Why is intercultural awareness so important?
Photo credit: jkozoski
Communication. There is nothing more important in today’s business environment. If you want to create and protect good international relationships, there is one thing you need: intercultural communication skills. So, what exactly are they?
Almost all large companies today are active in an international environment. Service providers, customers, business partners and colleagues communicate in different languages and are all coming from different cultural backgrounds.
The term “culture” itself is hard to define sometimes. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as, “the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society; the attitudes and behaviour characteristic of a particular social group”.
But what does this mean for your interactions with other people? Simply put, it’s about “how we do things around here”. This pretty unhelpful phrase is a good demonstration of how hard it can be for people from different cultures to truly understand each other and work together. They may have a completely different idea of “how we do things around here”. This becomes clear from the outset with the way cultures great each other and extends to tipping, taxes and religious customs.
Cultural differences are especially clear when it comes to punctuality. If a southern European business partner is late to a meeting, this is not a sign of any lack of appreciation or respect. If, however, you are in Japan and turn up to a meeting even one minute late, this is a serious affront that will not be swiftly forgotten. It is possible to avoid the misunderstandings brought about by these situations if you are aware of the cultural background of who you are dealing with. Easier said than done…
What stands in the way of intercultural understanding?
It is only natural to see the world from your own perspective. And it is only human to make generalisations based on your own experience. However, these tendencies lead to the following phenomena, which make intercultural understanding harder:
- Ethnocentrism: the belief that your own culture is somehow better or right.
- Prejudice: unfounded opinions of others.
- Stereotyping: extreme generalisations about groups of people with no regard for the individual.
As an American, I can understand this point of view only too well. The USA often looks at the rest of the world with a feeling of superiority. The negative effect this has on the USA’s relationship with other cultures is all too evident on the world stage. Even in the relationship between the United Kingdom and Europe, you can see that such a singular inward focus has a terrible effect on cooperation.
Stereotypes are not always negative. Germans are known to be punctual, disciplined, direct and hard-working. But these same Germans are also known to be unfriendly, inflexible and humourless. Why do Germans come across like this?
Low-context vs. high-context cultures
In anthropology, you can compare cultures according to how important the context surrounding linguistic interaction is. In low-context cultures, people communicate very explicitly. As you might have guessed, Germany is well within this category. In Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon countries too, expressions are understood without a lot of cultural context. In Africa, Asia and the Middle East, it is more necessary to have an understanding of the culture in order to communicate effectively. An interlocutor must pay attention to tone, body language and context to correctly interpret a message. Edward T. Hall has a great example; he asked people from a variety of cultures if they could complete a certain exercise by the next day. From their answers, you can see how important intercultural understanding is in an international context:
- Germany: “Yes” = Yes
- USA: “Yes, I’ll do my best = Probably
- Japan: “I’ll do my best” = Probably not
- Japan: “Yes, I’ll do my best = Probably
- China: “Yes” = Maybe
- Russia: “No” = Maybe
So, for Germans it can be very hard to communicate with people from high-context cultures, and vice versa.
4 rules for better intercultural communication
So far, so much theory. How do you actually manage to improve your intercultural behaviour? The most important foundation is just acknowledging that your own road is not the only one or the right one. It takes a lot of practice and experience, because cultures are very complex. There are some ground rules that you can follow to avoid blunders and leave a good impression on international partners.
- Be open to new things: contact with other cultures is an experience full of surprises. Make the most of it!
- Be prepared: with a bit of research you can avoid the most common missteps.
- Learn the language: even just a couple of polite phrases can go a long way.
- Learning through imitation: if you’re not sure, take a step back and observe.
Intercultural awareness & communication