Motivation and Its Role in Intercultural Communication Success
Different moments call for different approaches.
When I teach intercultural communication, one of the first points I make is that our role in communication is the most important. Still, I often catch myself focusing on the other.
In communication research, we tend to drift towards analyses about how others communicate. It is an easy trap since we are trying to understand various styles and forms of communication. We already understand ourselves, right?
Perhaps not. The point I stress is that by understanding others we are first and foremost attempting to understand ourselves.
When it comes to intercultural communication, we add a layer of motivation to the conversation. Effective communication among diverse groups occurs when differences can be resolved and accommodated. When we surround ourselves with those from similar backgrounds, with those who share a similar cultural lens [link to other post], we communicate with ease and naturally.
When we engage with those from different backgrounds, with different lenses, adaptation among all participants must take place. This is where motivation becomes critical.
Back to my workshops, I spend a good amount of time discussing motivation. Our motivation leads us to make certain decisions, both conscious and unconscious, about how we communicate. And those decisions hold a lot of sway over whether we are successful.
That is because we are the only ones we can control. But by doing so, we can gain some control over a situation.
Let’s consider two examples.
In the first example, I am taking a surf vacation in Tamarindo, Costa Rica. I will be there for five days and my only goal is to find perfect waves with off-shore winds and sunshine. What is my motivation to communicate? I am interested primarily in getting from point A to point B. From the airport to town, and from town to la playa.
I have a high motivation to achieve transactional, surface-level communication. Therefore, I might practice speaking Spanish, but the vocabulary I will memorize is entirely driven by my own pursuits. I do not have motivation to engage at a deeper level. I might not spend a ton of time considering cultural influences of the Central American country on communication. I will not consider, for example, that the country places a high value on the collective, on networking, on personal relationships, compared to the highly individualistic culture of the United States.
Show me to the ocean, and I will consider my mission accomplished.
In the second example, the scenario is quite different. I have now flown to the other side of the globe and landed in Tokyo, Japan.
I am meeting with the chairman of a major accounting firm. I have arrived to convince him to participate in a documentary series. The stakes are high, which makes my motivation to communicate high.
Yet, the process actually started months before this moment. I researched communication styles and learned that decision making tends to be hierarchical. Decisions work their way up an organization's ladder. They are also deeply considered to avoid uncertainty. High levels of respect are valued.
As a result, I had worked through many contacts to arrive at this point. Cultural considerations influenced the format and structure of my emails, the timing and agenda of phone calls, and the level of detail I provided. By the time I arrived at the office to meet the chairman, I had done my best to adjust my communication style.
I spent a few days in Tokyo with various colleagues and observed. I paid attention to first meetings in particular—the level of formality, the subtle nuances to bowing, the reserved but deeply engaged greetings. I would never pass as a Japanese native. But I could understand that respect is valued, and I can make sure I communicate with that type of respect. I stayed alert and hyper aware of how I communicated. I tried to mirror verbal and non-verbal communication traits without parody.
And it worked.
When I meet the chairman, I find him to be warm, engaging and interested in participating in our project. We discuss the outlines of the documentary, and he agrees to be on camera himself.
I will never know exactly how much my focus on cultural differences contributed to our success. More than likely, I simply increased the odds in my favor.
And that is what we ultimately seek. Our cultural influences are hard wired. We cannot completely change. Yet we can adjust. We can avoid the mentality, “It’s just how I am.” It’s like visiting a new friend and taking your shoes off at the door.
There is power in making the effort.
Besides, we unconsciously change our communication style all the time.
Communication Accommodation Theory suggests that people adjust their verbal and nonverbal behavior in context (Giles 2016).1
This adjustment takes two primary forms: convergence and divergence.
When we want to make favorable impressions, we will converge our communication styles to meet others’. We might slightly change our speech pattern and tone, we might stand closer or further than normal from others, we might alter our hand gestures. If you have ever spent significant time around someone with a strong accent, you may have found yourself taking on traits of the accent, or using new words. This is known as mirroring. We start to reflect communication behaviors back to others. We nod our heads in agreement or understanding. You can watch this happen between two people or groups
The opposite occurs with divergence. When we find ourselves in situations where we do not want to communicate, we will alter our behavior to offset what we are receiving. This often occurs during conflict or during unwelcome encounters. We might cross our arms, create physical distance, or avoid eye contact. We will actively block the communication signals we receive.
Taken broadly, we can apply these concepts consciously to suit our motivation. By understanding the tenets of communication accommodation theory, we can use this to our advantage.
So in the examples above, when I am in Tamarindo, I have low motivation to connect on a substantive level. It is non-threatening as well, so I would likely communicate according to my normal behaviors. If I converge towards or diverge from others, it will be largely unconscious.
When I am in Tokyo, however, and my motivation is high, I would be highly attuned to the need to converge. I am more aware of how I am behaving and the extent to which I am either converging or diverging. In particular, I try not to stand out in a negative, or highly divergent, way.
Famed martial artist and actor Bruce Lee once advised that fighters, “be like water making its way through cracks.” The idea was to be loose, adjustable, and flexible.
Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.
This can apply to our communication styles as well. Of course, we cannot completely dissolve from ourselves the essence of who we are. Just as in martial arts one cannot completely change their physical make up, their strengths, and limitations.
However it is the mindset that matters. In communications, we can take a similar approach. We can let go of assumptions and be conscious about how we are communicating.
When our motivation is high, we stay aware of the other, and we can adjust. We can actively affect the success of our communication.
When your motivation is low, you might just be in Tamarindo, paddling out, into the water.
Do say hello.
Giles, H. (2016). Communication Accommodation Theory: Negotiating Personal Relationships and Social Identities Across Contexts. Cambridge University Press.