12.1 Intercultural Communication

[Author removed at request of original publisher]

As a professional in the modern business community, you need to be aware that communication, both oral and written, links communities. Agrarian, industrial, and information ages gave way to global business and brought the importance of communication across cultures to the forefront. The Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Thomas Friedman calls this new world “flat” (Friedman, 2005), noting how the integration of markets and community had penetrated the daily lives of nearly everyone on the planet, regardless of language or culture.

Intercultural and international business communication has taken on a new role for students as well as career professionals. Knowing when the European and Asian markets open has become mandatory; so has awareness of multiple time zones and their importance in relation to trade, shipping, and the production cycle. Managing production in China from an office in Chicago has become common. Receiving technical assistance for your computer often means connecting with a well-educated English speaker in New Delhi.  Communities are linked in the daily trade of goods and services.

In this chapter, we explore this dynamic aspect of communication.  Major corporations are no longer affiliated with only one country or one country’s interests but instead perceive the integrated market as team members across global trade. Local companies should expect to see increasingly diverse talent pools as US demographics shift.

Global business is more than trade between companies located in distinct countries; indeed, that concept is already outdated. Intercultural and international business focuses less on the borders that separate people and more on the communication that brings them together. Business communication values clear, concise interaction that promotes efficiency and effectiveness. You may perceive your role as a business communicator within a specific city, business, or organization, but you need to be aware that your role crosses cultures, languages, value and legal systems, and borders.

Culture involves beliefs, attitudes, values, and traditions that are shared by a group of people. Thus, we must consider more than the clothes we wear, the movies we watch, or the video games we play as culture. Culture also involves the psychological aspects of our expectations of the communication context. For example, if we are raised in a culture where males speak while females are expected to remain silent, the context of the communication interaction governs behavior, which in itself is a representation of culture. From the choice of words (message), to how we communicate (in person, or by e-mail), to how we acknowledge understanding with a nod or a glance (nonverbal feedback), to the internal and external interference, all aspects of communication are influenced by culture.

In defining intercultural communication, we have eight components) the source, receiver, message, channel, feedback, context, environment, and interference) of communication to work with and yet we must bridge divergent cultures with distinct values across languages and time zones to create meaning. It may be tempting to consider only the source and receiver within an interaction as a representation of intercultural communication, but if we do that, we miss the other six components—the message, channel, feedback, context, environment, and interference—in every communicative act. Each component influences and is influenced by culture. Is culture context? Environment? Message? Culture is represented in all eight components every time we communicate. All communication is intercultural.

We may be tempted to think of intercultural communication as interaction between two people from different countries. While two distinct national passports may be artifacts (nonverbal representations of communication), what happens when two people from two different parts of the same country communicate? From high and low Germanic dialects, to the perspective of a Southerner versus a Northerner in the United States, to the rural versus urban dynamic, our geographic, linguistic, educational, sociological, and psychological traits influence our communication.

It is not enough to say that someone from rural Hays, Kansas and someone from Wichita, Kansas both speak English, so communication between them must be intracultural communication (communication within the same culture). What is life like for the rural Kansan? For the city dweller? Were their educational experiences the same? Do they share the same vocabulary? Do they value the same things? To a city dweller, all the cows may look the same. To the rural Kansan, the cows may be distinct, with unique markings; they have value as a food source and in their numbers they represent wealth. Even if both Kansans speak the same language, their socialization will influence how they communicate and what they value, and their vocabulary will reflect these differences.

Let us take this intranational comparison a step further. Within the same town, organization, or even family, can there be intercultural communication? If all communication is intercultural, then the answer would be yes, but we still have to prove our case. Imagine a three-generation farming operation. The grandparents may represent another time and have different values from the grandchildren. The parents may have a different level of education and pursue different roles in the operation from the grandparents; the schooling the grandchildren are receiving may prepare them for yet another career. From music, to food preferences, to how work is done may vary across time. The communication across generations represents intercultural communication, even if only to a limited degree.

But suppose we have a group of students who are all similar in age and educational level. Do gender and societal expectations of roles influence interaction? Of course. And so we see that among these students not only do genders communicate in distinct ways but also not all those who identify as a certain gender are the same.  We are each shaped by our upbringing and it influences our worldview, what we value, and how we interact with each other. We create culture, and it creates us.

Everett Rogers and Thomas Steinfatt (1999) define intercultural communication as the exchange of information between individuals who are “unalike culturally.” If you follow our discussion and its implications, you may arrive at the idea that ultimately we are each a “culture of one”—we are simultaneously a part of a community and its culture(s) and separate from it in the unique combination that represents us as an individual. All of us are separated by a matter of degrees from each other even if we were raised on the same street or by caregivers of similar educational backgrounds and professions, and yet, we have many other things in common.

Culture is part of the very fabric of our thought, and we cannot separate ourselves from it, even as we leave home, defining ourselves anew in work and achievements. Every business or organization has a culture, and within what may be considered a global culture, there are many subcultures or co-cultures. For example, consider the difference between the sales and accounting departments in a company. We can quickly see two distinct groups with their own symbols, vocabulary, and values. Within each group, there may also be smaller groups, and each member of each department comes from a distinct background that in itself influences behavior and interaction.

Intercultural communication is a fascinating area of study within business communication, and it is essential to your success. One idea to keep in mind as we examine this topic is the importance of considering multiple points of view. If you tend to dismiss ideas or views that are “unalike culturally,” you will find it challenging to learn about diverse cultures.

Ethnocentrism is the process of judging other cultures against the values and practices of one’s own, leading to the tendency to view other cultures as inferior to one’s own. Another culture is deemed inferior because it does not meet the standards set within one’s own culture. Having pride in your culture can be healthy, but history has taught us that having the predisposition to discount other cultures simply because they are different can be hurtful, damaging, and dangerous. Ethnocentrism makes us far less likely to be able to bridge the gap with others and often increases intolerance of difference. Business and industry are no longer regional, and in your career, you will necessarily cross borders, languages, and cultures. You will need tolerance, understanding, patience, and openness to difference. A skilled business communicator knows that the process of learning is never complete, and being open to new ideas is a key strategy for success.

Key Takeaway

Intercultural communication is an aspect of all communicative interactions, and attention to your perspective is key to your effectiveness. Ethnocentrism is a major obstacle to intercultural communication.


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