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What is Intercultural Communication and Why is it Important?

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Intercultural Communication is a mammoth topic.

It has so many facets, angles and sub-topics that doing it any real justice requires lengthy and considered research.

So, rather than try to give some sort of all-encompassing guide to Intercultural Communication, with all its ins and outs, we’re going to keep it simple.

We’re going to focus on 10 answers to 10 commonly asked questions about Intercultural Communication that will offer some great initial insights and answer the question posed, “What is Intercultural Communication and why is it important?”

You’ll find plenty of links to further reading along the way if you want to take your learning to the next level.


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  1. What is the Definition of Intercultural Communication?
  2. What is Intercultural Communication in Simple Terms?
  3. What are Some Examples of Intercultural Communication?
  4. What is the Purpose of Intercultural Communication?
  5. What Makes Intercultural Communication Important?
  6. What are Intercultural Communication Skills?
  7. What is the Role of Intercultural Communication in Work Life?
  8. What is Intercultural Business Communication?
  9. What Can I Do to Improve My Intercultural Communication Skills?
  10. What are Some Essential Books About Intercultural Communication?

1. What is the Definition of Intercultural Communication?


“‘Intercultural Communication’ is one of those terms that everybody uses, and in many different and not necessarily compatible ways. (Intercultural Communication: A Critical Introduction. Ingrid Piller. 2017)

“Loosely, an umbrella term for interaction between people from different cultural or subcultural backgrounds intended to lead to shared understandings of messages.” (Oxford Reference)

“Intercultural communication is a discipline that studies communication across different cultures and social groups, or how culture affects communication.” (Wikipedia)

“Intercultural communication is the study and practice of communication across cultural contexts.” (Milton J. Bennett, Ph.D. Intercultural Development Research Institute)


There is no formal definition of ‘Intercultural Communication’.

As you can see from the quotes above, there is a fuzzy agreement as to what it does and what it looks like, but there are also differences in definitions, meanings and assumptions.

As training practitioners within the Intercultural field, we define Intercultural Communication as the study, research, awareness, training, skills, and practicalities of communicating across cultures – whether those cultures be foreign cultures, i.e. American culture vs. Indian culture, or some other sort of culture, such as organizational culture, i.e. Military Culture vs. Private Sector Culture.


different generations and culture

Cultural differences exist between many types of cultures, including generational. We can see this expressed in lots of ways including differences in the way they dress, walk and, of course, communicate. Photo by Benjamin Ranger


2. What is Intercultural Communication in Simple Terms?


Simply put, Intercultural Communication is about understanding what happens when people communicate with one another when they come from different cultures.

It’s about an awareness of many different factors such as how messages are delivered (e.g. listening and speaking), differences in areas such body language (e.g. eye contact, touch, gestures, etc.) and non-verbal communication (e.g. silence, proxemics, social cues, etc.).

Intercultural Communication, as well as being its own discipline, overlaps with many others including sociology, psychology, anthropology, biology, political science, economics, and public policy.

An easy way to think about Intercultural Communication is that it tries to teach us about ourselves, as individuals and as a species, by using the concept of ‘culture’ to analyze how we create meaning and express that with other cultures.

“Intercultural communication is a symbolic, interpretive, transactional, contextual process, in which people from different cultures create shared meanings.” (Lustig & Koester, Intercultural competence 2007)

At its most basic, as the above quote illustrates, Intercultural Communication is as simple as a conversation or an interaction between two or more people from different cultures.


men in tribal face paint

Intercultural Communication also covers the ways in which we, as cultures, meet and greet people. Learning how other cultures do it, teaches us about our similarities and differences. Photo by Bob Brewer


3. What are Some Examples of Intercultural Communication?


Let’s look at some examples of Intercultural Communication to help consolidate our understanding of the definition and meanings associated with it.

We mentioned above the example of communication differences between national cultures. Well, let’s explore that further.

American and Indian cultures share certain cultural traits when it comes to communication. For example, they both tend to value politeness and friendliness. However, they also have differences. For example:

  • Americans tend to communicate explicitly whereas Indians to be implicit.
  • Americans are comfortable with dealing with conflict openly whereas in Indian culture it requires subtlety.
  • In the USA, “yes” may have very limited interpretations whereas in India, “yes” can mean many things.
  • Strong eye contact is a positive behavior in the USA whereas in India it can be disrespectful or aggressive.
  • Personal space is expected in the USA whereas in India keeping your distance from someone could be interpreted as rude or cold.

The key learning point here is that different national cultures communicate in slightly different ways.

This is also true within countries themselves – you often find subtle regional differences within a country or culture in terms of communication styles.

For example, in the UK, the people of the North are widely recognized as being much more open and friendly than their guarded countrymen in the South and London. In the USA, you will also see differences between the East and West coasts as well as the South.

The other example we mentioned above was between Military Culture and Private Sector Culture. Again, as with national cultures, we can also see different communication styles between organizations within a country.

Military organizations are highly hierarchical, conservative and formal. This is reflected in the communication style where seniors are spoken to according to protocols, where messages are transactional and the language, tone and vocabulary are highly regimented.

This starkly contradicts the communication style of the Private sector where organizations are more egalitarian, open to change and informal. As a result, the communication style is much more informal, messages are personalized and people are allowed to express themselves.

Such differences, created by different cultures, can even be found within an organization itself. For example, salespeople generally tend to have a very different communication style to their colleagues working in accounts or at leadership levels. The reason behind the difference is cultural and also due to values.


rows of soldiers

Organizations, like countries, develop their own cultures due to many factors such as the environment, threat, philosophy, leadership and history. Culture is a complex patchwork of influences. Photo by Bao Menglong


4. What is the Purpose of Intercultural Communication?


Well, there isn’t one single purpose. Intercultural Communication is something that is researched, read about and taught for many reasons.

For starters, understanding how culture impacts communication helps us understand more about the areas of culture and communication. On top of that, it helps us understand more about ourselves as people and as a species.

On a personal level, Intercultural Communication can help us understand our own preferences, strengths and weaknesses when it comes to communicating and how these can help or hinder us when communicating across cultures.

On a wider level, Intercultural Communication can help us understand all manner of things about ourselves as human beings from how we create meaning to the mechanics of the brain (neuroscience) to the use of language(s) for social cohesion.

As practitioners of Intercultural Communication Training, ‘the purpose’ for us is to help professionals understand how culture impacts their effectiveness when working abroad or in a multicultural workplace.

For example, when we train an executive moving to the UAE, we will help them appreciate their own way of communicating, what they like and don’t like as well as possible biases they may hold. On top of this, they would also learn about the communication style in the UAE and potential areas of culture clash.

So, in this context, the purpose of Intercultural Communication is to try and prevent miscommunication and a mismatch of communication styles. Through raising awareness of this through training, it helps promote more successful communication.

Another example would be of a multicultural team we provide training for. In such a training course we would help the different team members understand the various communication styles within the team. Through creating an awareness of the difference, and the reasoning behind it, we help colleagues overcome issues and put into place different ways of doing things.

So, in this context, Intercultural Communication is about understanding how to effectively navigate various communication styles found in the various cultures you work with.


emirati woman on call

With more and more of us working remotely with people around the world, learning about Intercultural Communication has become necessary for both personal and organizational success. Photo by Katsiaryna Endruszkiewicz


 5. What Makes Intercultural Communication Important?


A few reasons why Intercultural Communication is important have already been covered; namely, it helps people understand each other and avoid confusion.

Let’s give this a bit more context by looking at why Intercultural Communication is so important for many people in the workplace.


a. Intercultural Communication and Teamwork

Many of today’s companies and organizations are multicultural. Employees come from around the world. This is not only the case with global and international brands but also domestic companies and organizations (including the Third Sector) which have culturally diverse employees. Learning to communicate and work with people from different cultures is essential if these organizations want to be successful. So, in this regard, Intercultural Communication is important because it helps teamwork.

 

b. Intercultural Communication and the Military

Believe it or not, many militaries spend a lot of money on teaching their troops Intercultural Communication. Why? Because when they spend time in foreign countries, they must learn to adapt their communication style in order to ingratiate themselves with the locals, or at least, in order to gain intelligence. In the USA, for example, the Army, Navy and Marine Corps (plus others) all offer training in Intercultural Communication or similar. In this context, Intercultural Communication is important as it could be the difference between life or death.

 

c. Intercultural Communication and Healthcare

Another field in which Intercultural Communication can mean life or death is in healthcare. Doctors, nurses and medical professionals are now given training in Cultural Competence in order to improve healthcare for all patients. An ignorance of someone’s culture and how they communicate can lead to poor care, misdiagnosis and potential damage to health. For example, if a doctor doesn’t understand that in some cultures the elderly won’t divulge intimate details in front of family members, that Doctor is not going to get the information they need when a son or daughter brings in an elderly parent. They need to understand this and ask the child to leave so a private conversation can be had. So, in this example, Intercultural Communication is important as it ensures good care.

 

d. Intercultural Communication and Teaching

For teaching professionals working in multicultural schools, learning about Intercultural Communication is essential as it otherwise can lead to discrimination, bias and alienation of children from different backgrounds. Some cultures teach their kids to be quiet and respect authority, others to be expressive and challenge ideas. Some cultures wait to be asked to speak, others speak when they have something to say. The point is, as a teacher if you don’t understand the different ways your students communicate, you can make some bad judgement calls. In the context of school and education, Intercultural Communication is important because it prevents bad teaching.

 

e. Intercultural Communication and Marketing/Advertising

A final example of the importance of Intercultural Communication is the marketing and advertising industry. A failure to understand differences in communication around the world can lead to all sorts of marketing fails and PR disasters. A lack of awareness over cultural issues can even lead to claims of cultural appropriation and similar. Today the industry is much more culture-savvy, understanding that to run a successful ad or marketing campaign, it has to be in tune with the target audience and their values. So, in this regard, Intercultural Communication is important because it helps brands reach their audiences.


So, as you can see, Intercultural Communication is important for lots of reasons; probably too many to count.

Pretty much every facet of modern-day life needs some awareness of Intercultural Communication, whether that’s for tourists travelling abroad on vacation, businesspeople negotiating a merger or a lecturer with students from around the world.


self relfection

Self-reflection is critical for those who want to improve their Intercultural Communication skills. Photo by Laurenz Kleinheider


6. What are Intercultural Communication Skills?


Intercultural Communication requires multiple skills, some of which can be learned, others that all of us possess and just need working on.

Let’s examine a few of the most important Intercultural Communication Skills that focus more on personal competencies rather than communication skills such as listening, speaking, body language, etc.


a. Self-Awareness

The key to understanding how other cultures communicate is to understand how you, yourself communicate and how your culture has shaped you. Once you are more aware of your own preferences, habits and possible biases and stereotypes, then it’s much easier to understand how you may influence or impact a conversation or communication. Intercultural Communication is not only about being aware of ‘the other’ but also yourself.

 

b. Empathy

Appreciating that you have been shaped by your culture and other influences, helps create understanding, compassion, mindfulness and empathy. Empathy is critical to Intercultural Communication as it helps you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand what they may be going through. Intercultural Communication relies on empathy as it creates a two-way street as opposed to being dominated by one or the other party.

 

c. Respect

With understanding and empathy, respect should be the natural logical progression. Respect means that you may not agree or like everything about someone else or their culture, but that you acknowledge their right to express themselves, their culture or values. Also, without showing respect it is also hard to receive it. Intercultural Communication can only ever be effective if respect is the foundation.

 

d. Emotional Intelligence

Working across cultures means learning to tune yourself into much of the unseen, intangible and subtle aspects of communication. It’s about using all your senses and engaging your self-awareness and empathy to understand what’s being communicated, or not. The Japanese have a great term for this, ‘Reading the air’ (kuuki o yomu in Japanese) which brilliantly captures the mindset needed. Intercultural Communication requires intuition and the ability to move beyond words.

 

e. Adaptability

In some ways, the essence of Intercultural Communication is to help people adjust their communication styles to promote clarity, harmony and collaboration in exchange for confusion, weak relationships and competition. Therefore, we need to be adaptable – adaptable not only in how we talk and listen and use body language but adaptable in how we think, react and engage with people. Intercultural Communication gives us the insights and tools we need to be flexible and adapt our ways.

 

f. Patience

“Acquaintance without patience is like a candle with no light,” is a Persian proverb that perfectly captures why this is such an important skill when it comes to communicating across cultures. Things work slightly differently around the world; this means things might take more time than you’re used to, or less! Whichever end of the stick you’re dealing with, patience is necessary for effective Intercultural Communication as it moderates expectations and emotions.

 

g. Positivity

When engaging with people from different cultures, it’s always important to keep things positive. 99% of the time when miscommunication happens it’s not because anyone purposefully tried to confuse someone else. Most people are just trying to do what’s right. Sometimes, if we lack cultural awareness, we misread what’s being communicated. That’s why we need to always frame any sort of intercultural interaction positively. To be fruitful, Intercultural Communication must come with positive intentions.

 

There are of course many other skills that are an important part of Intercultural Communication but hopefully, this has given you some solid points to consider.


So, to quickly recap, 7 important Intercultural Communication skills are:

  1. Self-Awareness
  2. Respect
  3. Empathy
  4. Emotional Intelligence
  5. Adaptability
  6. Patience
  7. Positivity

colleagues looking at PC

Many workplaces today are culturally diverse, making Intercultural Communication skills essential. Photo by Arlington Research


7. What is the Role of Intercultural Communication in Work Life?


The answer to this question really depends on what ‘work’ you’re thinking about. We like to speak from experience, so let’s look at some examples of Intercultural Training we have provided for clients.

These will give you an idea of some of the common challenges professionals in various contexts have to deal with in the workplace and how learning about Intercultural Communication helps them.


a. Intercultural Communication and Meetings

We did some training for a global fashion brand and its team of international managers. Various members of the team were frustrated with the way online virtual meetings were being run. For example: “The Americans give you zero time to think and move onto the next point.” vs. “The Chinese never give their opinions which is really frustrating.”

This came down to cultural differences around expectations of meetings. The Americans wanted frank, open discussions whereas the Chinese preferred non-confrontational meetings that focused on face. Due to a lack of awareness, the team meetings were not working. By raising awareness through training, the team learned to find a balance that worked for all.

So, the role of Intercultural Communication here was to help people understand their differences and find common ground.

 

b. Intercultural Communication and Management

Another example that shows how communication styles differ across cultures and why it’s necessary to be adaptable, is some Intercultural Training we did for a German organization. With staff all over the globe, German managers were consistently receiving positive feedback from some countries and terrible feedback from others. In many parts of the world, they were seen as ‘distant’ and ‘impersonal’.

What the managers needed to learn to do was become a bit more relationship-focused in their communication as opposed to focusing on tasks and agendas. In some parts of the world, ‘getting down to business' is not dealt with positively and people expect a bit more ‘warmth’. The managers just needed to be shown what was happening and they learned to adapt their communication style accordingly.

So, the role of Intercultural Communication here was to help managers communicate more effectively with their staff and get more positive feedback.

 

c. Intercultural Communication and Working Abroad

A final example would be one of the many training courses we provide for professionals relocating to a foreign country for work. Moving to another county means learning a new culture and if you fail to appreciate cultural differences, it can result in some bad decisions. For example, one manager from Europe working in Saudi Arabia nearly got the sack for berating his staff!

Professionals who fail to invest some time and energy in understanding the new host culture can take longer to settle in, make more initial mistakes and generally don’t’ make a great first impression. The statistics show that this is also one of the key reasons why relocations fail, i.e. why people return ‘home’ quicker.

So, the role of Intercultural Communication here is to give people the tools they need to navigate a new culture and to help them settle into a country or job.


By way of summarizing, the role of Intercultural Communication in work life is in helping people understand how culture shapes the different ways we communicate, collaborate and coordinate.

We can use this understanding to help us recognize what is being communicated to us and how we communicate with others.


2 men shake hands after business deal

Doing business successfully across the globe requires the ability to communicate and convince effectively. Photo by Cytonn Photography


8. What is Intercultural Business Communication?


‘Intercultural Business Communication’ refers specifically to interpersonal and structural communication within a professional business context.

The examples above from our Intercultural Training courses were all focused on Intercultural Business Communication as opposed to communication taking place within social services, the military, diplomatic services or healthcare.

Different industries and sectors have very different needs. Yes, there may be some overlap between the needs of a surgeon, a taxi driver, a police officer and a politician, however, when it comes to the specifics, you need focus.

Therefore, Intercultural Business Communication is treated separately as the needs of people within business are specific to the way trade, commerce and enterprise are conducted around the world.

Business as a whole understands that they have their own challenges when it comes to the 'culture question'. This is being reflected in the number of University Degrees now entitled “Intercultural Business Communication” which have been developed to fill the need of global businesses looking to hire people with the skills they need.

Courses focus on key business areas to prepare learners for international careers including topics such as:

  • Human Resource Management
  • Developing Intercultural Competence
  • Global Marketing
  • Business Communication
  • International Business Event Management
  • Organizational Change and Management
  • Understanding Language in the Global Workplace

 

‘Intercultural Business Communication’ covers everything from the big (such as how to launch retail products in a foreign market) to the small (such as how to avoid using humor inappropriately) and everything in between.


reading book on beach

If you're looking for a good book on Intercultural Communication for your next vacation, we've got plenty to recommend! Photo by Dan Dumitriu


9. What are Some Essential Books About Intercultural Business Communication?


If you’re looking for good books on Intercultural Business Communication, you’re spoilt for choice! There are many tens of books published on the subject looking at it from lots of different angles.

If there’s something you’re specifically interested in, then we recommend you do a search to see what books come up. You can also do a search for academic publications, for example with JSTOR.

If you want a decent overview of some of the important books on Intercultural Communication, then we recommend this list by Good Reads which is very comprehensive.

If you want our opinion on some essential books about Intercultural Business Communication, then here’s our top 5 (in no particular order or rank).

  1. Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication: Paradigms, Principles, & Practices. Bennett, Milton Boston, Intercultural Press 2013
  2. The Silent Language. Hall, Edward T. Garden City: Doubleday 1959
  3. Understanding Intercultural Communication. Ting-Toomey, Stella & Chung, Leeva., Oxford University Press 2011
  4. Intercultural Business Communication. Robert Gibson, Oxford University Press 2000
  5. Use Your Difference to Make a Difference: How to Connect and Communicate in a Cross-Cultural World. Tayo Rockson, Wiley 2019

culture curious student

Improving your Intercultural Communication skills means you need to be culturally curious. Photo by Yingchou Han


10. What Can I Do to Improve My Intercultural Communication Skills?


If you want to improve your Intercultural Communication skills, then there are several things you can do to get started.

Obviously travelling abroad, learning a language and mixing with people from different cultures are all excellent ways of improving your Intercultural Communication skills, however, these aren’t very easy for most people. Plus, it takes a lot of time.

So, we’re going to focus on giving you some more simple and tangible things you can do instead.

 

a. Learn about Culture

Learning about other cultures, their values and their communication preferences will offer a lot of insight into differences around the world. There are plenty of websites that offer cultural overviews which you can find online, including our award-winning culture guides. As well as learning about other cultures, it’s also a good idea to learn about some of the basics of Intercultural Communication. A good place to start is this self-study guide to intercultural communication.

 

b. Watch TV Shows

Most of us like to watch TV shows, so why not watch TV and learn about different cultures at the same time? Rather than listen to a poorly dubbed foreign movie in English, listen to it in its native language so you can hear how people from that country communicate. Streaming services today such as Netflix have TV series from around the world, so if you want to learn about Indian culture, Turkish culture or Chinese culture, it’s all there!

 

c. Ask People

If you work with people from different countries or have neighbours from abroad, you have excellent untapped resources. Speaking to people about their cultures and about any ‘culture shock’ they may have experienced living in your country, can give you all sorts of rich information and insights. As long as it’s done with respect, most people around the world love to share their opinions and thoughts.

 

d. Listen & Observe

When it comes to actual communication, there are all sorts of tips to help you improve your Intercultural Skills. For example, learning to ask open and closed questions where needed or avoiding humor. Here’s a list of 10 simple tips if you want to read more. Perhaps the two most important tips when it comes to communication are to listen more than you normally would and also actively observe what others are doing

 

e. Take a Course

Finally, if you want to start peeling away your own cultural make-up, address your own cultural biases and preferences, plus start to learn more about Intercultural Communication, then why not take a course? There are plenty of courses available online which looks at various aspects, however, to get you started you can watch the free video from our eLearning course on Cultural Awareness. It’s a fantastic introduction to the topic of cultural differences, communicating across cultures and working with cultural diversity.

You can watch it below or if you visit the course page you can also access some free course resources and find out more about the contents.



THANKS FOR READING OUR INTRO TO INTERCULTURAL COMMUNICATION!
WE HOPE YOU FOUND IT USEFUL.

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