In an increasingly globalized business environment, one of the most important skills is the ability to communicate effectively with people from different cultures. Culture itself is a term that describes the ways in which a group of people coordinate meaning and action among themselves — among other things. It describes the differences or boundaries between one group and another, such as unique communication styles. Though one can have a natural appreciation of different cultures, to communicate effectively across cultures takes considerably more understanding.
What Is Intercultural Communication?
According to the Intercultural Development Research Institute, “Intercultural communication is the study and practice of communication across cultural contexts. It applies equally to domestic cultural differences such as ethnicity and gender and to international differences such as those associated with nationality or world region.” In a large country like the United States, there are cultural differences among citizens, such as those from rural versus urban environments, or those from the South versus those from the West or Northeast.
From a functional perspective, professionals with these skills use them to facilitate more productive communications and relationships between employees; between leaders and workers; and between company representatives and the public, the media and customers. Successful organizations have leaders at every level with these skills, so that all parties can effectively relate and feel a sense of equity and belonging with the company, whether as employees, purchasers of goods or people in the local community.
Domestic or International, Intercultural Communication Skills are Vital
A professional does not need to work abroad to use intercultural communication skills. American organizations, like the nation at large, are melting pots that function best when there is mutual recognition and respect of cultural differences between employees. This does not happen accidentally; to arrive at this point, a process of mutual adaptation is required, rather than assimilation of minorities into a majority culture. That requires enhanced sensitivity on the part of those who are in the majority and an understanding of what it must be like to adjust to a new professional atmosphere. In a larger context, it requires focusing on the unique experiences of particular cultures that goes beyond their skin color, gender and heritage — understanding that cultural differences are not intrinsically superior or inferior, but different.
As part of strong overall professional communication, good intercultural communication skills require mastery of the various forms of speaking and listening. A strong communicator understands the nuances of different communication platforms and channels, such as email, direct messaging, in person one-on-one, or in meetings one-to-many. He or she understands how to factor in the audience’s expectations, whether it’s a peer, subordinate or superior. As if all of this did not require intense analysis, research, and practice, professional speaking gets considerably more challenging when you must factor in cultural differences. Yet, complete professional communication skills are mastered by graduates of the Southeastern Utah University Master of Arts in Professional Communication online program.
Intercultural Communication in Action
These skills are in constant use across organizations, and in every form of communication, internally and externally. Here are just a few examples to illustrate the difference that mastery of this skill can make to an organization.
You may be familiar with the urban legend, that Chevy’s Nova (no va in Spanish means no go) in the 1970s was a miserable failure in Latin America because of its name. The story is not true, however, as the car was a success, because nova in Spanish also means new. There have been countless incidents of poor advertising translations across cultures that did had more severe consequences. A Spanish version of the American “Got Milk” campaign used “¿Tienes leche?” which can be interpreted as “Are you lactating?” The campaign was an epic fail, tarnishing a brand in an entire region. A deeper study of intercultural communication through focus group testing could have prevented the fiasco.
In Customer Relations
What are the experiences required for a customer to feel loyal to a company? What experiences can forever damage a customer’s perception of a brand? How do people of different genders, religious backgrounds and regions respond to formal vs. informal language? How do different people respond to long, detailed explanations, vs. concise responses? These answers vary from culture to culture, but a company’s frontline representatives must be able to assess cultural differences and respond appropriately in order to optimize the experience for each individual — and to avoid potentially embarrassing consequences.
In PR and Media Events
American executives often speak with foreign news organizations and/or make public appearances in foreign territories. To be fluent in the language is a base-level requirement for such duties, but language alone does not account for the ways that nuances in phrases, body language, affectations, volume and many other factors can be perceived. For example, it is considered impolite to point at people or things in Japan; one must gently wave in that direction instead. In India, polite words, such as the translations for “please” and “thank you” are also deemed as unnecessarily formal and even insulting in some situations.
There are few subjects as fascinating as intercultural communication. Professionals with a mastery of these skills can be indispensable to their organizations as they help others realize the benefits of good intercultural relations in a business context.