to hide.
2.2 How the individual is viewed in relation to the group
Cultures can be characterized as either more individualist or collectivist in orientation. Hofstede
(1991) defines the individualist culture as one in which the ties between individuals are loose and
everyone is expected to look after himself or herself and his or her immediate family. He
contrasts this with a collectivist culture in which people from birth onwards are integrated into
strong, cohesive groups, which throughout their lifetime continue to protect them in exchange for
In an individualist culture, independence is highly valued; in a collectivist culture, the individual is
regarded as part of the group and a high degree of interdependence prevails in the same group.
Varner and Beamer (1995) point out that in an individualist culture, a single person can earn
credit or blame for the success or failure of a company project while in a collectivist culture, credit
or blame goes to the group. Individuals in a collectivist culture do not usually seek recognition
and are uncomfortable if it is given. In a collectivist culture, 'members of a team are more
concerned with fulfilling their obligations to a group than being self-fulfilled in terms of personal
achievements' (Abdullah, 1996:26).
Most Asian and Latin American countries are generally collectivist in orientation. Examples of
individualist cultures include the US, most parts of Western and Northern Europe and Australia
and New Zealand.
2.3 How time is perceived
Hall (1991) makes a distinction between cultures that are monochronic and those that are
polychronic. In monochronic cultures, time is seen as a way to organize the business day
efficiently. In such cultures, people place a high emphasis on schedules, a precise reckoning of
time and promptness and schedules usually take precedence over interpersonal relations.
People in such cultures try to get to the point quickly when communicating and they also tend to
focus on only one task during each scheduled period. Apart from the US and the UK in which
time is perceived as such, some Asian countries also fall in this category typically in business
contexts. They include Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong.
In polychronic cultures, time is seen as more fluid and people do not observe strict schedules.
Preset schedules are subordinate to interpersonal relations and people take whatever time is
needed to get to know each other and build a foundation for the business relationship. It is not
unusual in such cultures for business meetings to be interrupted by other things completely
unrelated to the discussion. Most Arab and African countries are in this category. In social
contexts, Singapore is also more polychronic in nature.
2.4 How status is accorded
Cultures also differ in how status is accorded. In some cultures, status is accorded to people
based more on their individual achievements while in others status is ascribed to people by virtue
of their age, family background, profession, and so on. In the latter, organizations are usually
more hierarchical and extensive use of titles especially for high ranking executives and officials is
the norm. In the former, organizations are less hierarchical and titles are usually only used when
they are relevant to the competence one brings to the task, for example, a medical doctor. Again,
cultures can be placed on a continuum from less hierarchical to more hierarchical. Most Asian
and Arab countries are more hierarchical compared to the US and most other European
In most Asian societies, within an organisation, it is important to show the proper respect for
individuals depending on their rank and position. When addressing people who are older or of
higher status, people speak politely and formally. It is also considered inappropriate to interrupt
authority figures when they are speaking and their opinions carry a lot of weight. This leads to
the practice of never questioning what they say, especially in front of other people, as this will be
viewed as a sign of disrespect and can also lead to a loss of face. This behaviour may however
be interpreted as a lack of assertiveness on the part of the employee in cultures that are less
hierarchical and where employees are free to interrupt their superiors and voice their own
2.5 How decisions are made
In the United States and Canada, businesspeople try to reach decisions as quickly and efficiently
as possible. Main points are agreed upon first while the details are left to be worked out later.
However, in some other cultures, like Greece for example, spending time on each little point is
considered a mark of good faith and anyone who ignores the details is seen as being evasive and
untrustworthy. Similarly, Latin Americans prefer to make their deals slowly, after much discussion
and the Japanese and many of their Asian counterparts look for group consensus before making
a decision. This is in part related to the collectivist nature of these cultures as well as concern for
maintaining harmony. In such cultures, decisions in business negotiations are not made by
delegates without consulting the organization. This contrasts with the practice in some other
more individualist cultures where decisions can be made on the spot by representatives of the
Gender relations are also crucial in decision-making processes. In recent years, more and more
women have occupied top-level corporations and therefore have provided strong voices in
decision-making. However, it is still a reality that women are less represented in executive-level
positions. Male executives are generally still the ones who make important decisions in their
companies. Nevertheless, the inroads made in diversifying corporate cultures cannot be ignored
because many women have broken the barriers of power in their work. All this tells us that we
also need to be very careful about understanding the nature of corporate culture – it varies from
one corporation to another, from one country to another.
If you attend a meeting or are observing one, you are in a sense trying to understand the
corporate culture of the participants. How do they make decisions? Are the participants conscious
of the fact that their meetings are formal and therefore they need to use language that is
appropriate for the situation? Or is the whole discussion informal, with participants sometimes
bringing in personal issues that may not be directly relevant to the topics being discussed but are
nevertheless useful in establishing more comfortable interpersonal relations between them?
Sometimes, professionalism takes a backseat and personal matters come into the picture. Even
in top-level meetings, perhaps even more so in these contexts, executives know each other very
well that the professional and the personal are no longer clearly demarcated. In many corporate
meetings, top-level executives also talk about the movies they have watched during the weekend,
or share about the latest novels or other books they have read. In other contexts, these are
culturally not acceptable since meeting participants are expected to be formal, serious and
3. Verbal communication
In discussing verbal communication, the choice of words and expressions, organization of
messages, and clarity of pronunciation will be examined. All points made and examples given
are for communication in the English language.
3.1 Choice of words and expressions
When you are communicating with people of a different culture, you need to pay careful attention
to your choice of words and expressions. Avoid ambiguous words, unfamiliar words, acronyms,
idiomatic expressions and slang.
• Ambiguous words
The same word may have very different interpretations in different cultures and this could
give rise to miscommunication when interacting with people across cultures. e.g. “table”
When one suggests tabling something for discussion, it means putting it on the meeting
agenda in England but it means taking it off the agenda in the US.
• Unfamiliar words
The use of unfamiliar words can also cause a breakdown in communication.
In Singapore, these are common: In the United States, these are common:
Please queue up. Please get in line.
Could I have the bill, please? Could I have the cheque, please?
Take away, please. To go, please.
Acronyms that are easily understood by members of one culture may be totally
incomprehensible to members of another culture.
e.g. FYI, ASAP, EDB, IPO
These expressions can create a breakdown in communication when used in an
intercultural context, especially one involving non-native speakers of English.
To break a leg (To do well at some performance)
To hold one’s tongue (To refrain from saying something unpleasant or nasty)
To rain cats and dogs (To rain very heavily)
More money down the drain (More money to spend)
Cultures may develop their own slang that may be foreign to other cultures using the
An advertisement by Electrolux worked very well in Europe but was unusable in the
United States. The advertisement carries the slogan, “Nothing sucks like the Electrolux.”
The slogan will not go down well with an American audience because the slang
expression “it sucks” has negative connotations in the US. In Europe, the word “sucks”
has a literal meaning so the slogan is perfectly all right.
3.2 Organization of messages
It is also important to organize your messages in a way that is suitable for your target audience
whose culture is different from yours. Many English-speaking countries prefer a direct approach
to most messages with the main idea presented first and the details given later. However, for
many other cultures like Latin American, Japanese and Arabic cultures, this direct approach is not
usually favoured and may even sometimes be seen as tactless and rude. This preference can be
traced back to the nature of the culture with respect to contexting and face-saving.
3.3 Clarity of pronunciation
The clear articulation of speech is important in any speaking situation but even more so when
speaking in an intercultural communication context. Some words are so close in pronunciation
that articulating them wrongly or “lazily” could create confusion in communication.
differ / defer pot / port access / assess tree / three
leaf / lift pan / pen paint / pain cuff / carve
4. Nonverbal communication
Nonverbal communication adds to the message and a failure to interpret nonverbal signals
correctly can lead to unwanted misunderstandings and a breakdown in the communication
process. In intercultural communication, it is important to recognize that people from different
cultures attach different meanings to nonverbal signals. Seven types of nonverbal signals will be
examined in this section: body language; eye contact; laughter; touch; physical space; tone,
volume and speed; and turn-taking.
4.1 Body language
Posture. The way we sit, stand and walk sends a nonverbal message. While in some cultures,
sitting upright in a chair may be viewed as being alert and showing respect for the other party in
the communication process, in some other cultures, the same posture may be viewed as a sign of
the other person being uptight or even aggressive.
Head movements. In many parts of the world, including Singapore and China, the head nod
means yes. However, in Bulgaria, parts of Greece, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iran and Bengal, people
nod their heads up and down to signal no. In these countries, shaking their heads back and forth
4.2 Eye contact
In most Asian cultures, eye contact is generally indirect. In fact, lowering of the eyes usually
indicate respect and humility for the other party. However, in North America and northern
European culture, direct eye contact shows openness, trustworthiness and integrity.
In many Asian cultures, laughter, especially in the form of giggling, may not be a reaction to
anything humorous but rather an expression of embarrassment when people do not understand
something, for example, a joke related by a Western colleague.
The handshake has become an accepted touch between business people when they first meet
but the type of handshake varies widely across cultures. In most Western cultures, a firm
handshake is a sign of strength and character and indicates sincerity. However, in countries like
Japan and Thailand, the handshake is usually very soft, almost limp. Foster (2000) posits that
this does not indicate insincerity; rather it is an indication of humility using a Western form of
4.5 Physical space
Goodman (1995) highlights that in interpersonal communication, the physical space between
speakers adds to the message. Culture determines whether the distance is too close or too far
away. Distance can be thought of as showing degrees of intimacy, as shown in the diagram
Space between speakers
Source: Goodman’s Working in a Global Environment
The intimate space is reserved for people one is closest too and this space is generally extremely
inappropriate at the workplace. The casual-personal range denotes the space where friends and
relatives are usually comfortable in. The socio-consultative distance is generally appropriate for
the workplace whole the public space at work is limited to formal presentations. The actual
distance for each of these categories again differs from culture to culture so failing to understand
differences in the appropriate physical distance between speakers can lead to some discomfort
and serious miscommunication.
4.6 Tone, volume and speed
Tone, volume and speed of speaking also vary widely in different cultures. What in one culture
may sound like a heated argument may in another culture be considered the norm for a
reasonable discussion. Indonesians, Filipinos and Thais usually speak in soft, hushed tones. In
these cultures, emotions are also generally restrained and losing one’s control may be
considered very bad form; being cool and self-possessed is what is admired. In Latin American
cultures, the pace of speaking is generally fast and volume loud, with more ups and downs in
intonation. This way of speaking shows that one has one’s heart in the matter.
4.7 Turn-taking and silence
Turn-taking in conversation and the role of silence also differ between cultures. In some cultures,
it is acceptable and even desirable to interrupt while someone else is speaking as it indicates
enthusiasm and interest in the conversation. However, in some other cultures, interrupting is
considered rude; people in these cultures usually wait for the other party to finish speaking before
making their point. In some cultures, a period of silence between contributions is accepted as the
norm. Taking time to process the information before one starts speaking is in fact a sign of
respect for the other person but people in some other cultures feel uncomfortable with these
periods of silence and tends to fill them up with ‘unnecessary’ talk.
5. Culture’s influence on written business communication
Cultures also influence our written business communication.
5.1 Organisation of messages
In most English-speaking countries, the writing style of business messages that is preferred is
direct, clear and concise. Writers will also ensure that every part of the message is directly
relevant to the subject under discussion. This direct rhetorical pattern of writing can be
represented by a straight line from the opening sentence to the last sentence. This writing style is
characteristic of low-context cultures. However, in many oriental cultures, which also tend to be
high-context in orientation, the preferred writing style could be very different. Writing in these
cultures is marked by indirectness and paragraph development may be said to be turning and
spiraling in a circular fashion. In Japan, for example, what is regarded as good writing style
follows the kishotenketsu organization. Ki is the small talk which has nothing to do with the
business at hand, sho is raising the subject where the company may be introduced before the
writer moves gradually into the purpose of the letter, ten is rolling it where further effort is made to
establish rapport and credibility, and ketsu is ending it beautifully by focusing on the addressee
and offering congratulations on his or her company’s achievements. Click here for an example of
letter using the kishotenketsu organisation.
5.2 Mechanics and format
The mechanics and format of letter writing also differ across cultures. In Singapore, because of
the British influence, most of the time dates are written the European way (day.month.year), and
addresses are written the Western way, beginning with the name, and working down to the street,
city and country plus postal code. In China, Japan, and South Korea, business letters are usually
very formal and respectful of rank and hierarchy. Last names are usually written in uppercase
and dates are given in the year.month.day format. The address is usually written beginning with
the country and postal code, followed by the city (and prefecture), street address and finally
company and/or personal name.
6. Tips for effective intercultural communication
In order for you to become an effective communicator in this global workplace, the following is a
list of things that you should try to work towards (adapted from Bovee, Thill and Schatzman,
• Develop a sense of cultural awareness. First of all, be aware of what it means to be from
your own country. Then, learn all you possibly can about the culture of the people with
whom you need to communicate.
• Do away with ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is the tendency to judge all other groups
according to your own group’s standards, behaviours and customs and to see other
groups as inferior by comparison. You have to give up your ethnocentricity in an
intercultural communication context, because different cultures have different ways of
behaving and interpreting behaviours so you must:
• Recognise differences. Just because people do things differently from you, it
does not mean that they are inefficient or stupid. Being different should not
always be seen as negative.
• Show respect for your counterparts.
• Learn to adapt. Be flexible and ready to adapt or adjust your behaviour, but do not
overdo your adjustment as then you may be perceived as insincere. Just try to act in a
way appropriate to the target culture, be yourself and show sincerity.
• Be more tolerant. Because people of different cultures do things differently from one
another, you must be tolerant of deviations from the norms - what you are used to in your
own culture. Remember what may be the norm for you may not be the norm for other
• Listen carefully and empathise. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, consider
his/her point of view and understand where he/she is coming from.
• Look beyond the superficial. Do not get distracted by dress, appearance, or
• Do not lapse into your own language while in the presence of others who do not speak it.
When in an intercultural context, always use a language which is understood by all. Using
a language that is only understood by the few people from your own culture may be seen
as your way of excluding all others in the group or may suggest that you have something
negative to say.
• Take responsibility for the communication. Do not assume it is the other person’s
responsibility to make the communication work. As a party in the communication
process, you also have to do your part to ensure effective communication.
When using language,
• Send clear messages in both oral and written communication
• Use simple, frequently used words
• Be very careful with translation
• Avoid slang, acronyms, colloquialisms and idiomatic expressions
In written communication,
• Use short, simple sentences and short paragraphs
• Number points for clarity
• Reflect your relationship with the reader in your choice of words
In oral communication,
• Speak slowly and clearly
• Be careful with pronunciation
• Simplify speech
• Make one point at a time
• Adapt tone of voice, style and behaviour to what is culturally acceptable to your audience
• Watch the other person for misunderstanding and be ready to provide feedback
As a final note, while learning all you can about a particular culture is a good way to figure out
how to send and receive intercultural messages effectively, it is unrealistic to expect to
understand another culture completely. No matter how much you study French culture, for
example, you will never be French if you are a Singaporean who have been born and bred in
Singapore. In addition, do not overgeneralize and look at people as stereotypical “Germans” or
“Americans” and then never move beyond that view. As in all our interpersonal communication,
we need to communicate with individuals as individuals who are by their very nature unique, one
from the other, whatever culture they come from. To be effective in intercultural communication,
it helps to learn useful general information but it is imperative to be aware and open to variations
and individual differences.
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