Intercultural communication is the process of sending and receiving messages between people whose cultural background leads them to interpret verbal and nonverbal signs differently. Two trends contributing to the rapidly increasing importance of intercultural communication in the workplace are market globalization and the multicultural workforce. Market globalization is the increasing tendency of the world to act as one market. Technological advances in travel and telecommunications are the driving force behind market globalization. For instance, new communication technologies allow teams from all over the world to work on projects and share information without leaving their desks. At the same time, advanced technologies allow manufacturers to produce their goods in foreign locations that offer an abundant supply of low-cost labor. The U.S. workforce is partly composed of immigrants (new arrivals from Europe, Canada, Latin America, India, Africa, and Asia) and people from various ethnic backgrounds (such as African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans), all of whom bring their own language and culture to the workplace. As a result, today’s workforce is made up of more and more people who differ in race, gender, age, culture, family structure, religion, and educational background. Such cultural diversity is the second trend contributing to the importance of intercultural communication. It affects how business messages are conceived, planned, sent, received, and interpreted in the workplace.
Culture is a shared system of symbols, beliefs, attitudes, values, expectations, and norms for behavior. You belong to several cultures. The most obvious is the culture you share with all the people who live in your own country. In addition, you also belong to other cultural groups, including an ethnic group, probably a religious group, and perhaps a profession that has its own special language and customs. All members of a culture have similar assumptions about how people should think, behave, and communicate. Cultures differ widely from group to group. Distinct groups that exist within a major culture are referred to as subcultures . Groups that might be considered subcultures in the United States are Mexican Americans, Mormons, wrestling fans, Russian immigrants, disabled persons, and Harvard graduates. Communication is strongly affected by culture. You can improve your ability to communicate effectively across cultures by recognizing cultural differences and then overcoming your own ethnocentrism —the tendency to judge all other groups according to your own group’s standards, behaviors, and customs. When making such comparisons, people too often decide that their group is superior.
When you write to or speak with someone from another culture, you encode your message using the assumptions of your own culture. However, members of your audience decode your message according to the assumptions of their culture, so your meaning may be misunderstood. The greater the difference between cultures, the greater the chance for misunderstanding. You can improve your intercultural sensitivity and expedite cross-cultural communication by recognizing and accommodating four main types of cultural differences: contextual, ethical, social, and nonverbal.
People assign meaning to a message according to cultural context: physical cues, environmental stimuli, and implicit understanding that convey meaning between two members of the same culture. In a high-context culture , people rely less on verbal communication and more on the context of nonverbal actions and environmental setting to convey meaning. In a low-context culture , people rely more on verbal communication and less on contextual cues. In lower-context cultures, businesspeople try to reach decisions as quickly and efficiently as possible. They are concerned with reaching an agreement on the main points, leaving the details to be worked out later by others. However, this approach would backfire in higher-context cultures because there executives assume that anyone who ignores the details is untrustworthy. Cultures differ in their tolerance for disagreement when solving problems. Low-context businesspeople typically enjoy confrontation and debate, but high-context businesspersons shun such tactics. Members of low-context cultures see their negotiating goals in economic terms. To high-context negotiators, immediate economic gains are secondary to establishing and maintaining long-term relationships.
Cultural context also influences legal and ethical behavior. For example, because low-context cultures value the written word, written agreements are binding. High-context cultures put less emphasis on the written word and consider personal pledges more important than contracts. They also tend to view law with flexibility; low-context cultures value the letter of the law. As you conduct business around the world, you’ll find that legal systems differ from culture to culture. These differences can be particularly important if your firm must communicate about a legal dispute in another country. When communicating across cultures, keep your messages ethical by applying four basic principles: Actively seek mutual ground. Send and receive messages without judgment. Send messages that are honest. Show respect for cultural differences.
The predominant U.S. view is that money solves many problems, that material comfort (earned by individual effort) is a sign of superiority, and that people who work hard are better than those who don’t. However, many societies condemn materialism, and some prize a more carefree lifestyle. Culture dictates the roles people play, including who communicates with whom, what they communicate, and in what way. Culture also dictates how people show respect and signify rank. What is polite in one culture may be considered rude in another. Therefore, the concept of good manners varies widely from culture to culture. Conducting business entails schedules, deadlines, and appointments, but these matters are regarded differently from culture to culture.
Nonverbal communication is a reliable way to determine meaning, but that reliability is valid only when the communicators belong to the same culture. The simplest hand gestures change meaning across cultures, so interpreting nonverbal elements according to your own culture can be dangerous. Consider the concept of personal space . People in Canada and the United States usually stand about five feet apart during a business conversation. However, this distance is uncomfortably close for people from Germany or Japan and uncomfortably far for Arabs and Latin Americans. Gestures help members of a culture clarify confusing messages, but differences in body language can be a major source of misunderstanding during intercultural communication. Don’t assume that someone from another culture who speaks your language has mastered your culture’s body language. People from different cultures may misread an intentional nonverbal signal, overlook the signal entirely, or assume that a meaningless gesture is significant. Recognizing cultural differences helps you avoid sending inappropriate signals and helps you correctly interpret the signals from others—an important step toward improving intercultural sensitivity.
When communicating across cultures, your effectiveness depends on maintaining an open mind. Unfortunately, many people lapse into ethnocentrism. They lose sight of the possibility that their words and actions can be misunderstood, and they forget that they are likely to misinterpret the actions of others. When you first begin to investigate the culture of another group, you may attempt to understand the common tendencies of that group’s members by stereotyping —predicting individuals’ behavior or character on the basis of their membership in a particular group or class. Unfortunately, when ethnocentric people stereotype, they tend to do so on the basis of limited, general, or inaccurate evidence. In order to overcome ethnocentrism, follow a few simple suggestions: Acknowledge and accept distinctions. Don’t ignore the differences between another person’s culture and your own. Avoid assumptions. Don’t assume that others will act the same way you do, that they will operate from the same assumptions, or that they will use language and symbols the same way you do. Avoid judgments. When people act differently, don’t conclude that they are in error, that their way is invalid, or that their customs are inferior to your own.
Once you can recognize cultural elements and overcome ethnocentrism, you’re ready to focus on your intercultural communication skills. To communicate more effectively with people from other cultures, study other cultures, overcome language barriers, and develop intercultural communication skills, both written and oral. Use the following to communicate more effectively: Assume differences until similarity is proved. Don’t assume that others are more similar to you than they actually are. Take responsibility for communication. Don’t assume it’s the other person’s job to communicate with you. Withhold judgment. Learn to listen to the whole story and accept differences in others without judging them. Show respect. Learn how respect is communicated in various cultures (through gestures, eye contact, and so on). Empathize. Before sending a message, put yourself in the receiver’s shoes. Imagine the receiver’s feelings and point of view. Tolerate ambiguity. Learn to control your frustration when placed in an unfamiliar or confusing situation.
Look beyond the superficial. Don’t be distracted by things such as dress, appearance, or environmental discomforts. Be patient and persistent. If you want to communicate with someone from another culture, don’t give up easily. Recognize your own cultural biases. Learn to identify when your assumptions are different from the other person’s. Be flexible. Be prepared to change your habits and attitudes when communicating with someone from another culture.
Emphasize common ground. Look for similarities to work from. Send clear messages. Make both your verbal and nonverbal signals clear and consistent. Deal with the individual. Communicate with each person as an individual, not as a stereotypical representative of another group. Learn when to be direct. Investigate each culture so that you'll know when to send your message in a straightforward manner and when to be indirect. Treat your interpretation as a working hypothesis. Once you think you understand a foreign culture, carefully assess the feedback provided by recipients of your communication to see if it confirms your hypothesis.
By choosing specific words to communicate, you signal that you are a member of a particular culture or subculture and that you know the code. The nature of your code—your language and vocabulary—imposes its own barriers on your message. When U.S. businesspeople deal with individuals who use English as a second language, misunderstandings are likely to involve vocabulary, pronunciation, or usage. Languages never translate word for word. They are idiomatic —constructed with phrases that mean more than the sum of their literal parts. When speaking to people less fluent in your language, try to choose words carefully to convey only their most specific denotative meaning. Even when other people speak your language, you may have a hard time understanding their pronunciation. Vocal variations can block communication because some people use their voices differently from culture to culture. U.S. workers typically prefer an open and direct communication style and consider anything else to be dishonest or insincere. Workers from other cultures, such as Japanese or Chinese, tend to be more indirect. In general, U.S. businesspeople will want to be somewhat more formal in their international correspondence than they would be when writing to people in their own country.
To compete globally, many European businesses are making English their official language. Some multinational companies ask all their employees to use English when writing to employees in other countries, regardless of where they’re located. Even though English is widely spoken in the global business marketplace, the language of business is the language of the customer. And increasingly, that language may not be English. If you’re planning to live in another country or to do business there often, you might want to learn the language. The same holds true if you’ll be working closely with a subculture that has its own language. Even if you’re doing business in your own language, you show respect by making the effort to learn the subculture’s language, or at least to learn a few words. Many forms of written communication must be translated: for example, advertisements, warranties, repair and maintenance manuals, and product labels. Experienced translators can analyze a message, understand its meaning in the cultural context, consider how to convey the meaning in another language, and then use verbal and nonverbal signals to encode or decode the message for someone from another culture. The option of teaching other people to speak your language doesn’t appear to be very practical at first glance. However, many companies find it beneficial to offer English language training programs.
When sending written communication to businesspeople from another culture, familiarize yourself with their written communication preferences and adapt your approach, style, and tone to meet your audiences’ expectations. To help you prepare effective written communications, follow these recommendations : Use plain English: short, precise words that say exactly what you mean. Be clear by using specific terms and concrete examples. Address international correspondence properly. Cite numbers carefully. Use figures (27) instead of spelling them out twenty-seven). Avoid slang, idioms, jargon, and buzzwords. Be brief. Construct sentences that are shorter and simpler than those you might use when writing to someone fluent in your own language. Use short paragraphs. Each paragraph should stick to one topic and be no more than eight to ten lines long. Use transitional elements. Help readers follow your train of thought by using transitional words and phrases.
When speaking in English to people who speak English as a second language, you may find these guidelines helpful: Try to eliminate noise. Pronounce words clearly, stop at distinct punctuation points, and make one point at a time. Look for feedback. Be alert to signs of confusion in your listener. Speak slowly and rephrase your sentence when necessary. If someone doesn’t seem to understand you, choose simpler words; don’t just repeat the sentence in a louder voice. Clarify your true intent with repetition and examples. Try to be aware of unintentional meanings that may be read into your message. Don’t talk down to the other person. Try not to over-enunciate, and don’t “blame” the listener for not understanding. Use objective, accurate language. Avoid adjectives such as fantastic and fabulous, which people from other cultures might consider unreal and overly dramatic.
Learn foreign phrases. Learn common greetings and a few simple phrases in the other person’s native language. Listen carefully and patiently. Let others finish what they have to say. If you interrupt, you may miss something important or show disrespect. Adapt your conversation style to the other person’s. For instance, if the other person appears to be direct and straightforward, follow suit. Check frequently for comprehension. Make one point at a time and pause to check of comprehension before moving on. Clarify what will happen next. At the end of the conversation, be sure that you and the other person agree on what has been said and decided. Observe body language. Be alert to roving eyes, glazed looks, and other facial expressions that signal the listener is lost or confused.
Intercultural Communication Two Major Trends Market Globalization Multicultural Workforce (cultural diversity)