10.4: Intercultural Communication

Learning Objectives

Target icon1. Define intercultural communication in the context of professional interactions.

2. Explain the process by which we join and participate in a culture such as in the workplace.

3. Identify dimensions of cultural difference from a sociological perspective.

4. Explain strategies for how to establish and maintain friendly professional relations with people from different cultures.

5. ENL1813 Course Learning Requirement 2: Plan and deliver short, organized spoken messages and oral reports tailored to specific audiences and purposes. (A2, B2, H2, I2, M2, S2, T2)

i. Use effective and engaging language and non-verbal behaviours (A2.2)
ii. Use verbal and nonverbal techniques to enhance spoken messages (I2.4, M2.4, R6.2, S2.4, T2.4)

All communication is intercultural. The term “intercultural communication” may conjure in your mind a picture of two people from different continents speaking or writing to one another. Considering the vast size of Canada and wide variety of cultures from the west coast to the Maritimes, however, or from northern communities to the border-lining south, or from Indigenous peoples to first-generation immigrants, all communication in Canada is intercultural. You can hear it in the diverse accents across the provinces and even within a province from urban to suburban to rural cultures. Even within a household, parents represent one culture influenced by the decades preceding their kids, who have their own culture with its own dialect and media preferences. This argument extends even as far as your individual self; when you’re at odds with yourself about something, where does that internal conflict come from but the various cultures you’ve internalized through the years? Every culture you’ve ever participated in has left its mark on you with a set of perspectives and values that shape your worldview and behaviour. Still, you’re a cohesive self rather than a fractured and divided one, which suggests we can all get along with one another despite our cultural differences.

Always approach intercultural communication as an opportunity to overcome cultural differences and achieve the cross-cultural understanding you need to be a better person and do your job effectively in a multicultural environment. When you enter a profession, you begin to internalize a new workplace culture and therefore a new set of values. You represent that culture (and even subculture within a company) to the various audiences you deal with: customers or clients outside, management above, and colleagues in adjacent departments. In all such interactions, your goal is to find a common language that helps get the job done. Intercultural communication is thus vital to your success.

On the other hand, if you’re ethnocentric in the sense of being fearful, intolerant, or even just avoidant towards those other cultures—be they on the other side of the planet, country, province, city, building, counter, or desk—you limit your opportunities for success in the globalized market. Even engaging other cultures with simplistic, preconceived notions informed by media stereotypes reducing everyone in a culture to a one-dimensional character or prop will similarly lead you into serious error. Intercultural communication requires openness to difference, patience in overcoming cultural and language barriers, and the desire to learn about other cultures and points of view.

If your work brings you into contact with cultures that you know little about, forget the stereotypes and learn about their culture by both researching it and talking to them respectfully. Along these lines, this chapter section provides a guide for how to approach intercultural communication in the modern workplace by considering what you share in common with the people you interact with, what to look for in terms of cultural differences, and how to act in either case. Though we don’t have room for a thorough guide on specific cultural differences pertaining to every unique culture you might encounter, we will focus on basic principles for conducting intercultural communication (Business Communication for Success, 2015, 18.118.2).

Intercultural Communication Topics

10.4.1: Common Cultural Characteristics

While we may be members of many different cultures, we tend to identify with some more than others. Perhaps you have become friendly with several of your classmates in your college program. As you take many of the same classes and share on-campus experiences, you share more and more in common, forming a small group culture of your own. A similar cultural formation process happens in the workplace where coworkers spend many hours each week sharing work experiences and getting to know each other socially in the process. Let’s look at how each of these shared experiences is an important communication function.

10.4.1.1: Rites of Initiation and Adopting a Common Language

Cultures tend to have a ritual for welcoming a new member. Some such rituals may be so informal as to be hardly noticed, such as when you are invited to lunch so your new team members can get to know you. Others may be highly formalized such as religious rites. In your life, you’ve passed through rites such as the first day of school, high-school graduation and prom, getting your driver’s license, registering to vote, and getting your first job. Each passage into a new culture and its associated responsibilities requires your participation as a communicator, such as learning traffic signs and how to signal your intention to turn your vehicle.

After the written and oral communications tests of getting your first job (see Ch. 9 and §10.3 respectively), the biggest challenge of your first day on the job is to learn how the group members communicate with each other. You’ll have learned much of the technical terminology and jargon in your college program, but then you’ll find that working professionals have changed it to suit their purposes and added new lingo for you to master. Learning to “talk the talk” is vital to passing the rite of initiation, becoming a full member of that workplace culture, successfully completing your work, and rising to positions of greater status and responsibility.

10.4.1.2: Common Values and Goals

Cultures all hold values and principles that are commonly shared and communicated by established members to newer ones. Time and length of commitment are associated with an awareness of these values and principles so that new members, whether they are socialized at home, in school, or at work, may not have a thorough understanding of their importance. For example, rapid customer service and cleanliness are two cornerstone values of the Tim Hortons franchise. A new employee may take these for granted if not for seasoned employees and management communicating and reinforcing these core values. Without reinforcement, norms may gradually shift and fundamentally change the customer experience associated with franchise brand.

Cultures likewise share common goals. Companies often state these in mission and vision statements (usually stated on the “About” page of the company website) that individual members are expected to acknowledge, adopt, and realize through action. Without action, the mission and vision statements are simply empty abstractions. As a guide to individual and group behavioural norms, they can serve as a powerful motivator and a call to action (Business Communication for Success, 2015, 18.3).

Return to the Intercultural Communication Topics menu

10.4.2: Understanding and Respecting Cultural Differences

Successfully communicating across cultures requires understanding and respecting how the culture or cultures you represent differ from those of the people you’re communicating with. While you may think that you should just follow the golden rule and treat everyone else the way you would like to be treated yourself, the more you travel to distant lands, the more you realize that cultural conventions and expectations for how people would like to be treated are relative. One culture will place a high value on a friendly handshake and eye contact, while you would come off as aggressive or awkward if you did those things well in another.

Though you can’t be expected to know every little custom across the planet, having a general sense of large-scale cultural differences and a willingness to learn the details as necessary can save you from embarrassing yourself or offending people of different cultures when interacting with them. An open approach to cultural differences can also impress your audiences in ways favourable to your reputation and the organization you represent. With these goals in mind, let’s consider the following dimensions of cultural difference from the perspective of social anthropology.

10.4.2.1: Individualistic vs. Collectivist Cultures

People in individualistic cultures value individual freedom and personal independence as reflected in the stories they tell themselves. The story of Superman co-created by Canadian-born artist Joe Shuster, for instance, reflects North American  culture’s fondness for the heroic individual overcoming foes and obstacles through inner strength. Canada in particular favours heroes with significant pro-social achievements such as hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, who racked up more regular-season career points in assists alone (1963) than the second best point scorer did in both goals and assists combined (Jaromir Jagr with 1921). Still, we celebrate the individual hockey hero in the Hall of Fame more than the teams that helped them set their records.

However, as a pluralistic society blending a wide diversity of cultures, especially with a large immigrant population from typically collectivist cultures, 21st-century Canada can’t be so easily reduced to an individualistic culture. You may belong to some communities that express individualistic cultural values, while others place the focus on a collectivist viewpoint. Besides, individualism and collectivism aren’t so much either/or cultural values as they are tendencies on a sliding scale.

According to Geert Hofstede (1982), collectivist cultures, such as many in Asia and South America, focus on the needs of the nation, community, family, or group of workers. Ownership and private property is one way to examine this difference. In some cultures, property is almost exclusively private while others tend toward community ownership. The collectively owned resource returns benefits to the community. Water, for example, has long been viewed as a community resource, much like air, though this is compromised as business and organizations purchase water rights and gain control over resources. Public lands such as parks are often considered public, and individual exploitation of them is restricted. Copper, a metal with a variety of industrial applications, is collectively owned in Chile with profits deposited in the general government fund. So how does someone raised in a culture that emphasizes the community interact with someone raised in a primarily individualistic culture? How could tensions be expressed and how might interactions be influenced by this point of divergence? The answer begins with understanding and respecting a different cultural orientation, and the practicalities involve mutual compromise.

10.4.2.2: Explicit-rule vs. Implicit-rule Cultures

Do you know the rules of your business or organization? Did you learn them from an employee manual or by observing the conduct of others? Your response may include both options, but not all cultures communicate rules in the same way. Having found quite a range of difference, Carley Dodd (1998) discusses how, in an explicit-rule culture where rules are clearly communicated so that everyone is aware of them, the guidelines and agenda for a meeting are announced prior to it. In an implicit-rule culture where rules are often understood and communicated nonverbally, there may be no such agenda. Everyone knows why they are gathered and what role each member plays, even though the expectations may not be clearly stated. Power, status, and behavioural expectations may all be understood, and to the person from outside this culture, it may prove a challenge to understand the rules of context.

Outsiders often communicate their “otherness” by not knowing where to stand, when to sit, or how to initiate a conversation if the rules are not clearly stated. While it may help to know that implicit-rule cultures are often more tolerant of deviation from the understood rules, the newcomer must learn by observing quietly after doing as much research as possible ahead of the event.

10.4.2.3: Uncertainty-Accepting vs. Uncertainty-Rejecting Cultures

When we meet each other for the first time, we often use what we have previously learned to understand our current context. We also do this to reduce our uncertainty. Some cultures, such as the North American and British generally, are highly tolerant of uncertainty, while others go to great lengths to reduce the element of surprise. Cultures in the Arab world, for example, are high in uncertainty avoidance; they tend to be resistant to change and reluctant to take risks. Whereas a Canadian business negotiator might enthusiastically agree to try a new procedure, the Egyptian counterpart would likely refuse to get involved until all the details are worked out.

Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese (1975) developed uncertainty reduction theory to examine this dynamic aspect of communication. Their seven axioms of uncertainty are as follows:

  1. There is a high level of uncertainty at first contact in any interaction between unknown parties. As we get to know one another, our verbal communication increases and our uncertainty begins to decrease.
  2. Following verbal communication, nonverbal communication increases, uncertainty continues to decrease, and more nonverbal displays of affiliation, like smiling and nodding one’s head to indicate agreement, will start to be expressed.
  3. To overcome high levels of uncertainty, we tend to increase our information-seeking behaviour, perhaps asking questions to gain more insight. As our understanding increases, uncertainty decreases, as does the information-seeking behaviour.
  4. When experiencing high levels of uncertainty, the communication interaction is not as personal or intimate. As uncertainty is reduced, intimacy increases.
  5. When experiencing high levels of uncertainty, communication will feature more reciprocity (see §10.1.3.1 for more on social mirroring) or displays of respect. As uncertainty decreases, reciprocity may diminish.
  6. Differences between people increase uncertainty, while similarities decrease it.
  7. Higher levels of uncertainty are associated with the diminished likability of the other person, while reductions in uncertainty are associated with liking the other person more.

10.4.2.4: Time Orientation

Edward T. Hall and Mildred Reed Hall (1990) state that monochronic time-oriented cultures consider one thing at a time, whereas polychronic time-oriented cultures schedule many things at one time, and time is considered in a more fluid sense. In monochronic time, interruptions are to be avoided, and everything has its own specific time. Even the multitasker from a monochronic culture will, for example, recognize the value of work first before play or personal time. Canada, the United States, Germany, and Switzerland are often renowned for being countries that value a monochronic time orientation. Such generalizations break down in specific regions, however, such as indigenous communities or costal island cultures within Canada, which are more likely to be monochronic’s opposite.

With business, family, and social life mixing more freely, polychronic time-oriented cultures tend to challenge the monochronic outsider. In Greece, Italy, Chile, and Saudi Arabia, for instance, business meetings may be scheduled at a certain time, but when they actually begin may be another story. If an invitation to dinner says it starts at 8pm, it might as well say 9pm. If you were to show up at 8pm, you might be the first person to arrive and find the hosts unready for you. Likewise, a polychronically oriented person who crosses into a monochronic culture for a 3pm meeting and arrives at 3:44pm will disappoint all who took pains to be there at 2:55pm for the 3pm start.

If you’re oriented monochronically and suspect that you find yourself in a polychronic culture, always ask before the event; many people in such cultures will be used to outsiders’ tendency to be punctual, even compulsive, about respecting established times for events. The skilled business communicator is aware of this difference and takes steps to anticipate it. The value of time in different cultures is expressed in many ways, and your understanding can help you communicate more effectively.

10.4.2.5: Short-term vs. Long-term Orientation

Do you want your reward right now or can you dedicate yourself to a long-term goal? You may work in a culture whose people value immediate results and grow impatient when those results do not materialize. Geert Hofstede discusses this relationship of time orientation to a culture as a “time horizon,” and it underscores the perspective of the individual within a cultural context. Many countries in Asia, influenced by the teachings of Confucius, value a long-term orientation, whereas other continents such as North America have a more short-term approach to life and results. Indigenous cultures within North America, however, are known for holding a long-term orientation, as illustrated by the proverb attributed to the Iroquois that decisions require contemplation of their impact seven generations removed.

If you work within a culture that has a short-term orientation, you may need to place greater emphasis on reciprocating greetings, gifts, and rewards. For example, if you send a thank-you note the morning after being treated to a business dinner, your host will appreciate your promptness. While there may be a respect for tradition, there is also an emphasis on personal representation and honour as reflections of identity and integrity. Short-term oriented cultures also value personal stability and consistency, contributing to an overall sense of predictability and familiarity.

Long-term oriented cultures such as in Asia value delayed gratification, perseverance, thrift and frugality, and a social hierarchy based on age and status. A sense of shame for the family and community is also observed across generations. What an individual does reflects on the family and is carried by immediate and extended family members.

10.4.2.6: Masculine vs. Feminine Orientation

Characterizing a whole culture as masculine or feminine according to stereotypes associated with both can be a fool’s errand, especially in the West where gender politics is hotly contested between liberal and conservative factions. Conservativism generally clings to a traditional notion of a masculine society, whereas feminist-friendly liberalism generally embraces equal opportunity and even female power. Still, many cultures across the globe have long traditions of either patriarchal (male-dominant) or matriarchal (female-dominant) social orientations. Each carries with it a set of cultural expectations and norms for gender behaviour and gender roles across life, including business.

Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov (2010) describe the masculine-feminine dichotomy not in terms of whether men or women hold the power in a given culture, but rather the extent to which that culture values certain traits that may be considered masculine or feminine. Thus,

the assertive pole has been called “masculine” and the modest, caring pole “feminine.” The women in feminine countries have the same modest, caring values as the men; in the masculine countries they are somewhat assertive and competitive, but not as much as the men, so that these countries show a gap between men’s values and women’s values. (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010)

We can observe this difference wherever people gather, how they interact, and how they dress. We can see it during business negotiations where it may make an important difference in the success of the organizations involved. Cultural expectations precede the interaction, so someone who doesn’t match those expectations may experience tension. According to Hofstede et al., business in the United States has a masculine orientation where assertiveness and competition are highly valued. In other cultures such as Sweden, business values are more attuned to modesty (lack of self- promotion) and taking care of society’s weaker members. On a sliding scale, Canada is somewhere between these poles. This range of difference is one aspect of intercultural communication that requires significant attention when the business communicator enters a new environment.

10.4.2.7: Direct vs. Indirect Communication Cultures

In North America, business correspondence is expected to be short and to the point (see §4.5.2.2 above on conciseness and §4.1.2 on direct vs. indirect messages). “What can I do for you?” is a common question when an employee receives a call from a stranger. It is an accepted way of asking the caller to skip or minimize pleasantries and get on with their business. In indirect cultures, such as in Latin America, business conversations may start with discussions of the weather, family, or topics other than the business at hand as the partners get a sense of each other long before the main topic is raised. Again, the skilled business communicator researches the new environment before entering it because an avoidable social faux pas, or error, can have a significant impact.

10.4.2.8: Materialism vs. Relationship-based Cultures

Does the car someone drives say something about them? You may consider that many people across the planet do not own a vehicle and that a car or truck is a statement of wealth. Beyond that, however, do the make and model reflect the driver’s personality? If you represent a materialistic culture, you may be inclined to say Yes. If you’re from a culture that values relationships rather than material objects, you may say No or focus on how the vehicle serves the family. From rocks that display beauty and wealth (jewelry) to what you eat (will it be lobster ravioli or prime rib?), we express our values and cultural differences with our purchase decisions.

Members of a materialistic culture place emphasis on external goods and services as a representation of self, power, and social rank. If you see a plate of food and consider the labour required to harvest the grain, butcher the animal, and cook the meal, you are focusing more on the relationships involved with its production than the foods themselves. Caviar may be a luxury, and it may communicate your ability to acquire and offer a delicacy, but it also represents the efforts of those who harvested it. Cultures differ in how they view material objects and their relationship to them, and some value people and relationships more than the objects themselves. The United States and Japan are often noted as materialistic cultures, while many Scandinavian nations feature cultures that place more emphasis on relationships. Again, Canada might be somewhere between these ends of the scale.

10.4.2.9: Low-power vs. High-power Distance Cultures

How comfortable are you with critiquing your boss’s decisions? If you are from a low-power distance culture, your answer might be “no problem.” In low-power distance cultures, according to Hofstede, people relate to one another more as equals and less as a reflection of dominant or subordinate roles, regardless of their actual formal roles as employee and manager, for example.

In a high-power distance culture, you’d probably be much less likely to challenge the decision, to provide an alternative, or to give input to someone superior to you in the social hierarchy. When working with people from a high-power distance culture, you may need to take extra care to offer feedback and even wait to approach them on their terms because their cultural framework may discourage such a casual attitude to authority. They may have learned that less powerful people must accept decisions without comment, even if those people have a concern or know of a significant problem vital to the operation. Unless you’re sensitive to cultural orientation and power distance, you may either risk giving offense or be responsible for some major miscommunication (Business Communication for Success, 2015, 18.4).

Key Takeaway

key iconAll communication is intercultural communication, which requires an open attitude to understanding and accommodating cultural differences in the workplace to make business connections.

Exercises

1. List all of the distinct cultures you identify with in order of the extent of how much sway you feel they hold over you. For each one, describe the rites of initiation you experienced upon entering that culture, as well as some of the values and principles associated with it.

2. Research and write a short report on a culture very different from your own. It may be one on another continent or one closer to home, yet still so distinct that you don’t fully understand yet why people in that culture do the things they do. Make it your mission to understand why. What cultural characteristics distinguish it from your own (use §10.4.2 on cultural differences as our guide)? Despite these differences, what cultural characteristics do you share in common?

3. Consider a few basic types of nonverbal interaction:

i. Maintaining direct eye contact
ii. Shaking hands
iii. Holding hands

4. What cultures encourage these kinds of contact between people who have just met? What cultures discourage them and why? (Identify particular countries or communities near your own.) How do gender differences affect these customs in the countries or communities you covered?

References

Berger, C., & Calabrese, R. (1975). Some explorations in initial interactions and beyond: Toward a developmental theory of interpersonal communication. Human communication Research, 1, 99–112.

Dodd, C. (1998). Dynamics of intercultural communication (5th ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Hall, E. T., & Hall, M. R. (1990). Understanding cultural differences: Germans, French, and Americans. Boston, MA: Intercultural Press.

Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, and organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Culture’s and Organizations: Software of the mind (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

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10.4: Intercultural Communication by Jordan Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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