Intercultural communication is a form of communication that aims to share information across different cultures and social groups. It is used to describe the wide range of communication processes and problems that naturally appear within an organization made up of individuals from different religious, social, ethnic, and educational backgrounds. Intercultural communication is sometimes used synonymously with cross-cultural communication. In this sense it seeks to understand how people from different countries and cultures act, communicate and perceive the world around them. Many people in intercultural business communication argue that culture determines how individuals encode messages, what medium they choose for transmitting them, and the way messages are interpreted. As a separate notion, it studies situations where people from different cultural backgrounds interact. Aside from language, intercultural communication focuses on social attributes, thought patterns, and the cultures of different groups of people. It also involves understanding the different cultures, languages and customs of people from other countries. Intercultural communication plays a role in social sciences such as anthropology, cultural studies, linguistics, psychology and communication studies. Intercultural communication is also referred to as the base for international businesses. There are several cross-cultural service providers around who can assist with the development of intercultural communication skills. Research is a major part of the development of intercultural communication skills.
Cross Cultural Business Communication is very helpful in building cultural intelligence through coaching and training in cross-cultural communication, cross-cultural negotiation, multicultural conflict resolution, customer service, business and organizational communication. Cross-cultural understanding is not just for incoming expats. Cross-cultural understanding begins with those responsible for the project and reaches those delivering the service or content. The ability to communicate, negotiate and effectively work with people from other cultures is vital to international business.
Problems in intercultural communication
The problems in intercultural communication usually come from problems in message transmission. In communication between people of the same culture, the person who receives the message interprets it based on values, beliefs, and expectations for behavior similar to those of the person who sent the message. When this happens, the way the message is interpreted by the receiver is likely to be fairly similar to what the speaker intended. However, when the receiver of the message is a person from a different culture, the receiver uses information from his or her culture to interpret the message. The message that the receiver interprets may be very different from what the speaker intended.
Attribution is the process in which people look for an explanation of another person’s behavior. When someone does not understand another, he/she usually blames the confusion on the other’s “stupidity, deceit, or craziness.
Effective communication depends on the informal understandings among the parties involved that are based on the trust developed between them. When trust exists, there is implicit understanding within communication, cultural differences may be overlooked, and problems can be dealt with more easily. The meaning of trust and how it is developed and communicated vary across societies. Similarly, some cultures have a greater propensity to be trusting than others.
Nonverbal communication is behavior that communicates without words—though it often may accompanied by words. Nonverbal communication has been shown to account for between 65% and 93% of interpreted communication. Minor variations in body language, speech rhythms, and punctuality often cause mistrust and misperception of the situation among cross-cultural parties.
Kinesic behavior is communication through body movement—e.g., posture, gestures, facial expressions and eye contact. The meaning of such behavior varies across countries.
Occulesics are a form of kinesics that includes eye contact and the use of the eyes to convey messages.
Proxemics concern the influence of proximity and space on communication (e.g., in terms of personal space and in terms of office layout). For example, space communicates power in the US and Germany.
Paralanguage refers to how something is said, rather than the content of what is said—e.g., rate of speech, tone and inflection of voice, other noises, laughing, yawning, and silence.
Object language or material culture refers to how we communicate through material artifacts—e.g., architecture, office design and furniture, clothing, cars, cosmetics, and time. In monochronic cultures, time is experienced linearly and as sometime to be spent, saved, made up, or wasted. Time orders life, and people tend to concentrate on one thing at a time. In polychronic cultures, people tolerate many things happening simultaneously and emphasize involvement with people. In these cultures, people may be highly distractible, focus on several things at once, and change plans often.
Management of intercultural communication
Important points to consider:
Develop cultural sensitivity
Anticipate the meaning the receiver will get.
Use words, pictures, and gestures.
Avoid slang, idioms, regional sayings.
Build relationships, face-to-face if possible.
Careful decoding of feedback
Get feedback from multiple parties.
Improve listening and observation skills.
There is a connection between a person’s personality traits and the ability to adapt to the host-country’s environment—including the ability to communicate within that environment.
Two key personality traits are openness and resilience. Openness includes traits such as tolerance for ambiguity, extrovertedness, and open-mindedness. Resilience includes having an internal locus of control, persistence, tolerance for ambiguity, and resourcefulness.
These factors, combined with the person’s cultural and racial identity and level of preparedness for change, comprise that person’s potential for adaptation.
Theories focusing on social engineering effective outcomes
In a relatively closed social system in which communication among members is unrestricted, the system as a whole will tend to converge over time toward a state of greater cultural uniformity. The system will tend to diverge toward diversity when communication is restricted.
This theory focuses on linguistic strategies to decrease or increase communicative distances.
This theory is designed to explain how communicators adapt to each other in "purpose-related encounters", at which cultural factors need to be incorporated. According to intercultural adaptation theory communicative competence is a measure of adaptation which is equated with assimilation. As Gudykunst and Kim (2003) put it, "cross-cultural adaptation process involves a continuous interplay of decultruation and acculturation that brings about change in strangers [immigrant] in the direction of assimilation, the highest degree of adaptation theoretically conceivable" (p. 360). This approach was first theorized at the height of colonialism in Victorian England by Herbert Spencer who applied a notion of adaptation he borrowed from Francis Galton to social adjustment and efficient outcomes in wealth production. Communicative competence is defined as thinking, feeling, and pragmatically behaving in ways defined as appropriate by the dominant mainstream culture. Communication competence is an outcomes based measure conceptualized as functional/operational conformity to environmental criteria such as working conditions. Beyond this, adaptation means "the need to conform" (p. 373) to mainstream "objective reality" and "accepted modes of experience" (Gudykunst and Kim, 2003, p. 378). Adaptation theory advocates that immigrants and migrants "deculturize" and "unlearn" themselves and assimilate mainstream host cultural values, beliefs, goals, and modes of behavior so that they may become "fit to live with" (Gudykunst and Kim, 2003, p. 358). Adaptation is thus postulated as a zero-sum process where the minority person is conceptualized as something like a full finite container so that as some new goal or belief is added or learned something old must be "unlearned." Prominent current promoters of assimilation repeat Spencer's arguments stating that for the sake of the success of the mainstream culture ("effective progress") adaptation/assimilation must be in the direction of the dominant mainstream culture. While Spencer postulated mainstream culture as the dominant ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving, Gudykunst and Kim (2003) define the dominant group as a simple numerical majority ("differential size of the population" Gudykunst and Kim, 2003, p. 360). Any tendency by the newcomer to retain their original identity (language, religious faiths, ethnic associations including attention to "ethnic media," beliefs, ways of thinking, et cetera) is defined by Gudykunst and Kim (2003) as operational/functional unfitness (p. 376), mental illness (pp. 372–373, 376), and communication incompetence, dispositions linked by Spencer and Galton and later Gudykunst and Kim (2003), to inherent personality predispositions and traits such as being close-minded (p. 369), emotionally immature (p. 381), ethnocentric (p. 376), and lacking cognitive complexity (pp. 382, 383). Conformity pressure has been defined since W. E B. Dubois in 1902 as symbolic violence especially when a minority cannot conform even if they wish to due to inherent properties such as disabilities, race, gender, ethnicity, and so forth. Forced compliance/assimilation based on majority group coercion constitutes what Pierre Bourdieu writing in the 1960s and dealing with issues of intercultural communication and conflict called symbolic violence (in English, Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambrudge and New York: Cambridge Univ Press). As Bourdieu (1977) maintains, the effect of symbolic violence such as host cultural coercion, the catalyst for "positive" cross-cultural adaptation according to Gudykunst and Kim (2003), results in the personal disintegration of the minority person's psyche. If the coercive power is great enough and the self-efficacy and self-esteem of the minority immigrant is destroyed, the effect leads to a mis-recognition of power relations situated in the social matrix of a given field. For example, in the process of reciprocal gift exchange in the Kabyle society of Algeria, where there is asymmetry in wealth between the two parties the better endowed giver "can impose a strict relation of hierarchy and debt upon the receiver." Symbolic violence, therefore, is fundamentally the imposition of categories of thought and perception upon dominated social agents who, once they begin observing and evaluating the world in terms of those categories — and without necessarily being aware of the change in their perspective — then perceive the existing social order as just, thereby perpetuating a social structure favored by and serving the interests of those agents who are already dominant. Symbolic violence is in some senses much more powerful than physical violence in that it is embedded in the very modes of action and structures of cognition of individuals, and imposes the specter of legitimacy of the social order.
In its most general form, co-cultural communication refers to interactions among underrepresented and dominant group members. Co-cultures include but are not limited to people of color, women, people with disabilities, gay men and lesbians, and those in the lower social classes. Co-cultural theory, as developed by Mark P. Orbe, looks at the strategic ways in which co-cultural group members communicate with others. In addition, a co-cultural framework provides an explanation for how different persons communicate based on six factors.
Theories focusing on identity negotiation or management
Theories focusing on acculturation and adjustment
This theory attempts to portray "cross-cultural adaption as a collaborative effort in which a stranger and the receiving environment are engaged in a joint effort."
When strangers communicate with hosts, they experience uncertainty and anxiety. Strangers need to manage their uncertainty as well as their anxiety in order to be able to communicate effectively with hosts and then to try to develop accurate predictions and explanations for hosts' behaviors.
Assimilation and adaption are not permanent outcomes of the adaption process; rather, they are temporary outcomes of the communication process between hosts and immigrants. "Alienation or assimilation, therefore, of a group or an individual, is an outcome of the relationship between deviant behavior and neglectful communication."
Meaning of Meaning Theory - "A misunderstanding takes place when people assume a word has a direct connection with its referent. A common past reduces misunderstanding. Definition, metaphor, feedforward, and Basic English are partial linguistic remedies for a lack of shared experience."
Face Negotiation Theory - "Members of collectivistic, high-context cultures have concerns for mutual face and inclusion that lead them to manage conflict with another person by avoiding, obliging, or compromising. Because of concerns for self-face and autonomy, people from individualistic, low-context cultures manage conflict by dominating or through problem solving"
Standpoint Theory - Is an individual experiences, knowledge, and communication behaviors are shaped in large part by the social groups to which they belong. Individuals sometimes view things similarly, but other times have very different views in which they see the world. The ways in which they view the world are shaped by the experiences they have and through the social group they identify themselves to be a part of.
Stranger Theory - At least one of the persons in an intercultural encounter is a stranger. Strangers are a 'hyperaware' of cultural differences and tend to overestimate the effect of cultural identity on the behavior of people in an alien society, while blurring individual distinctions.
Feminist Genre Theory - Evaluates communication by identifying feminist speakers and reframing their speaking qualities as models for women's liberation.
Genderlect Theory - "Male-female conversation is cross-cultural communication. Masculine and feminine styles of discourse are best viewed as two distinct cultural dialects rather than as inferior or superior ways of speaking. Men's report talk focuses on status and independence. Women's support talk seeks human connection."
Cultural Critical Studies Theory - The theory states that the mass media impose the dominant ideology on the rest of society, and the connotations of words and images are fragments of ideology that perform an unwitting service for the ruling elite.
Marxism - aims to explain class struggle and the basis of social relations through economics.
Intercultural Communication Competence
Intercultural communication is competent when it accomplishes the objectives in a manner that is appropriate to the context and relationship. Intercultural communication thus needs to bridge the dichotomy between appropriateness and effectiveness:
Appropriateness. Valued rules, norms, and expectations of the relationship are not violated significantly.
Effectiveness. Valued goals or rewards (relative to costs and alternatives) are accomplished.
Various publications list necessary competencies for intercultural communication. Twelve affective, behavioural and cognitive competencies have been identified:
Self-awareness. Is conscious about one's self (the way one looks) and about one's reputation elsewhere.
Appropriateness. Has knowledge of the socially appropriate communicative behaviour.
Self-confidence. Holds a realistic and positive confidence in own judgements, abilities and powers.
Effectiveness. Is able to bring about an effect.
Motivation for success. Has a strong orientation towards pragmatism and useful action.
Changing perspectives. Tries to understand actions and reactions of others from their point of view.
Empathy. Shows interest in others and shares emotions.
Open-mindedness. Is open towards new ideas and experiences; functions effectively with people of other world views.
Communication ability. Fully appreciates what others are saying and thinks consequentially prior to answering.
Tolerance. Is free from bigotry and prejudice, accepts and advocates diversity.
Sensitivity. Is sensitive to the importance of differences and to the point of view of other people.
Flexibility. Having a type of mental elasticity allowing to be part of and yet apart from another milieu.
A targeted development of these key competencies in intercultural communication requires a thorough appraisal to identify individual strengths and weaknesses. Diagnostic frameworks like the ICCA™ (Intercultural Communication and Collaboration Appraisal) study subjective viewpoints and focus awareness on certain behaviours and attitudes.
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