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What is Intercultural Communication?

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Communication is tough. It’s tough making yourself clear whether it’s your best friend, your brother, boss, teacher, child, or spouse. There are so many ways to communicate and each person has their own preferences. Layer on different languages and cultural context cues, and you will often find that communication is more complex than you were expecting.

When we break down how people communicate in the intercultural world, we have two categories: verbal communication and non-verbal communication. These categories transcend cultural preferences and are an accurate way to categorize communication. Within these two main categories, there are multiple sub-topics that we use to compare different facets of communication.

Verbal

Verbal communication encompasses all forms of communication where you use words and language. It’s easy to assume that verbal communication is only comprised of words, but there is a great deal more than just what is spoken.  

One of the ways verbal communication can be easily misunderstood, or not understood at all, is when people don’t speak the same language. This is called a language barrier. When there is no way to comprehend what the other person is saying, all value of verbal communication is lost. While spoken words can still be interpreted, there is  sometimes less room to gather informatioin on other verbal indicators.

Speech patterns can tell a lot about someone and their mood, intentions, and meaning. Do they talk fast or slow? Are they wordy or succinct? Fast paced speech can mean excitement or nervousness. Wordy speech can mean that someone is not quite sure of how to phrase a concept or it could mean they are trying to relay a tough message without hurting someone’s feelings.

Image of the business section in the newspaper

Another concept that is of immense importance in the intercultural world is high-context and low-context communication. Low-context communicators use words to explicitly relay what they mean while high-context communicators think how you say something is more important than what you say. For Low-context communicators, they feel that words are the most important aspect of the conversation. If they say yes, they mean yes. For high-context communicators, body language and non-verbal communication are as important as, or more important than, the actual words. If they say no, they might mean maybe or yes depending on eye contact, hand gestures, tone of voice, and so on.

Of those clues listed above, tone of voice can relay a surprising amount of information with careful observation. There are many ways to say “yes,” depending on your tone. Tone can tell someone if you are happy, or angry, begrudging, or questioning. Tone can be subtle and hard to catch, but it is an amazing tool when determining the motive and emotion behind spoken words.

Non-verbal

Non-verbal communication involves all of the ways we communication without speech. Most of us have heard Albert Mehrabian’s famous statistic that body language accounts for 55% of the overall message (with the literal meaning of words contributing 7% and tone of voice accounting for 38%). Even though it takes up such a huge portion of communication, it is often forgotten until you realize that each time someone crosses their arms you think they are angry. How do you feel when a colleague is making direct eye contact with you when they should be looking at the ground out of deference and respect for your position? Body language is also very subjective and often a core concept of discussion in cultural trainings. What means respect in one culture can be disrespectful in another and without correct knowledge, it’s easy to misinterpret the intentions of body language.

An easy place to start is with hand gestures. What do you do with your hands? Are they at your sides? In your pockets? Do you use lots of gestures as you speak to tell a story? Each person has a preference, but cultures also have common practices when it comes to hand gestures. For example, it is a well-known practice for Italians to use their hands when speaking to illustrate their words and augment their storytelling. It is also common for East Asian cultures to refrain from using their hands during speaking, portraying a reserved and calm image. Depending on how you interpret hand gestures, what someone is trying to relay changes meaning. What is seen as normal in Italy can be viewed as overly energetic in Japan. Not understanding how non-verbal cues can completely change meaning can lead to harmful confusion when building relationships.  

Image of women communicating in business

Personal space is another area where cultures differ greatly. In the US it is common practice to allow at least 1-2 arm’s length of space between you and another person when you are conversing. In the US, it would also make most people very uncomfortable if a stranger sat next to them on public transportation when there were open seats available further away. In comparison, it is very common for people in central Africa to touch each other’s arms or shoulders when speaking and to sit right next to someone rather than leave an open space.

Eye contact is very similar to personal space in that it can have a completely opposite meaning in two places. In Southeast Asian cultures, respect for superiors is shown by avoiding direct eye contact. In many Western cultures, you indicate understanding and trust by maintaining eye contact. Eye contact can also have different meanings depending on your social status, gender, or age. Therefore, you must consider both the local culture and the qualities of the people when determining the most polite eye contact level.

Norms around emotive expression also dictate body language. Are people expected to be silent and subdued in public or do they show lots of energy and feelings? In Nordic cultures, to show feeling and emotion in public is considered poor form and will make people very uncomfortable, yet in some Latin American cultures, expressing feelings is seen as normal and healthy. Without recognizing these preferences, it is easy for both sides to become confused or even offended at the others’ behavior.

The last concept on our list is a little more abstract and that is pride or saving face (as it is known in many Asian cultures). How people view themselves and how others view them publicly is an important determinant of how people act. Retaining a good reputation is a vital aspect of communication in many Asian cultures and often dictates how they react physically or speak in public, at work, and even with friends and family. Understanding this concept is also important to visitors because it can explain someone’s actions and can instruct visitors on how to behave as well. Visitors should strive to never embarrass themselves or their counterparts in business as this could sever a relationship.

Download our Cultural Best Practices

Clearly, communication across cultures is a complex concept. Global businesses have no choice but to be effective cross-cultural communicators in order to remain competitive in today’s fast market. Help your team take preventative measures with Global Workforce Development, a tailored training program to help guide the conduct of your employees when working with global teams.


 

Have you had an awkward momement of miscommunication at work? Share what you wish you would have known in the comments below. 

 

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