9 Intercultural Communication in the Workplace

Learning Objectives

After completing this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Explain why diversity is essential in today’s economy (Meyer, 2017, pp. 63)
  • Analyse the pros and cons of a diverse workforce (Meyer, 2018, pp. 63)
  • Define personal, internalized, and institutional racism (Ontario Medical Students Association, n.d.)
  • Apply strategies to increase your ability to communicate across cultures (Guffey et al., 2013, p. 70).

 

Diversity in the Workplace: Benefits and Obstacles 

Carolyn Meyer (2017)[1] discusses intercultural competency in today’s workplace:

 

Global Economics

Fast travel, the Internet, technological advancement, and international media have made it not just possible but also necessary for us to communicate and do business globally. Through the growth of economic globalization, market borders and boundaries are now less significant than they once were. Canadian companies, in their quest for success, may become partners in a global economy and expand through acquisitions, alliances, and mergers. They may look beyond home to an international marketplace, relying on the import and export of goods and services and conducting business with suppliers, customers, and distributors around the world. In today’s business environment, Canadians may work for homegrown multinational corporations, such as McCain Foods, or for Canadian branch plants of multinational organizations headquartered in other countries; they may also work abroad or through internationally distributed virtual work teams.

Note: Even companies and organizations that operate only domestically serve a diverse, multi-ethnic clientele. Canada is a country; for businesses and organizations to thrive and effectively service Canada’s diverse population, management must promote cultural competence among employees at all levels.

The need for inter-connectivity demands that employees learn to communicate effectively, in spite of the obstacles presented by differences in culture and language.

 

Diversity in the Workplace

The communications hurdles associated with the rise of a global economy are equally part of another significant trend – the internationalization of Canada’s workforce. It is common to work with people of many different ethnic, national, and religious backgrounds. Besides being one of the most multicultural countries in the world, Canada recently ranked first among 17 industrialized nations in its acceptance of diversity in its many facets (race, religion, language, culture, and sexuality)[2]. Canada’s future workforce promises to be even more diverse. Statistics Canada predicts that by 2031, between 11.4 million and 14.4 million people living in Canada (approximately one-third of the country’s population) could belong to a visible minority group[3].

 

Benefits

Diversity is a strategic force that influences communication on the job.  Urban studies theorist Richard Florida sees diversity as a key factor in promoting economic growth and prosperity because, without diversity, it is impossible to attract a “creative class” with fresh ideas and tech savvy[4].   The ability to communicate with people from different cultures, backgrounds, and minority groups has internal and external benefits.

 

Obstacles

Because culture has the power to influence behaviour, it also has the potential to create clashes and misunderstandings in the workplace. Learning to resolve differences and close cultural gaps is therefore now essential. Successful businesses are adept at capitalizing on the strengths of a diverse multinational workforce and reducing misunderstanding in order to benefit consumers, promote harmony, forge high-performance work teams, and gain a competitive edge.

 

Discussion Question [5]

Some economists and management scholars argue that such statements as “diversity is an economic asset” or “diversity is a new strategic imperative” are unproved and perhaps unprovable assertions. Should social responsibility or market forces determine whether an organization strives to create a diverse workforce? Why?

 

Racism in the Workplace

The Ontario Medical Students Association has provided students with a primer on anti-racism[6].  They define several different types of racism:

  1. personally mediated racism: prejudice or discrimination between individuals
  2. internalized racism: personal acceptance of beliefs or biases that are discriminatory
  3. institutionalized racism: accepted societal norms that serve to perpetual inequality

Anti-racism involves a conscious choice to educate oneself about issues of race and racism, and to actively participate in opportunities to end racial inequalities.

 

Discussion Question [7]

You know that it’s not acceptable to make ethnic jokes, least of all in the workplace, but a colleague of yours keeps invoking the worst ethnic and racial stereotypes. How do you respond? Do you remain silent and change the subject, or do you pipe up? What other options do you have in dealing with such a co-worker? Consider whether your answer would change if the offender were your boss.

 

Additional Resources on Anti-Racism

 

Intercultural Communication in the Workplace

Use the checklist[8] below to help you improve your ability to communicate with clients and coworkers from different cultures.

Study your own culture.

  • Learn about your customs, biases, and views and how they differ from those in other societies. This knowledge can help you better understand, appreciate, and accept the values and behaviour of other cultures.

Learn about other cultures.

  • Education can help you alter cultural misconceptions, reduce fears, and minimize misunderstandings. Knowledge of other cultures opens your eyes and teaches you to expect differences. Such knowledge also enriches your life.

Curb ethnocentrism.

  • Avoid judging others by your personal views. Get over the view that the other cultures are incorrect, defective, or primitive. Try to develop an open mind.

Avoid being judgmental.

  • Strive to accept other behaviour as different rather than as right or wrong. Try not to be defensive in justifying your culture. Strive for objectivity.

Seek common ground.

  • When cultures clash, look for solutions that respect both cultures. Be flexible in developing compromises.

Observe nonverbal cues in your culture.

  • Become more alert to the meanings of eye contact, facial expression, posture, and gestures and the use of time, space, and territory. How do they differ in other cultures?

Use plain English.

  • Speak and write in short sentences and use simple words and standard English. Eliminate puns, slang, jargon, acronyms, abbreviations, and any words that cannot be easily translated.

Encourage accurate feedback.

  • In conversations, ask probing questions and listen attentively without interrupting. Do not assume that a yes or a smile indicates assent or comprehension.

Adapt to local preferences.

  • Shape your writing to reflect the reader’s document styles, if appropriate. Express monetary amounts in local currency. Write out months of the year for clarity.

Critical Incidents

  • A “critical incident” is a situation in which cultural differences cause misunderstanding.

 

Critical Incident Exercise #1: Japanese and American Cultures: Eating in Class[9]

Critical Incident Scenario

Junji Edo has just arrived from Japan to begin working on his degree at an American university. Before his arrival to the United States, Junji had read several books about America, its people and its culture. Despite his preparation, however, several confusing and frustrating incidents occurred during his first weeks in the United States.

On Mondays Junji was always very busy. He had classes all day and hardly had any time for lunch. One day he showed up at his history class a couple minutes before it started and told one of his classmates, Julianne, that he was really busy all morning and didn’t have time for lunch. The bell rang and the teacher came into the class. Julianne opened her backpack and took out a small bag of potato chips and a can of soda and gave them to Junji. Junji was very surprised and embarrassed. He whispered thank you to his friend and refused the food. Junji was even more bewildered when Julianne took another bag of potato chips and started eating them in class. To Junji’s amazement, the teacher did not make any comments on Julianne’s behavior and proceeded with the class as usual.

 

Questions:

1. What motivated Junji to act the way he did?

A. Junji did not like Julianne as a person and did not want to accept food from her.

B. Junji was not used to people sharing food with him.

C. Junji considered eating in class disrespectful towards the teacher.

 

2. What attitudes or values appear to be important in Japanese society based on Junji’s actions?

A. In Japan, people never share their food with others outside of their family.

B. In Japan, eating in the class is impolite, and shows disrespect towards a teacher.

C. In Japan, women are not allowed to share food with men.

 

3. Why do you think Julianne behaved the way she did?

A. Julianne felt obligated to share her food with Junji.

B. Julianne always eats in class.

C. Julianne realized that Junji was hungry and was willing to share her food with him.

 

4. What attitudes or values appear to be important in American society based on Julianne and the teacher’s behavior?

A. In the United States, having a snack during a class does not mean that students do not respect their teacher. Teachers expect active participation in the class and do not mind students’ having small snacks if that makes them more comfortable and willing to engage in classroom work.

B. In the United States, it is considered rude not to share food with the people around you.

C. In the United States, teachers encourage students to share everything to make them feel more connected to each other and become a unified group of people.

 

5. What could have been done differently to avoid this cross-cultural misunderstanding?

 

Critical Incident #2: Russian and American Culture: Cheating during a Quiz[10]

Critical Incident Scenario

Larisa Petrova, a student from Russia, won a scholarship to go to an American university. She was very excited about going to the United States and did a lot of reading about American culture. Before her arrival to the United States, Larisa had read several books about America, its people and its culture. Despite her preparation, however, several confusing and frustrating incidents occurred during her first weeks in the United States.

Larisa stayed up all night long writing a term paper for her psychology class. Next morning, during her Spanish class the teacher unexpectedly announced that they were going to have a pop quiz on the material they covered in the last two classes. Larisa was afraid that she was going to fail it as she neither did her homework nor reviewed the material from the previous class. Bill, Larisa’s friend from the tennis club and also a classmate in Spanish, seemed to be unconcerned about the quiz. During the quiz, Larisa was asking Bill for the answers to the questions she was not sure of. However, Bill seemed to be annoyed by her questions and did not want to share his answers. Larisa’s feelings were hurt. To make the matter worse, the teacher, having seen what Larisa was doing, asked her to hand in her incomplete test and to leave the class.

 

Questions:

1. What motivated Larisa to act the way she did?

A. Larisa expected Bill to help her out during the quiz because she considered him her friend.

B. Larisa wanted Bill to help her with the quiz because she was selfish and wanted to get a good grade no matter what.

C. Larisa expected Bill to help her out during the test because she was a woman.

 

2. What attitudes or values appear to be important in Russian society based on Larisa’s actions?

A. In Russia, friends are supposed to stick together in their battle against authority. Teachers are considered to be such authority.

B. In Russia, men are supposed to help women in all situations.

C. In Russia, students always work on their tests and quizzes together as a team.

 

3. Why do you think Bill behaved the way he did?

A. Bill did not want to help Larisa because he considered her as competition in his Spanish class.

B. Bill did not like Larisa as a person and did not want to help her out during the quiz.

C. Bill liked Larisa as a person but did not want to help her cheat on the quiz as he considered it morally wrong.

 

4. What attitudes or values appear to be important in American society based on Bill and the teacher’s behavior?

A. In the United States, it is considered unacceptable to ask for help.

B. In the United States, students never help each other in class no matter how much they like each other.

C. In the United States, cheating on tests is considered unacceptable and wrong. It may lead to academic dismissal. Students are supposed to get grades for what they know and not what they have copied from someone else’s paper.

 

5. What could have been done differently to avoid this cross-cultural misunderstanding?

 

Additional Resources

Critical Incidents for Intercultural Communication in the Workplace[11] is a video series created by Norquest College based on the “authentic challenges in intercultural communication from an Alberta professional and industrial workplace context.”


  1. Meyer, C. (2017). Getting the message across. In Communicating for results: A Canadian student’s guide (4th ed., pp. 63-69). Oxford.
  2. Christensen, C. (2016). Disruptive innovation. http://www.claytonchristensen.com/key-concepts/.
  3. Statistics Canada. (2011). Canada workbook (p. 180). Minister of Industry.
  4. Florida, R. (2012, June 27). Creativity is the new economy. The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ricard-florida/creativity-is-the-new-eco_b_1608363.html.
  5. Guffey, M. E., Lowey, D., Rhodes, K., & Rogin, P. (2013). Intercultural Communication. In Business communication: Process & product (4th brief Canadian ed., pp. 60-77). Nelson.
  6. Ontario Medical Students Association. (n.d.). Anti-racism in medical education: A primer. https://omsa.ca/sites/default/files/page/211/anti-racism_final.pdf.
  7. Guffey, M. E., Lowey, D., Rhodes, K., & Rogin, P. (2013). Intercultural communication. In Business communication: Process & product (4th brief Canadian ed., pp. 60-77). Nelson.
  8. Guffey, M. E., Lowey, D., Rhodes, K., & Rogin, P. (2013). Intercultural communication. In Business communication: Process & product (4th brief Canadian ed., pp. 60-77). Nelson.
  9. Stakhnevich, J. (2002, March). Using critical incidents to teach cross-cultural sensitivity. The Internet TESL Journal, 8(3). http://iteslj.org/Lessons/Stakhnevich-Critical.html.
  10. Stakhnevich, J. (2002, March). Using critical incidents to teach cross-cultural sensitivity. The Internet TESL Journal, 8(3). http://iteslj.org/Lessons/Stakhnevich-Critical.html.
  11. NorQuest College. (2022). Critical incidents for intercultural communication in the workplace. https://tinyurl.com/critical-incidents-workplace.

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Intercultural Business Communication by Confederation College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book