On Intercultural Communication
When we look upon the world, we do so through a cultural lens. That lens is strong, forged from cultural influences — many of which are powerful yet largely invisible. It’s that lens that forces us at times to paint differences as negative, and therefore threatening.
Misunderstanding leads to conflict, when individuals remaining unwilling or unable to put down the lens through which they see the world. Viewing differences in the negative is natural. Making a shift to view differences as simply differences only, without judgment, takes effort.
But in doing so, we build our capacity to communicate more effectively across cultures, allowing us to foster greater collaboration and ultimately change the world.
Global economies are now interwoven. Technology and communication have pushed us together into a smaller and smaller box, and cultures must interact.
In seven years, Netflix expanded to 190 countries, with more than half of its subscribers from outside the United States.
Twenty-five years ago, that type of rapid international expansion could not happen. The pace was slower and more strategic. There was time to analyze a particular culture’s nuance. Even then, mistakes were made. In 1971, Ford Motor Company tried to sell its Pinto car in Brazil, where the word “pinto” was Brazilian Portuguese slang for “small male genitalia.” Car sales plummeted.
Today, mistakes become amplified. German brewery Eichbaum caused outrage in Saudi Arabia, a country that bans alcohol, after it printed the country’s flag, which includes an Islamic statement of faith, on beer bottles as a World Cup promotion. In Israel, a chef offended the prime minister of Japan by serving him dessert in a shoe. In Japan, shoes are considered dirty and kept outside the house, much less placed on a table.
It’s a world of hyperfast cultural collision and information sharing. Navigating it requires us to critically analyze our own communication preferences and explore at a high level the differences in cultural communication norms.
Put simply, it’s about becoming curious, inquisitive, and empathetic to other cultures and their communication styles.
This is especially important for business leaders. The global economic order is changing. A 2017 PWC report suggests that in 2050, today’s emerging markets will dominate, while countries like Vietnam, Philippines, and Nigeria will gain significant influence. Meanwhile, communication skills are disappearing. According to a Bloomberg survey of 1,251 job recruiters at 547 companies, communication skills were listed among the less common, more desired skills. Those who become culturally nimble will have an advantage.
Understanding other cultures starts with understanding ourselves, and how we see the world. Generally speaking, we build a lens based upon three factors: human nature (universal), inherited behavior and ideals (collective), and learned information (individual). Culture is what we inherit, and its influence is powerful, difficult to change, and enduring.
Think of it this way. A family with two parents and three children will all share basic needs as humans. They will need to eat, sleep, and (eventually) feel the urge to make other baby humans. These are universal traits that do not separate the family from others. Yet, this family may share a preference for spicy food, a code of ethics, customs around the holiday, nicknames for each other. It’s these things that make them a family. But still, ask the parents if all three kids are the same, and the answer is usually a resounding, “No!”
Culture is what makes them a family. Personality is what makes them individuals. Culture is inherited and enduring. Personality is learned and flexible.
Culture shapes how we see the world. As a result, several theories have emerged that help to explain the influence of culture on personality. In the 60s and 70s, social psychologist Geert Hofstede introduced a framework that explains cultural differences across six dimensions. The framework has been expanded and now serves as a reference for comparing different countries.
American anthropologist Edward T. Hall explored the idea of high-context and low-context in cultural communications. Low-context cultures attribute more meaning to the words being said and less to the context around them. High-context cultures are the opposite, attributing value to the things left unspoken.
Understanding these subtleties can change the world.
In 1978 representatives from Israel and Egypt met with U.S. President Jimmy Carter at Camp David to negotiate a peace treaty. At one point, discussions broke down. As Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin prepared to leave, he requested signed photographs with the president for his grandchildren.
Instead of just signing the photos, Carter wrote the names of each of Begin’s eight grandchildren with a personal note. As the prime minister read aloud the names of his grandchildren, he and Carter began to shed tears. Begin reflected on the importance of the peace negotiations to his grandchildren’s futures and ultimately returned to the table. The bigger picture had greater influence than words alone.
Begin and Egyptian Prime Minister Anwar el-Sadat ultimately signed a peace treaty and together shared the Nobel Peace Prize of 1978.
When we think about effective intercultural communication, we consider three dynamics: knowledge, motivation, and skill. President Carter had knowledge of low-context and high-context communications. With peace at stake, he also had massive motivation to succeed and the skill to influence.
Knowledge is on us. We first look inwards. We explore our own cultural norms for communication and consider the extent to which our preferences reflect those norms. For example, most citizens in the United States would identify with the statement, “liberty and justice for all.” This statement reflects a low commitment to a Hofstede dimension called power distance — the extent to which a culture accepts that power is distributed unequally. For cultures on the opposite end of the power distance spectrum, the statement may not resonate. Yet, it rings so true to Americans that hundreds of years of foreign policy has been shaped by it.
Motivation refers to the extent to which we have a need to communicate effectively. An Italian tourist visiting Japan for ten days might be mildly motivated to understand culture nuance; however, it becomes much different when the same individual heads to Tokyo to negotiate a multimillion dollar business deal.
Skill comes from practice. Every moment of the day we’re bombarded by various stimuli related to communication. Our lens helps us to interpret the stimuli. It allows us to pay attention to some things and discard the rest. Clashes occur when our lens does not match another’s lens.
When we set ours aside — when we approach cultural differences from a place of genuine inquiry and discovery — we can learn to make sense of other cultures and how they communicate.