Intercultural Communication Research Paper

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Every human group shares a body of common understandings, its culture, which serves to make communication within the group intelligible and which guides behavior and enables the group to achieve common objectives.

Common understandings, communication, and behaviors set each group apart from other groups. To a greater or lesser degree, there is overlap with the shared understandings of other groups. Nevertheless, critical points of difference in these understandings, however minor they may seem to outsiders, give rise to convictions of being a separate group and reinforce a shared identity.

While separate cultures may share varying amounts of their content, their points of difference establish boundaries. These cultural boundaries are potential obstacles to communication.

Communication is the act or process of imparting or exchanging meanings, such as information, opinions, thoughts, and feelings. Intercultural communication is the act or process of imparting or exchanging meanings across cultural boundaries. Anything that humans seek to transmit from one individual or group to another within a specific culture (intracultural communication) may also be transmitted between different cultures (intercultural communication).

Intercultural Miscommunication

Intercultural miscommunication occurs when intended meanings are unclearly, inadequately, or mistakenly communicated across cultural boundaries. All human behavior, including business behavior, is enacted within specific cultural contexts. When we are operating within our own native culture, we may take culture for granted. However, when we find ourselves within a culture different from our own we are operating culture blind. Whether we realize it or not, different rules of behavior may apply. Anything we do or say can unexpectedly, upsettingly, and sometimes destructively, explode in our faces. Such intercultural errors may negatively impact the situations in which we find ourselves.

There is growing understanding among businessmen and businesswomen at all levels of the importance of understanding foreign cultures and of the necessity of business

individuals and business organizations to adapt their behaviors and operations to their host foreign cultures (Ferraro, 2006; Serrie, 1986; Terpstra & David, 1991).

Intercultural Errors and Business Individuals

Simply by behaving normally in our own cultural perspective, we may unwittingly commit intercultural errors. Intercultural errors follow a typical pattern:

  1. Innocuous Start: The intercultural visitor (e.g., business-person, government official, student, tourist) says or does something that would be considered entirely appropriate in the visitor’s home culture.
  2. Inexplicable Response: The intercultural host reacts in an unexpected way, such as stunned silence, embarrassed laughter, frosty or angry retort, abrupt departure, and sometimes even physical violence.
  3. Confusion: The intercultural visitor is unaware or only vaguely aware of his of her error, or the visitor is shocked and confused. (Brislin, Cushner, Cherrie, & Yong, 1986)

Culture Shock and the Ugly Foreigner

Residence in a country or region with a culture significantly different from our own can be an intensely rewarding experience, or it can result in varying degrees of misery for ourselves and/or others in contact with us. We may ethnocentrically hurt ourselves and/or we may ethnocentrically hurt our host nationals. Mistakes may be innocuous, perhaps the subject of much humor at our expense. More seriously, intercultural mistakes may prove to be upsetting to the intercultural visitor and/or host nationals and may even seriously damage the capability of the business organization to carry out its operations.

Failure to successfully manage the cultural barriers, especially when we are on our own, can result in a form of psychological regression or breakdown known as culture shock. If we are with a group of Americans, this can serve to insulate us from our cultural errors, and the damage may accrue primarily to those foreign persons unfortunate enough to have interacted with us. A series of intercultural mistakes can build an image of the “Ugly Foreigner.”

Intercultural Errors and Business Organizations

Not only do businesspersons commit intercultural mistakes as individuals, but their organizations do so as well (Ricks, 1993). When a business organization makes inter-cultural mistakes, it may result in costs to the company amounting to millions of dollars; and when a business organization hurts host individuals, organizations, and communities, it can seriously jeopardize its reputation and guest status in the host nation.

Europeans have understood this for centuries, in that even short trips of a hundred miles may bring a traveler to an entirely different nation and culture. Small nations that are highly dependent upon international trade are acutely aware of the need for intercultural knowledge and skills. For nations like Iceland, the Netherlands, or Japan, whose language is spoken in no other country, the need for linguistic as well as broader intercultural training is obvious. In the Netherlands, for example, instruction in not one but two foreign languages is required in the public schools, starting in the first grade and continuing through secondary school.

America, on the other hand, did not have to come to grips with cultural differences until the last few decades. Before World War II, the continental size of our country insured that internal trade dominated our economy; and, in the postwar years, America had little competition for its products in its growing international markets. Whatever intercultural errors Americans made in this period, and there undoubtedly were many, were usually accepted and swept under the carpet.

However, during the 1960s foreign products and labor became fierce competitors with American products and labor in price, quality, and advertising image, both at home and abroad. With many alternatives available to the rest of the world, and with rising movements of nationalism and ethnic identity everywhere, irritation with American intercultural ignorance and insensitivity was increasingly expressed.

Of necessity, the long era of American intercultural ignorance is rapidly coming to an end. Because intercultural understanding and skills enhance the competitive edge of any business product or activity, American business individuals and organizations are increasingly incorporating them into their daily operations and long-range strategies.

The Anthropological Concept Of Culture

Culture in the anthropological sense is the sum total of meanings and understandings, the learned patterns of ideation, communication, action, and materialization that constitute a way of living, built up over time by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another. The nature of all culture is that it is learned, as opposed to genetically acquired like instinct, and the development of culture-creating abilities is a major feature of the biological evolution of hominids. As with instinct, the function of culture is to provide an adaptation to the environment.

The concept of culture has proven to be protean in its ability to morph into different shapes. The first anthropological definition of culture was crafted in the 19th century by E. B. Tylor (1871/1958), who wrote, “Culture or Civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Fifty years ago, two leading anthropologists compiled no less than 400 different definitions of culture. Each one was tailored to the theoretical orientations of the authors and served the purpose of such

diverse fields as archeology, linguistics, and psychology (Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952). One of today’s popular anthropology textbooks defines culture as “a society’s shared, socially transmitted ideas, values, and perceptions” (Haviland, Prins, Walrath, & McBride, 2007).

The Divisions of Culture

Culture is divided into several systems that are in complex ways and varying degrees interrelated:

Technology and materialization. This division comprises the knowledge and skills to effect changes in the material world, and the material results, including artifacts, of those changes. Technology is at the base of cultural organization and change. Technology and the natural environment determine or limit the types of economy available to any human group.

Economy and economic organization. This division comprises the forms of obtaining basic and nonbasic needs from the natural and social environments, such as food, clothing, shelter, transportation, communication, and entertainment. It includes the channels of production, distribution, and consumption.

Social organization and political organization. Technology and economy determine or limit the types of social and political organization available to any human group, from the family or domestic group through secondary organizations (e.g., lineage, clan, church, school) and up to the largest organizations of tribe, chiefdom, and state. This includes hunting-gathering bands and agribusinesses, shops and corporations, shamanic ceremonies and churches, war parties and armies, and councils and governments. It also includes the management knowledge and skills relevant to each organization.

Ideation. Technology, economy, and sociopolitical organization determine, limit, or influence the ideational systems of any human group, the bodies of thought and expression on such topics as the supernatural, politics, and everyday life, and include values, religion, ideology, and art forms.

Communication. This division comprises all the forms of communication, including gestures, spoken language, symbols, and writing. The vocabulary content (words, gestures, symbols) of communication makes reference to and summarizes the entire gamut of meanings of all the divisions of a culture. However, linguistic subsystems like phonology, morphology, and grammar are independent of other cultural systems.

Cultural Change

Because culture is learned, it is able to change rapidly in comparison with instinct. Through discovery and invention, trial and error, individuals generate innovations, some of which are adopted by other members of their own group and thus become part of the group’s culture. New business products and services that meet needs are readily acquired by consumers. Moreover, useful or attractive elements of one culture can be adopted by any other culture and made its own.

Throughout history, trade has been one of the most important mechanisms of cultural diffusion. Today, the multinational corporation may well be the most powerful institution for cultural change in the world. Many of the products and services it sells are relatively new from the perspectives of traditional cultures in developing nations. Other products and services are absolutely new, even in industrial nations, in that they have been discovered or invented in the research and development programs of the multinational corporations themselves. Advertising and marketing activities carried on by multinational corporations motivate people to buy these products and services and often teach media audiences not only the technical, but also the social behaviors for using them.

Viewed holistically, the new material culture merchandised by multinational corporations around the world implies or requires changes in economic, social, and ideational culture as well. There are, moreover, not only the direct effects but indirect and unforeseen effects as well. With immense assets that dwarf the resources of many developing nations, the role and effect of a multinational corporation can be pervasive.

Because this process is constant, incremental changes inexorably push all nations into cultural transformation after transformation. While political interest groups prevent or retard needed cultural changes through governmental structures, the free market is quietly introducing revolutionary changes that have their own philosophy and direction. Much of the cultural content of the future, trivial and fundamental, for good and for evil, is in the hands of multinational corporations.

Linguistic Versus Technological Cultural Change

Whereas cultural development pushed by technology is following an exponential rate of change, linguistic (non-vocabulary) change is very slow. It took around 12 to 15 centuries of linguistic process for a parent language (e.g., Ancient Chinese and Latin), to separate into mutually unintelligible offspring languages (e.g., Mandarin, Wu, Cantonese, Min, Hakka, Hsiang; Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Rumanian, Catalan, Provencal, Rhaeto-Romanic, Sardinian, Moldavian) (Katzner, 1986). Unlike technological change, which might be seen as progressive in that its developments lead to ever greater control over nature, linguistic change is not related to practical functions and is therefore not progressive.

Technology as the Prime Mover of Cultural Change

Technology undergirds most of culture. Starting with the very beginning of cultural evolution, archeologists label the prehistoric human periods in terms of increasingly sophisticated stoneworking technology (Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic). The Neolithic Period saw the advent of

agriculture and permanent habitations. Some villages grew into cities, creating the civilizations of antiquity, which are characterized by specialization of labor, monolithic architecture, organized religion, standing armies, endemic warfare, and the development of writing. Increasingly sophisticated metallurgical technology (Copper, Bronze, and Iron Ages) distinguished categories of early civilization, and along with increasingly sophisticated management techniques, enabled the conquest by city-states of larger and larger empires (Harris, 1966).

Coexistent Technological Levels

None of the levels of technology observed in the archeological record have entirely disappeared among contemporary cultures. Mastery of fire, the great achievement of Homo erectus, remains a fundamental element of all present-day cultures. Remnants of Paleolithic hunting and gathering technology and material culture persist in remote and technologically primitive indigenous cultures found in many parts of the world, and specialized aspects are preserved as sport or art in wealthy nations (e.g., the bow and arrow, boomerang, and spear thrower or atlatl). In today’s world, there are fundamental differences between cities and urban culture, rural villages in developing nations, and isolated indigenous peoples.

Cities: Carriers of the Modern Global Culture

Globalization is spreading the most essential of modern technology everywhere. There is no city in the entire world that does not have modern transportation and communication systems (e.g., motor vehicles, traffic signals), even if the local culture often finds colorful ways of designing and decorating busses, trucks, three-wheeled vehicles, and the like. Telephones, cellular phones, fax machines, and computers are everywhere. The technology of modern transportation and communication has revolutionized the speed and the scope of international business operations. Along with the material culture of the industrialized world, nonmaterial ideational culture has also spread globally. Modern technology has made international business operations not only easier, but also more culturally familiar and therefore predictable.

Cultural Universals and Cultural Alternatives. However, while modern technology and science comprise the cultural universals (i.e., found in all cultures), ideational culture has spread as a set of cultural alternatives (i.e., choices or options). Probably every city in the world has restaurants specializing in different national cuisines: Italian, French, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, American fast food, and others share a peaceful coexistence. On the other hand, city cultures in the contemporary world are in many ways in conflict as different religious beliefs, social practices, and political ideologies collide and compete with each other. Yet no nation rejects modern military hardware or modern high-rise construction techniques, and even terrorists hostile to modernization make full use of cell phones and the Internet.

Peasant Villages: Between the Neolithic and the Postindustrial

There is a severe cultural division between the urban and rural sectors of the developing world. Almost half the population of the world, perhaps 3 billion people, live in rural agricultural villages. Anthropologists have used the term “peasants” to distinguish these preindustrial or partly industrial agriculturalists from the industrialized and computerized farmers of the developed world. Though sharing the same civilization as the urban centers with which they are in a symbiotic relationship, peasant villages are simple and modest and lack the cultural elaboration and sophistication of cities. Though some hinterland villages are caught up in some of the great world, regional, and national movements of cultural change, they nonetheless lag behind cities. Rural cultures are bound by their agricultural technology and economy, are limited by poverty and low levels of education, and are far more culturally traditional in their social groupings and folkways.

In many of the rural villages of developing nations, Neolithic stone technology coexists with the machinery and other products of industrialization. In Mexican villages, for example, the metate and mano stone table and roller used for grinding corn are commonplace. Throughout the world, Neolithic techniques of making pottery and weaving cloth coexist with contemporary ceramic and textile manufacturing processes. In China, modern silk production still depends upon the labor-intensive feeding of silkworms and the unraveling of their cocoons; little has changed since the Chinese Neolithic. Much of the plant cultivation in developing countries is still done by hand or with animal power. It is still common to see oxen with wooden yokes pulling wooden plows. Goats, camels, horses (Mongolia), and a large percentage of the cows in the world are still milked by hand. Beasts of burden continue to be ridden bareback or with saddles invented in ancient times.

Business people, economists, development officials, and political leaders have not been sufficiently aware of the economic importance of Third World rural peoples as consumers of capitalist products. Yet peasants have always purchased and used products of the industrial world that are useful (e.g., bicycles) or interesting (e.g., radios) and which they can afford. A few writers have documented the informal distribution channels of multinational products in the hinterlands of developing nations and have pointed out the potential for a much larger and lucrative peasant market (Prahalad, 2005; Serrie, 1991, 1994).

American businessmen dream of a Chinese market with over 1 billion customers, but over two thirds of that market reside in China’s 1 million rural villages. Reaching Chinese villagers is a far greater intercultural challenge than reaching the residents of Shanghai or Guangzhou, and few Western businesspeople have the knowledge or skills to do it successfully. Intercultural training is imperative.

Indigenous Peoples: Aboriginal Isolation

Indigenous or aboriginal peoples are those known to be the original or earliest known inhabitants of a region or country. Every populated continent has indigenous peoples, including Eskimos in the North American Arctic, Yanomamo in the Amazon, Lapps in the European Arctic, Ainu in Japan, and Yir Yoront in Australia. They constitute remnants of those hunting-gathering, horticulturalist, and herding cultures existing before the arrival of agricultural and industrial civilizations.

Indigenous peoples are the most isolated of all human groups, typically occupying remnants of land unwanted by expanding agricultural or industrial cultures: mountains, deserts, tundra, jungles, and swamps. Yet this isolation is not absolute, and in modern times even indigenous peoples increasingly buy products of the industrial world, though on a greatly restricted basis, especially in comparison to the purchasing patterns of peasant peoples. Unlike peasant cultures, whose populations are in the millions in many developing nations, the populations of indigenous peoples are small, numbering in the hundreds, thousands or, rarely, in the tens of thousands. With relatively primitive technologies, the economic resources of indigenous hunting-gathering, horticultural, and herding peoples are meager in comparison with the resources of peasant peoples.

If cities and urban populations wield the most political power, and peasant populations much less, then isolated indigenous peoples have virtually no power at all; they are usually wards of the nations in which they are located. For these reasons, indigenous peoples usually do not constitute significant markets for multinational corporations. Significant exceptions occur, however, when valuable natural resources are discovered on indigenous lands, or when a nation’s laws permit exceptions to gambling prohibitions.

Intercultural Adaptation

Both business organizations and business individuals must adapt to their host cultures (Ferraro, 2006; Serrie, 1986; Terpstra & David, 1991).

Adaptation of Business Operations to the Host Culture

Technology. In some nations, low levels of prior experience and familiarity with modern tools, appliances, machines, vehicles, and technical procedures may create difficulties with consumers in advertising a multinational product, in using it safely, or in using it so that it will last as long as intended. There may be difficulties with employees not sufficiently versed in the technical skills needed in production, clerical tasks, sales, or management. Employees may have difficulty operating company machines and vehicles. Concepts of hygiene and of safety may be little understood, and the company may need to provide explicit training. The host language may not have adequate vocabulary for describing the company’s product, identifying parts for assembly and servicing, or instructing in the use and repair of the product. The infrastructure of the host nation may be inadequate or different in critical ways.

Social groupings. In some nations, management style may be more authoritarian or less authoritarian than in the United States. It is not uncommon for decisions to be made higher in the chain of command than in the United States. so that one’s counterpart does not have equivalent powers. Sometimes it is a group rather than an individual that bears responsibility for making decisions and meeting objectives, and competition between individuals is avoided. In many countries, companies are family owned, and family members or friends hold significant positions in management. Jobs, contracts, and orders may be awarded to relatives of the manager rather than on the basis of merit. In some authoritarian nations, it may be necessary to hire an unproductive representative of the political party in power in order to negotiate the bureaucracy and legal system. Corruption is commonplace in many nations, and business transactions may carry the expectation that key host nationals will receive substantial gifts in cash or in kind. The general system of social classes, in some cases castes, may make it difficult if not impossible to reward or promote an employee on the basis of individual merit. Employees of one social group may refuse to engage in certain work or business activities with members of another social group. Sometimes business as an occupation is held in low esteem. Business socializing and entertaining may require participating in activities and in places that seem unusual from an American point of view. Labor unions may be more cooperative or more confrontational than expected, or they may not exist. It may be impossible to fire a worker once hired, to lay off workers in a slow period, or to reward or punish individual employees for bad or good work and conduct on the job.

Political organization. The multinational corporation must make special efforts to maintain cordial relations with the host government. It should make special efforts to create and maintain a public image of good corporate citizenship. The multinational corporation should seek to be appreciated for its positive role in the economic development of the host country, but it may find itself under attack and accused of being an instrument of so-called neoimperialism, neocolonialism, economic dependency, and underdevelopment. In many foreign nations, political risks must be assessed continually, with full cognizance of such factors as a colonial past, intense nationalism, and issues of sovereignty. Sometimes there are concerns for the political stability of

a regime and its controlling groups, or with possibilities of nationalization, expropriation, or various forms of protectionism. In benign environments, host nationals often regard any job with a multinational corporation as a plum, and the company may find itself in a leadership role with regard to health and accident benefits, environmental concerns, and ideals of equality and opportunity.

Law. Business contracts may draw upon the legal principles of tribal, Hindu, Rabbinical, Islamic, Ottoman, Civil or Common law, or some unfamiliar mixture. In nations with authoritarian regimes, the rule of law may be weak or nil. Laws of the host nation may require that the government or host nationals own a percentage of the host company. Laws may require that a percentage of the company’s rank-and-file employees and/or managers must be host nationals. The host nation may have laws restricting the production of the company’s products, the materials used, or the content and style of the company’s advertising and packaging.

Enculturation and education. In some countries or regions, low levels of functional literacy or mathematical ability may create difficulties in advertising the company product to potential consumers, or in consumers and workers failing to understand written instructions, hazard warning signs, and so forth. The guest company may find it necessary to create training programs for their host country employees in production, clerical, sales, and management positions. Increasingly, the guest company will offer training to its own expatriate employees in intercultural skills and knowledge specific to the host culture.

Personality and values. Personality characteristics, attitudes, or values in the host culture may differ in varying degrees from American norms. The host culture may not share positive attitudes toward punctuality, future orientation and long view, optimism about the future, willingness to take risks, diligence, work as meaningful, work as a source of personal achievement, frugality, savings and investment, rationality in decision making, cooperativeness within the work group, positive attitude towards new technology, alertness to opportunity, entrepreneurialism, personal appearance, cleanliness, orderliness, honesty, integrity, or disapproval of bribery.

Ideology and religion. Each nation has its own yearly round of religious and/or secular holidays, all of which have a bearing on local business operations. Some holidays are national, while others pertain to ethnic, religious, or other social groupings. Some businesses will close operations for the day(s), while others will remain open. Holidays requiring fasting or feasting will impact on consumption patterns of food and drink, and some holidays will feature special cuisine. Sometimes religious observances will be practiced on company premises, and may even be conducted in facilities provided by the company. Companies may find it prudent to invite religious specialists to conduct special rituals or ceremonies in conjunction with business operations, in order to determine auspicious circumstances, to invoke blessing or to ward off harm. Religious beliefs may create seasonal spikes or slumps in consumer purchasing, may enforce taboos against or prescriptions for the purchase or use of certain products, and may restrict various aspects of company advertising.

Symbols, language, and writing. Advertising employs the artistic organization of line, shape, color, texture, sound, and other properties in ways that evoke desired responses in home-culture consumers. None of this may be taken for granted in a host culture. The size and shape of soft drink containers varies among nations. Few Westerners understand or appreciate the music of traditional Chinese opera; the fact that a fifth of the world’s population loves it can instruct us in how difficult it might sometimes be to bridge differences in artistic styles. Company logos must be checked against host-culture interpretations. A red star on a standard Japanese product was seen to represent Communism and caused a flap in Taiwan during the Cold War. The Gerber baby was misunderstood by illiterate populations in Africa, who assumed that any food container would be depicting its contents on the label.

Brand names that work in one country may be laughable in another. In some Spanish-speaking countries, the Chevrolet Nova was a standing joke (nova translates does not run). In Syria during the early 1960s a local cola beverage used the prestige-seeking name of Mobil-Up. Chinese undershorts for men sport a flower logo and the English name Pansy. A Chinese brand of cigarettes named after the Chinese word for poker, uses romanization that spells out Puke. A health elixir made from the ginseng root is labeled Ginsenocide. The Chinese characters initially chosen to sound out the words “Coca-Cola” translated as Bite the White Tadpole. A subsequent, more felicitous set of same-sounding characters translates as Happiness in the Mouth.

There are approximately 3,000 languages spoken in the world today. Up to 3,000 languages have been lost in the last few centuries, and of those remaining, a little over 200 languages have sufficient numbers of speakers to assume international significance. A much smaller number of writing systems serve to convey these languages in print (Katzner, 1986). Multinational corporations must deal with whatever languages and writing systems are spoken and read by consumers in their host nations. Many nations are blessed by having a single dominant language, but some nations must cope with the difficulties and potential divisiveness of having multiple languages. India, for example, has 14 major languages. A business organization may find that more than one language is spoken by its employees. In locations where multiple languages are common, it will incur greater costs for translation, publication, and transmission of its advertising and servicing messages. Scientific and scholarly translation is costly to governments as well as business, so that higher education as well as business research, development, and technology transfer operations are carried out in English, French, and a handful of major national or regional languages (Terpstra & David, 1991).

Adaptation of Business Individuals to the Host Culture

Business personnel abroad must cope as individuals with the cultural differences confronting them and understand what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behavior. The Cross-Cultural Adaptability Inventory (CCAI) offers a rigorously tested and widely used measure of intercultural sensitivity (Kelley & Meyers, 2001).

Often the expatriate spouse and children are the most deeply imbedded in the host culture and bear the brunt of cultural adaptation. They must contend with servants, shopping, and schools that may be worlds apart from the comfort zone of corporate offices. Completion of foreign postings is also fraught with intercultural difficulties when the home office fails to recognize and integrate the valuable experiences of their returned expatriates, who often go through reverse culture shock.

Material culture. The artifacts and machines of daily life may differ drastically in a host culture. A three-wheeled motorcycle taxi ride can be a frightening experience in Bangkok traffic, not to mention riding behind the driver of a motor scooter taxi in Barahona, Dominican Republic. An American might have difficulties remaining comfortable in a cross-legged sitting position at a Japanese table, squatting over a Middle Eastern toilet, or confronting a European bidet. He or she may be confused by the nonuse of sink stoppers in Colombia, the procedures of a Japanese bath, or the fine points of tucking in the mosquito netting over a bed in south China.

Cuisine. An American abroad may be unprepared for the host-culture foods or for alcoholic beverages like Taiwanese kaoliang or Mexican mescal, not to mention such delicacies as maguey worms, fried grasshoppers, raw fish, dog stew, or sheep eyeballs. The social rules for drinking alcoholic beverages may differ, or there may be strict prohibition against any drinking at all.

Social groupings. Family structure, secondary groups, and social roles will differ in the host culture. In southern Europe, one might need to learn to deal with the family firm. Executives in many Third World countries may not have the same power to make decisions and to conclude agreements as their American counterparts. The American businessperson may need to spend hours sipping coffee and chatting with other supplicants in Mexican waiting rooms, to meticulously remember all the favors he must dutifully reciprocate in Japan, or to assimilate the lifelong familistic affair that Chinese businessmen in southeast Asia seek to make of commercial relationships.

Class and caste. The principle of transfer or promotion to higher prestige occupations or positions on the basis of professional merit will be opposed by defenders of a rigid gender or class system.

Religion. The expressions of religion may adorn offices, busses, and company machinery. The Muslim workday is interrupted up to five times for prayers, and the Middle Eastern work force is divided into those that observe a holy day and do not work on Friday, on Saturday, or on Sunday.

Personal space and body language. The primordial expressions of personal space and body language are modified by culture. While East Asian cultures maximize spacing, giving two persons room to bow, Eastern Mediterranean cultures prefer close face-to-face positions in which the communicants bathe each other in their breath.

Gestures. Gestures may sometimes mimic the real world, but are often arbitrary. Making a ring with thumb and index finger means “A-OK” in America, but is an obscenity in Brazil. To knock on a door in Mexico with a “shave and a haircut” rhythm also broadcasts an obscenity. A European executive nearly caused a riot in a restaurant in Oman when he unthinkingly passed a plate of food to his Arab counterpart with his left hand, which is associated with toilet hygiene.

Spoken language. It often comes as a shock the first time one finds oneself in a community where almost no one speaks his or her language. A common rudeness among travelers abroad is to discuss in their own language the host people and culture in the presence of individuals who they mistakenly presume do not understand.

Intercultural Training: Language, Background, And Behavior

A complete intercultural training will provide skills in the appropriate foreign language, general background knowledge of the culture, and mastery of the culturally appropriate behavior. Language instruction is costly and a great deal of time is required to achieve fluency. In contrast, cultural backgrounding and training for culturally appropriate behavior can be accomplished in as little as several days (Bhawuk, 1998; Landis & Bhagat, 1996; Serrie, 1989). ‘

Foreign Language Instruction

Ideally all personnel should speak the language of the host culture. However, contrary to accepted wisdom, fluency in the host language is not the most important part of a businessperson’s intercultural skills, although it is the most immediately apparent and impressive.

Language is a fundamental part of culture. While its structure is unrelated to cultural content, the vocabulary of any language carries all its important meanings and understandings. (Whorf, 1956, on the other hand, famously argued that the grammar of any language conditions unconscious thought.) In any case, it would be a mistake to assume that intercultural training can be imparted merely by requiring study of a foreign language. Important and subtle cultural nuances are indeed learned in the mastery of the vocabulary and grammar of any language. Often cultural behaviors are taught in the process of mastering standard or typical conversations. But there is a vast domain of understandings, behaviors, and material artifacts that cannot possibly be included in standard

language courses, and indeed are not the normal purview of language and linguistics. Only a limited number of these cultural elements are even written down and available in print. Most of them can only be learned in the field in the course of daily life. They must be practiced in actual real-life behavioral contexts in order to be fully mastered.

Mastering the appropriate behavior takes precedence over mastering the language. The two skills overlap, but are not the same. Mastery of the language is often presumed to indicate a prior knowledge of the forms of social interaction as well, despite the unlikelihood of more than a few simple interactional patterns being taught in a typical language class. There is a danger that if a foreign guest is fluent in the native language, he or she will be held to a higher standard of correct behavior as well.

Background Knowledge of the Host Culture

A working knowledge of the way society and government are organized is essential, along with a sense of important values and everyday mores and customs. Some familiarity with the history of a nation is important, and any additional knowledge of topics important to the host people will be an asset in ordinary interpersonal conversation. Such knowledge may even provide creative avenues to solving business problems in the host culture or to creating or introducing new products for its market.

Some nations take great pride in their archeology and the brilliant ancient civilizations that form their heritage. Ancient Greece, for example, developed the first democracy, the principles of logic, and the systematic inquiry into the natural world that led to modern science. Beginning in the Han Dynasty, ancient China developed a system of government schools and public competitive examinations that established the first meritocratic civil service. In the history of art, music, and literature, many nations have brilliant traditions. Icelanders of today are avid readers of their Icelandic Sagas and can identify their ancestors among the characters. A number of Latin American nations have been on the cutting edge of modern architecture.

Every nation in the world has elements of its culture in which it takes especial pride, and any knowledge of these topics, or any interest and willingness to learn about them from host nationals, can create rapport and build friendships across cultural boundaries. For a nation like Iceland, knowledge of its tectonic geology is not only fascinating in its own right, but directly related to its economic comparative advantages in geothermal energy, cheap electricity, and the production of aluminum.

A multidisciplinary course on the host nation or region will provide adequate background knowledge of the host culture. Documentary films and videos will provide visual amplification of the readings. In addition, feature films and novels from the host culture will provide vicarious experience of characters, personalities, conflicts, and resolutions that resonate with large audiences. Often this will whet an appetite to deepen one’s knowledge of the host culture over time.

During World War II, anthropologists carried out research at a distance on the cultures of the Axis Powers in an effort to aid the war effort. Such work was of inestimable value in providing intercultural understanding. The most famous and prescient work was Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), which provided America with guidelines that helped shape the Japanese unconditional surrender and successful postwar occupation. In the postwar period, Francis L. K. Hsu, in a series of books such as Americans and Chinese (1987), provided important insights into the fundamental cultural differences between those two cultures. In recent decades, a major analyst of cultural differences is Geert Hofstede, who in Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values (1980) and other publications has provided a way to statistically measure differences in power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism, and masculinity in the national cultures of the world.

Mastery of Culturally Appropriate Behavior

The bottom line of successful intercultural interaction is to master the appropriate behavior for each situation in which we will find ourselves. Mastering situation-specific behavior will require that we go beyond a general background knowledge of the host culture and acquire a mastery of the social roles that we will be expected to play there. Our social roles will have certain culturally standardized aspects, as in greeting and leave-taking, eating, drinking, and giftgiving, within and around which the concerns that are of importance to us and our counterparts may be acted out. We must know what is appropriate behavior for ourselves as men or women of our age and position, and we must know what is appropriate behavior for others, in such categories as women, men, children, and the elderly. We must know the distinctions of class and status that divide people, and the observances of various customs that punctuate the day.

Principles Of Intercultural Training

Focus on Intercultural Errors

The most effective training techniques focus on the individual discerning and correcting intercultural mistakes. The nature of such mistakes and the harm they may cause must be clearly understood. Because of the tremendous complexities and challenges of life as an expatriate, some intercultural mistakes will probably be inevitable. Nevertheless, it is essential that the trainee learn to predict and avoid as many as possible and to discern and resolve all those that do occur.

  1. Discern the Negative Cues: The trainee develops practice in discerning cues that an intercultural mistake has been made.

Someone playing the role of host counterpart reacts in a way counter to what the trainee would expect in his own culture. The cultural host does not understand the trainee’s behavior, she does not get the joke, she has ignored or forgotten the request, or she is unintentionally insulted or offended. Her facial expressions may be unexpectedly smiling, blank, cold, or angry.

  1. Cease and Desist: In response to such cues, the trainee learns to withdraw from the offending behavior, backpedal, and try to restore equanimity. That failing, the trainee should apologize and leave the scene.
  2. Seek Understanding: As soon as possible following an intercultural error, and in a private context, the trainee seeks an explanation from an intercultural confidant from the host culture. He understands the nature of his mistake and resolves not to repeat it in the future.
  3. Make Amends: As soon as possible, the trainee tries to make amends with the offended party. An apology, sometimes accompanied by a small gift, will usually suffice. A trusted translator can often be invaluable in mending relationships following an intercultural error.

Intercultural Errors Are Not Always Predictable

There are many books available that list the “do’s and taboos” in specific countries or around the world. They usually provide many useful tips for successful intercultural adaptation, and they are worth consulting. However, they cannot possibly cover everything a businessperson needs to know about the host culture.

For some places, there is no available material. Even when cultural guidebooks are available, some of the advice may not apply in specific locales. Given the rapid rate of cultural change almost everywhere, some of the advice may be obsolete.

Some of the culturally specific appropriate behavior that we must learn in a foreign country is not clearly discernable. It is usually not verbalized and may not be in the conscious minds of host nationals—until we violate the patterns. Cultural rules do not follow a pattern that might be considered logical in one’s home culture. From an outsider point of view, they may seem arbitrary or even contradictory.

Not all appropriate behavior can be learned before we arrive in the host country. Because some of it is unpredictable, we can only learn it by trial and error. Intercultural training offers preparation not only in some of the predictable elements of the host culture, but also in the critical skills for coping with the unpredictable.

Make Use Of Persons From Other Cultures Or With Overseas Experience

Foreign nationals can provide invaluable assistance in any intercultural training. They are, after all, the native experts on their culture and they usually have had a great deal of experience observing the intercultural errors of visitors in their home country.

Those who have returned from overseas field assignments or programs are also invaluable in intercultural training. They are experts on culture shock and the intercultural adjustment to a host culture. They have personally and experientially been confronted with the challenge of integrating into a foreign culture. They usually have many practical tips on what to do and what not to do in the host culture.

Intercultural Guidelines

  1. Responsibility: Assume responsibility for the outcomes of your actions.
  2. Caution: Exercise caution. Imagine that you have been blindfolded. Proceed cautiously, feeling your way, perceiving obstacles, places without footing, and other dangers. Unless you are already familiar with the tacit rules for interaction and general behavior of the culture you are operating in, remember that you are culture-blind. Above all, do no harm.
  3. Flexibility: Be flexible. Make every effort to be accepting or tolerant of cultural elements that jolt your ethnocentrism. Remember that in a foreign country you are a guest.
  4. Understanding: Get to know people. This is done by expressing an interest in them, in aspects of their lives. It must be done in a friendly, polite, and interculturally appropriate way.
  5. Sensitivity: Be sensitive to the people and the situation. Do not talk at people, but rather talk to them, talk with them. Try to leave each conversation having achieved a sense of mutual understanding. Do not exploit.
  6. Reciprocity: Reciprocate the kindnesses various persons are likely to extend to you, whether you do this in a material or symbolic way. Make sure that the forms of your reciprocation are culturally appropriate. Be aware that the forms of reciprocation are culture specific, and that symbolic gestures may be equal to or greater than material gifts in certain situations.
  7. Mediation: Find a friend or associate among your host country counterparts who can serve as an intercultural confidant. You must find someone trustworthy who will instruct you in the fine points of correct behavior in his or her culture, correcting your errors in a positive way and explaining the different worldview that lies behind the most innocuous exchanges. Ideally, this should be someone of the same gender, roughly the same age, with no linguistic barriers between you, no significant material benefits that one hopes to derive from the other, and with whom you have common interests. You might consider meeting a number of host country nationals before developing this relationship; sometimes the first person to befriend a newly arrived stranger is someone who is marginal to his own culture. Beyond the practical utility of this relationship, your loneliness and isolation will be eased in what often becomes a deep friendship.
  8. Continuity: Stay in touch with the good friends you will have made in your host culture. The long-term relationships that you are able to sustain with international friends will enrich your life as all friends do and develop you as a successful cosmopolitan manager. (Serrie, 1986)

Intercultural Caveats

There is much abuse of the concept of cultural relativity. All cultures are not equal. There are vast technological differences among the present-day cultures of the world, with profound effects on economy, sociopolitical organization, and ideation. Morally, all cultures are not always good. Sometimes a national government, supported by a large majority of its people (such as Nazi Germany) will carry out programs of unmitigated evil (Hatch, 1983). As with human individuals, wealth and power do not automatically confer virtue on human cultures.

Anthropologists in the field attempt to study a culture on its own terms, and this is a useful approach for any expatriate coping with his or her host culture. Nevertheless, there are limits to what anyone should be compelled to think and do when abroad. There are two caveats, conditioned by morality and safety, that are important to remember in intercultural relations.

  1. Intercultural Safety: Whatever the host culture may seem to permit, no one from any culture should engage in any behavior that he or she personally regards as dangerous to life or health.
  2. Intercultural Morality: Whatever the host culture may seem to permit, no one from any culture should engage in any behavior that he or she personally regards as immoral.


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