In international business, the failure to understand cultural differences can bear serious consequences. In fact, whole campaigns have had to be pulled due to a lack of prior research into cultural awareness. Last-minute redesign and reprinting can be very expensive, so it is crucial to ensure that any text and images used are culturally appropriate. It’s not surprising that intercultural understanding and communication are top priorities for international businesses today. Employees with intercultural communication competence are highly sought-after. But what is intercultural communication?
Intercultural communication studies communication across different cultures and social groups and describes the many communication processes and related issues among groups of individuals from varied cultural backgrounds.
Knowing a foreign language is just part of the parcel—the other party’s cultural background, values, and beliefs also need to be understood. This is where intercultural communication skills are indispensable. They are needed to successfully communicate with people from other cultures and social groups. And intercultural communication skills also include a willingness to be adaptable and accept that other cultures may communicate and do things differently.
If you’re wondering where you and your staff can acquire these sought-after intercultural communication skills, look no further! EHLION is an established language services provider with many years of experience in cross-cultural training. We can help your staff communicate effectively with other employees internationally, or we can prepare executives for overseas deployments or for high-level business negotiations as an alternative to relying on interpretation services.
How do we define intercultural communication?
How can we define intercultural communication? Intercultural communication essentially means communication across different cultural boundaries. When two or more people with different cultural backgrounds interact and communicate with each other or one another, we can say that intercultural communication is taking place. So intercultural communication can be defined as the sharing of information on different levels of awareness between people with different cultural backgrounds, or put simply: individuals influenced by different cultural groups negotiate shared meaning in interactions.
Intercultural communication theories
There are many different intercultural communication types and theories. The most important ones are:
- Social science approach: This model focuses on observing the behavior of a person from a different culture in order to describe it and compare it with other cultures. It also examines the ways in which individuals adjust their communication with others in different situations, depending on who they are talking to. For example, we would tell the same story differently to our best friend than we would to our grandmother.
- Interpretive approach: This theory focuses on accumulating knowledge about a culture through communication in the form of shared stories based on subjective, individual experiences. The main focus is on intercultural communication as it is used in particular speech communities, so ethnography plays a major role here. Because the individual context is so important for this model, it does not strive to make generalized predictions based on its findings.
- Dialectical approach: This method examines aspects of intercultural communication in the form of six dichotomies, namely cultural vs. individual, personal vs. contextual, differences vs. similarities, static vs. dynamic, history vs. past-present vs. future, and privilege vs. disadvantage. A dialectical approach helps us think about culture and intercultural communication in complex ways, so we can avoid categorizing everything in either-or dichotomies by adopting a broader approach and acknowledging the tensions that must be negotiated.
- Critical approach: This approach examines cultures according to their differences compared to the researcher’s own culture and, in particular, how these cultures are portrayed in the media. The critical approach is complex and multifaceted and therefore leads to a rich understanding of intercultural communication.
The differences between Multicultural vs. Cross-cultural vs. Intercultural
You may have also come across the terms multicultural communication and cross-cultural communication. How do these differ from intercultural communication? Let’s take a look!
Multicultural refers to how a group or team is composed, in particular a group that is made up of people with different nationalities. In fact, communication in multicultural settings has become commonplace today.
Cross-cultural means comparing two or more different cultures; so cross-cultural communication examines the varying communication styles of different cultural groups.
Intercultural, finally, refers to exchanges taking place between different cultures.
So, in a nutshell, intercultural communication relates to interactions among people from different cultures, while cross-cultural communication involves comparing interactions among people from the same culture to those from another culture.
What makes intercultural communication so important?
There are many reasons reasons why intercultural communication is important. First of all, effective intercultural communication is an essential skill for anyone working across different countries or regions in order to establish harmonious relationships and avoid conflict. It is essential to accurately and appropriately transfer information across countries and cultures. Executives in multinational companies, working either in their home country or as expats abroad, especially benefit from great intercultural communication skills to engage with international clients and employees.
Similarly, intercultural communication is also crucial for anyone working with people from other cultures to avoid misunderstandings and even offense. It’s fair to say that intercultural communication is the foundation for successful international business in today’s globalized world.
Practical examples of intercultural communication
Intercultural competence covers a large field ranging from linguistic aspects all the way to social and cultural conventions.
Linguistic differences can make it challenging for global companies to identify suitable product names for their target markets that don’t cause offense. Coca-Cola, for example, once tried to find a phonetic equivalent of their brand for the Chinese market and came up with KeKou-KeLa. But they failed to consider that this pleasantly sounding name translates to “bite the wax tadpole” in Chinese. Needless to say, the brand name had to be changed.
It’s important to be aware that each culture may have different social conventions. American business partners, for example, prefer small talk to build a relationship first, whereas Brits may try humor, and Germans tend to get straight to the point without beating around the bush. Thais, on the other hand, think nothing of asking what are considered rather personal questions in the western world, for example about your marital status or job. Similarly, Americans like to use first names when addressing others, while in Austria, titles should be used to avoid sounding disrespectful. Germans will want to shake hands, while people in Thailand place their palms together at chest level and bow instead.
|Conversation||Small talk||Humor||Direct approach||Personal questions|
|Greeting||First name, informal||First name, informal||Shake hands, formal||Palms together and bow, respectful|
In a business context, it’s also interesting that different cultures prefer a different presentation style. So take note if you or your staff are planning to present overseas. Western cultures like Australia and the U.S. are more forward-looking and like to focus on potential future benefits of products and campaigns. In contrast, representatives from countries such as China or India will prefer to go over past achievements to establish credibility. This knowledge can make or break relationships and business deals.
Non-verbal communication can be just as tricky to navigate as verbal communication. In many countries, giving a thumbs-up sign is a positive expression that signals agreement. But in some cultures, such as Japan, Indonesia, and Latin America, it is considered offensive.
Similarly, eating with your hands is a perfectly acceptable way to eat in Indian culture but is considered rude in many other cultures
Barriers and challenges
Given its complexity, it’s not surprising that there are several barriers to intercultural communication.
One of the main challenges of intercultural communication is ethnocentrism, which is the common but misguided assumption of a cultural group that it is superior to other cultural groups. This can be addressed by actively trying to be open-minded and accepting towards other cultures.
Another barrier is assuming that other cultures are similar rather than different to your own. As a result, you might behave as you would in your own culture but end up causing offense or worse, simply because you are unaware that different rules and norms apply in the other culture.
Finally, the most common barrier to intercultural communication is—perhaps surprisingly—anxiety. When you are unsure what is expected of you or what to do, it’s only natural to feel anxious. Your focus is then likely to shift to your feeling of anxiousness and away from the intercultural transaction taking place. As a result, you may make more mistakes than you would have otherwise and seem to be behaving awkwardly to others.
Intercultural communication in business
International business is more than investing in website localization, app localization, software localization, or professional translation services for your documents and materials. Arranging negotiation interpreting services is also laudable, but it’s only half the job. The other half is to train your members of staff in intercultural communication and help them acquire intercultural competence to ensure they can communicate effectively—both with other staff around the globe, and with clients and other people from different cultural backgrounds.
Given the importance of intercultural communication in business, it’s definitely worth investing in this area. Communication can be significantly improved by implementing proper cross-cultural training. This is especially important if you are managing teams from all over the world. Be especially aware of different styles of communication, as some may be more direct than others.
EHLION’s intercultural coaching will help you to build successful business relationships across different cultures. Our experienced coaches are experts in the local customs and business etiquette of various countries around the globe.
Please refer to our translation rates overview for costs and benefits of translation and intercultural training with EHLION.
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How to improve your intercultural communication skills
Apply these tried and tested strategies to improve your intercultural communication skills:
- Prepare: Do your research and find out who you will be dealing with. Look into the cultural norms and social customs of the location. If you are traveling to China, South Korea, or Japan, for example, check out our country guides before you set off!
- Learn the language: It will no doubt be a huge benefit and much appreciated if you show that you’ve made an effort to learn your counterpart’s language. They will surely respect you for it, and this could boost your relationship.
- Observe: When you first interact with a representative of the unfamiliar culture, listen carefully and closely observe their behavior. Pay particular attention to how they respond to different communication styles, and also look for similarities to your own culture.
- Be open-minded and self-aware: Forget all blanket assumptions you may have had about the other culture. After all, people are still individuals with their own preferences, so be aware of any preconceived ideas you may have and challenge them.
- Ask questions: If you’re unsure about something or think you may have misunderstood what’s being asked of you, it’s perfectly fine to ask and clarify rather than guessing and potentially committing an embarrassing faux pas.
- Seek help: to coach you in the culture of your target country. You can ask them any question you like and draw on their hands-on experience.
When you book in for our popular cross-cultural training, you will become familiar the working and leadership styles in your target country. As a result, you will be able to successfully communicate with and motivate employees there. What’s more, EHLION’s coaches will give you valuable tips on conflict management and negotiation in local region, and will explain the differences in attitudes towards physical contact as well as the meaning of gestures and facial expressions in each culture.
We deploy to improve your intercultural communication skills.
Intercultural communication in a nutshell
Intercultural communication is a cornerstone of international relations and business transactions in our globalized world today. Although it has its pitfalls, intercultural communication skills can be trained and improved to foster smooth relationships among people from different cultural backgrounds.
Investing in intercultural training is a surefire way towards business success and better interpersonal relations. Speak to one of our friendly team members today to find out what EHLION can do for you and your business.