Are you looking to deepen your intercultural communication skills?
Read this before you embark on that intercultural communication course, or you might not be using your time in the most effective way -and you might be led down the wrong path, too-.
By the end of this article, you will know why intercultural communication is over-hyped and how you can better invest your time.
- Intercultural Communication Definition
- Why Intercultural Communication is Waste of Time
- Intercultural Communication Over-Hype: Example
- How The Basics Trump Intercultural Communication
- Who is Over-Hyping Intercultural Communication?
- Don’t Study Intercultural Communication: Learn It
- The Basics You Need to Master
Intercultural Communication Definition
Intercultural communication is communication flowing across different cultures and social groups.
In theory, the bigger the cultural differences among those groups, the more difficult the communication will be.
And in theory, the more you familiarize yourself with the other culture, the more effective your communication will be.
Why Intercultural Communication is Waste of Time
Intercultural communication is a waste of time.
UNLESS you are already extremely proficient in all the other basics of communication and human psychology.
Think of it this way: imagine you are moving out of your parents and want to learn to cook.
Would you start by trying to master the art of making pizza while tossing the dough in the air?
You would start instead by learning how to switch on the oven and the burners.
Then boil pasta and add sauce.
Or grilling some meat.
Or whichever basic food you like most.
Well, learning intercultural communication before you are proficient in the basics of communication is like learning to toss dough in the air.
Fancy to look at, but useless if you first don’t know how to switch on the oven.
Intercultural communication is a “good to have”.
It’s the icing on the cake.
Learning the basics of communication and people psychology is a must-have.
Before worrying about icing, you must get the cake.
Focus on Human Commonalities, Not Differences
The differences between cultures are important.
But even more important are the commonalities among human beings.
There are thousands of cultural differences. As many cultural differences as there are cultures, in fact.
But there are only a handful of foundational commonalities!
You learn the human commonalities once, they serve you well for a lifetime… And everywhere.
You learn cultural differences… And they only help you with a specific culture (on a superficial level).
Commonalities Run Deeper
The commonalities run deep.
They are common because they are ingrained within us by common ancestry over millions of years.
A focus on the commonalities is a focus on what really matters.
It’s a focus on what makes us human beings, on what makes us accept or reject people at a visceral level.
Cultural differences are more superficial instead.
When you make a cultural mistake you are branded as a foreigner who doesn’t know any better.
Not great, but not terrible either.
But when you get the human basics wrong, you will be ostracized.
Intercultural Communication Over-Hype: Example
I remember some time ago reading a book on communication.
I don’t remember the title of the book, but it had the customary paragraph on intercultural communication.
And what’s the most typical example of intercultural communication for Westerners, especially business Westerners?
Japan of course.
One of the richest countries in the world, and one of the most culturally different.
Well, the example was a woman on a business trip in Japan.
Let’s call Dana, and here’s a quick recap of that story:
- Dana met her prospects in the lobby of her hotel
- They were in suits, she was in jeans and a shirt
- The Japanese bowed. She didn’t
- They brought a gift, she didn’t have any (and she didn’t excuse herself and didn’t try to make up for it… Smart:S)
- They gave their business card with two hands, Japanese style
- She grabbed it and shoved it in her pocket without looking at it
Soon after, the Japanese stood up and left.
And Dana was surprised!
The author gives us this cross-cultural communication failure and says: “see? This is what happens when you don’t learn intercultural communication”.
The author was onto something. That was a communication failure.
But it was NOT an example of failed intercultural communication.
That’s an example of failing at the BASICS of social skills.
- A bow -and lowering our head- is a sign of reverence in any culture.
- Bringing a gift is an offer of value and a symbol of reverence in any culture
- Failing to value a personal object given to you with much attention is a sign of disrespect in any culture
- Not matching the levels of deference and warmth is a communication failure in any culture
The woman in the example -if she was even real- is not the example of a woman who was not skilled at intercultural communication. She is the poster child of a severe lack of emotional intelligence and social skills.
How The Basics Trump Intercultural Communication
You can reach 80% of intercultural effectiveness with the basics.
And without knowing the intercultural differences.
Take the example from above, and see how you would behave if you had a solid foundation of social skills and social awareness.
Someone bows at you, but people don’t bow in your culture.
But if you know the basics, you know that matching deference signals with deference signals is the equivalent of exchanging olive branches (unless you are trying to dominate them).
And if someone gives you something of value -such as a gift- and you are familiar with the theory of social exchange-, you know that to be in balance you need to give something back.
For example, a socially smart woman in the example below would have profusely thanked them and apologized for being so “thick”. Then she would have said something like “please let me make it up to you”, then called the waiter and ordered a bottle and/or finger food for all of them.
And if would have immediately gone from a mistake into positive territory.
If you know the basics you also know that you show appreciation for what your guests appreciate.
So when someone gives you a business card with two hands, you will hold it the same way, look at it and then thank them. And then give your business card the same way they did.
And you don’t need to know the specifics of the Japanese culture in handling business cards.
Simple principle: when you are not sure, copy them.
How to Get Out of All Sticky Intercultural Situations
A warm smile and a welcoming attitude will get you over 95% of intercultural issues.
For the last 5%, you can say something like this:
Her: Hi, you are so welcoming, thank you so much. I love this country. Unluckily I don’t know the culture. So please, please, if I do anything that offends you, let me apologize in advance.
Please let me know what I do wrong and what are the cultural and social norms here, I would love to learn your culture
Not only do you both verbalize and show your warm attitude, but you elect them as your teachers.
And now they will love you twice for it.
Indeed, it’s my belief and my personal experience, that a warm and welcoming personality doing intercultural communication mistakes is actually endearing.
People understand when you come from a fundamentally good and respectful place and they will want to help you out.
Who is Over-Hyping Intercultural Communication?
If intercultural communication is not so important, why do so many seminars focus on it?
I don’t know the answer to this question.
I have a few reasons in mind:
- It sounds cool to talk about “intercultural communication”
- Telling people to focus on the basics is much less sexy and appealing
- It makes for entertaining training
- It’s simpler than actually learning the basics
Don’t Study Intercultural Communication: Learn It
Based on the notion that time is the most limited resource we have, I believe that studying intercultural communication in a classroom is a colossal waste of time.
Go wherever you want to go and observe in loco.
It will make your journey more interesting and it will develop your social skills more deeply.
The Basics You Need to Master
All along this post, we repeated that the basics are what matters.
Well, what are these basics?
It’s all that makes you a high-quality, socially skilled individual.
These are what I would call the “human constants”.
Such as basic principles of social communication that are valid with every human being, wherever you go in the world.
Here is a quick list just to give you an idea:
- Body language
- Comfort/discomfort signs
- Taking up space / making oneself smaller
- Nervous cracks / confident
- Facial expression
- Warm smile
- Raising eyebrow upon meeting (friendly signal)
- Social behavior
- Listening (respectful everywhere)
- Asking questions (an indicator of interest everywhere)
- Talking over people (dominant and disrespectful everywhere)
- Matching and mirroring (if you don’t know what’s expected, mimic them)
- Fears and phobias
- The whole world over we’re afraid of the same things, including social fears
- Save people face
- Build people up in front of their peers
- Basic drives
- The whole world over we all have the exact same drives: learn them and you can influence people no matter the culture
- The whole world over we all want to be: cherished, respected, loved, praised
Intercultural communication is a subset of social skills.
Imagine your ability to relate with people is a tree.
Then social skills are the trunk. And intercultural communication is a twig on that tree, part of the branch of communication.
When you grow your social skills trunk, you automatically grow intercultural communication as well.
But if you grow the twig of intercultural communication you don’t really grow your tree at all.
And that’s the definition of time waste.
Focus on the trunk of social skills, not on the twig of intercultural communication.
Sources upon which this article is based (on top of my own personal experience):