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The unit “Intercultural Communication” will introduce to the concept of “Intercultural Communication” by approaching a definition in the first section of this unit. It will focus on some challenges on the verbal, non-verbal and value level when interacting with people from other cultures.
The second section “Transnational Communication Skills” discusses useful skills other than speaking foreign languages for effective transnational communication. It shows the fundamental importance of intercultural awareness that allows to adapt and to react to the specific needs of the intercultural communication situation.
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What is intercultural communication?
Just take a minute to reflect: If your fellow volunteer with an Anglo-Saxon background said to you during a discussion about a new project “I’m not quite sure, but I would rather suggest XYZ” how would you understand this sentence?
Would you think a) your counterpart is hesitant about what he/she is saying? Or b) would you understand it as a rejection of what was previously said?
Depending on your own cultural background and on the communicative strategies you are personally used to, you may know that the only way to interpret the sentence is b).
The above situation is an example for intercultural communication. As for the definition of Culture, also for the term intercultural communication there are several definitions depending on the line of research and the focus of the researchers. In a very broad sense the term Intercultural Communication refers to “all kinds of communication between individuals from different cultures” (Thomas, 2005, p. 113) [translated by the author of the module].
When thinking of intercultural communication the challenges are very often underestimated, especially when both partners share a common language, which may not be the mother tongue of at least one partner. Being able to speak the same language may be helpful but in some cases it can also be misleading. Although it is true that intercultural communication is comparable to communication among a culturally homogeneous group when it comes to taking into account certain universal elements of communication like setting, register, choice of verbal / non-verbal means of communication, relationship between the counterparts and so forth, there is one element, however, that makes the difference between inter- and intracultural communication: culture with its country-specific characteristics influencing communication.
Which are the challenges in intercultural communication?
Just take a minute to reflect: On a Sunday, during a walk in town, you happen to meet a friend you know from your volunteer service. She is from some Mediterranean country, maybe Italy. You don’t know each other very well, but when you meet you both enjoy the chats together. Your friend greets you warmly and offers – what you interpret as – a profusion of compliments about your new look.
How would you understand the compliments? A) as a nice way of initiating a conversation, although you know they might be a bit exaggerated? B) You think they are embarrassing and not true?
Depending on your cultural background you may decide for a) or b).
The challenges in intercultural communication may show on three different levels: a) on the verbal, b) non-verbal and c) value level. In the following we can only give an introduction to this interesting but complex field.
- The verbal level:
The way people greet each other, engage in conversation, the topics they like to talk about and even how they structure the verbal approach to certain topics are influenced by culture. You have probably already heard of complex greeting rituals (with ritualized questions and answers about family, family members and their well-being) in African countries (Lüsebrink, 2016, 57). Cutting them short would imply an affront to politeness and may lead to a break-off in conversation.
Also to the opening of a conversation cultures have different approaches to. Some cultures like to start with a compliment “What a unique shirt you have today. The colour is just made for you.” (Mediterranean cultures like Italy, see also the example above), well knowing that the compliment is only meant as start for an informal verbal exchange.
Also simple questions like “How are you doing today?” of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-American cultures and the French “ça va?” (Lüsebrink, 2016, 61) are culturally bound. An earnest answer to them is not expected and would lead to an awkward situation.
Maybe you have experienced how differently turn-taking and silence in conversation can be, depending on the cultural embedding of the members of the conversation. Speakers from Germanic cultures will prefer an orderly sequence of distinct turns, while those cultures like the Mediterranean ones will probably start the own turn earlier, which may seem impolite to partners from other cultures. More than thirty seconds of silence seem inacceptable in German, Mediterranean and Anglo-American cultures and may be interpreted as lack of interest, while this is not so in the Finnish and Chinese cultures (Lüsebrink, 2016, p. 57).
Depending on the cultural background, some topics are more suited than others for conversation. In Germanic cultures to talk about private family and financial matters like childlessness and wages seems less appropriate than in other cultures (see also Lüsebrink, 2016, p. 59).
- The non-verbal level:
Just take a minute to reflect: Have you ever thought why conference tables are so large? Have you noticed differences in size between cultures?
Body language (like gestures, mimic, eye-movement) and the physical distance of the own body kept during a conversation in relation to others (proximity) is a universal in all humans. All human beings, independent of cultural background are able to recognise emotions and states of mind like aggressiveness, ease, familiarity and so on. This is a universal faculty.
However, how these elements are displayed varies from culture to culture. For example, gestures can be misleading and may cause embarrassment, confusion or irritation. Think of the gesture symbolising the brief American statement “Ok!” In France the same gesture stands for “this is nothing” (see Pease, 2013, p. 108).
Depending on the cultural background, gesticulating during a conversation may also not be appreciated. Frequent gesticulation can be seen as a sign of engagement and interest in some cultures (Mediterranean), while the same frequency can be understood as heavy emotional participation and manifestation of aggressive behaviour by other cultures (Germanic).
The meaning of facial expressions like smiling can be very different in different cultures. In most European cultures it can be taken as an expression of happiness or ease, some Asian cultures however show this reaction in situations of embarrassment or uncertainty. In European cultures to establish eye-contact is a means to build up trust and openness in a relationship. In other cultures, like Asian and Muslim ones, it can be seen as impolite and aggressive. In Muslim understanding, to establish eye-contact with a woman can compromise her honour and her integrity.
How much space a body takes during a conversation is influenced by culture and can have a symbolic meaning. It is known for example, that in some Arab, Asian, South-European or Latin American cultures the acceptable distance between bodies in formal encounters is less than in North-American or North-European ones. Also the positioning of the bodies is different: In Arab countries, for example, people stand closer in front of each other than in the U.S.A. or European countries. (See Lüsebrink, 2016, p. 62).
- The value level
Cultures have different values and attitudes that determine what members of a certain culture believe is important and how they interact with others [the culture dimensions see unit 1]. These values and attitudes naturally also show in communication. When communication partners differ strongly in their attitudes, their beliefs, their values, these differences can lead to misunderstandings and critical incidents in intercultural situations (Barmeyer, 2012, p. 84).
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Why are other skills other than speaking foreign languages important?
When communicating with members from other cultures it is often good to know a common language. But even then there is a risk of getting across only a part of the message. The reason is that there are certain layers in language that are culture-specific.
Just take a minute to reflect: Do you think the concept of “friendship” or “family” is exactly the same in all cultures?
In fact the concepts differ depending on culture (for differences between northern Europe and southern Europe see (Lüsebrink, 2016, p. 53) and between European countries and Arab ones (Ghadban, 2020). This is why language competence is not the only tool to avoid intercultural communication challenges (Barmeyer, 2012, p. 85).
Sometimes it is even more effective to develop other skills for effective transnational communication that help to adapt and to react to the specific needs of the intercultural communication situation. It is not possible to discuss all skills that may be useful in such situations. In the following you will be introduced so some helpful skills for you as a volunteer working in an international project or wanting to start working internationally. Those skills focus on enhancing cultural awareness and on communication strategies.
Enhancing cultural awareness for transnational communication
When you, as a volunteer, encounter other internationally working volunteers, you will probably observe, interpret and judge what you see and experience on the basis of your cultural values. This approach is absolutely legitimate because it allows you to act and react intuitively and naturally to the circumstances given by that specific situation. Not having this internalized value system shared by all members your culture would be like driving without GPS. However, having this cultural orientation system carries the danger of taking it as universally granted. Intercultural encounters may be judged on the basis of the value set of the own cultural background.
Why can this be a risk for successful intercultural communication?
Here are some reasons:
- Not realising cultural differences may lead to misinterpretation of intercultural communication situations.
- Not accepting cultural differences may lead to reinforcing stereotypes and prejudices.
- Underestimating cultural differences leads to assumptions of similarity. Assumptions of similarity can imply that the own cultural values and view of the world remain unquestioned, which may lead to respecting less the other culture.
These given reasons are the first three “ethnocentric” stages in Milton J. Bennett’s understanding of the learning process towards more intercultural awareness (DMIS model by Bennett, 2017 and https://www.idrinstitute.org/dmis/ ). To bridge these ethnocentric stages helps to enhance transnational communication skills.
Try to figure out why by reflecting on the following intercultural communication situation.
Just take a minute to reflect: Imagine you are from a culture in which it is quite normal to express without hesitation your own opinion or to give and receive direct feedback. You have been working on a new international project for a few days with a new colleague from an Asian country. One day you have to give him or her some instructions. After checking back with your colleague if what you said was clear, your colleague nods the head and says yes. You expect that the task won’t take longer than a few hours. But at the end of the day your colleague still hasn’t come back to you. You enquire and notice that he or she has hardly started. You are quite furious because you relied on his or her input for the following stages of the project.
What went wrong?
Basis of the misunderstanding is the fact that both parts involved in the situation assumed to have the same verbal and non-verbal communication system. However, the nodding of the head and the verbal “yes” meant for one involved part “I understood”, for the other “I have heard”, which does not necessarily imply intellectually understanding the message.
What can be done to avoid the breakdown of communication?
Probably a first step could be accepting that communication went wrong because there are cultural differences that lead to different understandings instead of blaming the other for having made a mistake. As a second step, both could try to change their culturally given communication styles for example by trying to read more between the lines on the one hand and trying to ask more for help (maybe by addressing other colleagues if preferred) on the other hand. The parties involved could also try to talk about the situation in a more informal setting, for example during a coffee break. This will help especially the partner from a low context culture to express an opinion.
After more practice and in the long run, maybe both parties of the example above may be able to switch from one communication style to another and adapt and integrate different communication strategies as varying intercultural situations require. This is what in the Milton J. Bennett model would be the highest stage of intercultural awareness. (See for the Model https://www.idrinstitute.org/dmis/; Barmeyer, 2012, p. 43)
Tips for enhancing intercultural awareness in transnational communication
- Be open to new intercultural experiences.
- Expect to be surprised by new encounters.
- Reflect on your own cultural values.
- Be aware of your own personal attitude towards your cultural values.
- Detect behaviour and communication strategies in yourself and in others that are culturally bound.
- Question your behaviour and your communication strategies.
- Reflect on your own ways of thinking and on your opinions.
- Try to understand the cultural roots of time perception, display of status, family ties, friendship.
- In intercultural communication situations, try to take the perspective of your counterpart.
- Be interested in cultural norms and values of your culturally different counterpart.
- Listen carefully and give room to what your counterpart has to say even if this means taking a step back.
These tips may seem difficult to you to realise. The good news is that intercultural awareness is a learning process that can be trained.
Choosing adequate communication strategies
Just take a minute to reflect: Do you appreciate direct feedback and don’t take it as criticism? Then you belong to the so called “low context cultures” preferring a direct communication style. Do you tend to elaborate constructions when requesting something from your counterpart? Then you may be a member of a culture that appreciates politeness strategies in order not to lose face.
To successfully communicate between cultures it is helpful to remember that there are cultural differences in the application of communication strategies. This can show, for example, in the way cultures express feedback and disagreement but also in the way they negotiate or deliver a presentation (Lüsebrink, 2016, p. 59), or even in different strategies of verbal politeness.
In the following you will learn about some communication skills that may be helpful in intercultural communication.
Adapt your communication style:
In transnational, intercultural communication misunderstandings may arise – independently of language competences – because counterparts may have different communication styles. How openly you tell your counterpart that you don’t agree with him or her is a matter of culture. Some cultures allow their members to verbalise very openly their disagreement and members of these cultures feel comfortable and even appreciate receiving helpful feedback when they have made a mistake. Why is this so?
Cultures differ in the degree their members address specific topics in a more or less direct way. So called “Low context cultures” prefer a direct communication style. Members of these cultures rely on the literal meaning of word. “High context cultures” prefer an indirect communication style. In these cultures it is important to read between the lines and to observe non-verbal behaviour in order to grasp the entire meaning of the message.
Here are some characteristics of these communication styles:
|High context cultures (by Edward T. Hall)||Low context cultures (by Edward T. Hall)|
|Covert, implicit messages – many contextual elements help people understand||Overt, explicit messages – little information has to be taken from the context|
|Much non-verbal communication||Less importance of non-verbal communication, more focus on verbal communication|
|Relationships more important than tasks||Task is more important than relationships|
Here is a scale showing the relation of cultures between the poles “high context” and “low context”, a concept developed by Edward T. Hall. The raking is not absolute, as depending on certain topic fields the same culture may have a more or less direct approach to it.
Tips for handling challenging situations in transnational communication
In transnational, intercultural communication it is helpful when you try to adapt your own communication style to that of your communication partners.
Especially when you are in a situation in which you make suggestions, communicate decisions, give instructions or feedback chose carefully your phrases and words.
Try to adapt to the politeness strategies of your counterparts. As member of a low context culture you may be used to less “empty phrases” that have the primary goal of engaging your counterpart in a topic.
In transnational, intercultural communication misunderstandings may arise – independently of language competences – because the counterparts simply assume they have understood what has been said.
Why don’t they double-check the understanding?
Here are some reasons:
- Trying to really understand the meaning of your counterpart’s words can be hard work. Making assumptions about the meaning is less exhausting because familiar schemes for interpretation can be used.
- Trying to really understand the meaning of your counterpart’s words can be quite time consuming. Making assumptions of the meaning is quicker.
- Trying to really understand the meaning of your counterpart’s words can imply that you may have to modify your opinions. That may be disturbing.
- Trying to really understand the meaning of your counterpart’s words can imply that you can’t say your favourite sentence because it wouldn’t fit to the context. This could mean that you may have to step back and think anew.
However, there may also be cultural reasons that lead to assuming a specific meaning. Depending on the cultural background, having to admit you haven’t understood a statement can mean loss of face for both the recipient of the message and the sender. The recipient feels ashamed of him- or herself and for the counterpart, because he or she causes the inconvenience of making the other reframe the message. The sender may lose face because he or she wasn’t able to be clear enough, causing the other to ask. Certainly this behaviour can be best observed in Asian cultures, like the Chinese. But also in some European cultures, in communication situations where the counterparts have a different status in terms of hierarchy, similar tendencies can be observed.
Tips for active listening in transnational communication
- Listen carefully without interrupting your counterpart.
- Observe yourself. Do you feel the need to say something while your counterpart is still speaking? Wait till your counterpart has finished.
- Try to rephrase with your own words what you have understood. If you are worried about making the other lose face, rephrasing may be a way of compromise.
- Try to adopt the perspective of the situation your counterpart has. This helps to understand his or her views.
- Even if your cultural background may not allow for it, try asking questions to understand on the content-level and on the emotional level.
Pay attention to hidden agents
In transnational, intercultural communication misunderstandings may arise – independently of language competences – because counterparts aren’t used to reading hidden messages. These may be transferred by non-verbal elements like gestures, mimic and intonation (for the verbal part see the section above on high and low context cultures) or other meaningful symbols (see also “Challenges in Intercultural communication” [LINK to section above])
Why is it difficult to notice such hidden agents?
Here are some reasons:
- Some cultures may be used more than others to applying hidden agents. Consequently it is easier for them than for others to identify them.
- Even if cultures are used in applying hidden agents those agents may have different meanings (smiling in European and Asian cultures).
- Sometimes it can be a question of personal attitude. There is always a risk to either under- or overestimate meaning in communication and over- or under interpret meaning in communication.
Tips for handling challenging situations in transcultural communication
- Be aware that the volume of voice and speed of speech rate can be culturally determined and can therefore lead to misunderstandings in transcultural communication. To avoid this, observe your communication partners and adapt to their volume and speaking habits.
- Be aware that gestures and gesticulating are also used differently in cultures. Gestures may have a precise meaning in one culture that may be different in another. Also, gesticulating can lead to intercultural misunderstandings. Some cultures which are not used to gesticulating may misunderstand it as a form of emotional display they are not used to.
- Observe if you recognize recurring verbal or non-verbal modes of interaction, like phrases and strategies of politeness, verbal (titles) or material attributes (medals) or any other kind of symbols.
Like learning a new language, transnational intercultural communication is a learning process during which you will notice your own progress by constantly practicing being aware of your own communication habits. This willingness towards enhancing your own potential will make it easier for you to open up for new challenging and interesting intercultural encounters. Try to keep in mind: Wanting to understand your counterpart is an attitude you can acquire.
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[nextpage title=”EXTERNAL RESOURCES”]
Barmeyer, C. (2012). Taschenlexikon Interkulturalität. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
Basic notions on Intercultural Communication
Bennett, M. (2017). Development model of intercultural sensitivity. In: Y. Kim, ed., International encyclopedia of intercultural communication. Wiley: Wiley Online Library. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318430742_Developmental_Model_of_Intercultural_Sensitivity/citation/download [Accessed 1.5.2020]
Model showing the steps towards more intercultural awareness and sensitivity
Ghadban, R. (2020). Arabische Clans: die unterschätzte Gefahr. Berlin: Ullstein.
Family structures in Arab culture
Hall, E. (1966). The Hidden Dimension. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday
Discussion of cultural dimensions
Lüsebrink, H.-J. (2016). Interkulturelle Kommunikation. Interaktion, Fremdwahrnehmung, Kulturtransfer. Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler.
Basic notions on Intercultural Communication
Pease, A. and Pease, B. (2013). Die kalte Schulter und der warme Händedruck: ganz natürliche Erklärungen für die geheime Sprache unserer Körper. Berlin: Ullstein.
https://www.idrinstitute.org/dmis/ [Accessed 26.6.2020]
Model towards more cultural awareness and sensitivity
http://www.payer.de/kommkulturen/kultur043.htm [Accessed 10.7.2020]
Non-verbal communication – Proxemic – Intercultural Communication