Intercultural communication is crucial for business, marketing, leadership, customer service and everyday conversation. It involves consciously making an effort to create a welcoming environment when you are interacting with people from a different culture, background or nationality.
What exactly is intercultural communication? How does it work, and how can you practice it?
What is Intercultural Communication?
Intercultural communication is any interaction between people from different cultures, such as two business partners from different countries. It can also involve people from different states, backgrounds or subcultures. Intercultural communication sometimes has to bridge language barriers, as well.
How does intercultural communication differ from two people simply talking? Intercultural communication requires making an informed, conscious effort to acknowledge and respect others’ cultures and ways of life. It ensures everyone in the conversation feels welcome.
Everyone should be aware of some intercultural communication basics, but they’re especially important for business owners and marketers. Strong intercultural communication skills are vital for successful branding, marketing and advertising. They ensure you connect with customers from different parts of the world without anything getting lost in translation.
1. Learn, Learn, Learn
Intercultural communication is easier when you have some knowledge of other cultures and subcultures. So, it’s a good idea to do some research on the experiences of people from various backgrounds and parts of the world. For example, you could watch a documentary on life in modern America as an immigrant.
You can also read books, watch YouTube videos, read interviews and more. If you know people from cultures different than your own, you can ask if they are willing to tell you a bit about their background, lifestyle or country.
For example, a small business owner might have a new employee who recently moved to town after immigrating from Europe. The business owner could research their new employee’s home country and language to improve their intercultural communication.
2. Use Active Listening
Active listening is crucial for respectful, successful intercultural communication. People from different places or backgrounds may be speaking a second language or using phrases that you are not familiar with. Active listening is essential for fully understanding what the other person is saying.
This is especially true when there is a language barrier. Someone might have a perfectly good understanding of another language, but their pronunciation could be a bit off. This doesn’t reflect someone’s intelligence or ability to learn a second language. It’s simply a normal part of multilingual communication.
Active listening ensures both people understand each other, even if their pronunciation is slightly off. Paying attention when others speak will also help you learn more about their culture or background.
3. Pay Attention to Intonation
Intercultural communication is more accessible for everyone when both parties speak clearly. When you’re talking to someone who speaks the same language, it’s natural to talk quickly, mumble or use slang. Those behaviors can inhibit effective intercultural communication, though.
Remember, the other person might be speaking a second or third language. So, they need to translate in real-time. When you mumble or slur your words together, you may accidentally make it more difficult for the other person to understand you. This leads to confusion, discomfort and miscommunication.
This applies in both directions, too. If you are speaking a second language, focus on keeping your intonation as precise and accurate as possible. If you are having trouble understanding the other person, politely ask them if they can slow down or repeat what they said.
4. Be Patient
Patience is essential for respectful intercultural communication. Both parties may need a bit of extra time to translate or discern each other’s meaning. So, it’s normal for the conversation to move slower than usual.
Long pauses or requests to repeat something may feel awkward at first. However, they’re actually a good thing. It means you and the other person are taking time to ensure you understand each other. So, be patient and allow the conversation to flow at a pace that’s comfortable for both of you.
5. Clarify With Respectful Questions
Some people mistakenly assume it’s rude to ask someone to repeat themselves. It’s often necessary in intercultural communication, though. On one hand, both parties could have different native languages. Additionally, someone might be using phrases, idioms or slang that’s unfamiliar to those outside their culture. They might even be referring to a tradition or common knowledge within their culture that’s not well-known outside it.
If you need clarification on what someone means, it’s okay to ask them about it. Make sure you phrase your questions respectfully and express genuine interest. For example, if someone refers to a tradition you are unfamiliar with, you might ask, “I haven’t heard of that tradition before, but it sounds interesting. Does it have a certain meaning?”
Most people are excited to talk about their culture, so questions are usually welcome. However, they aren’t always appropriate. Don’t press for more information if someone seems uncomfortable or says something is private. Some cultures stress privacy for topics like family matters or mental health, so it’s important to respect when someone does not want to share more details about their culture.
6. Communicate Face-to-Face (If Possible)
Whenever possible, try to have intercultural communication face-to-face, whether in-person or over video chat. People’s facial expressions and hand gestures can make a big difference in how we interpret what they say.
We all subconsciously use physical cues to hint at emotions or meanings. Texts, emails, letters and even phone calls lack those physical cues. As a result, conversation can easily get confusing or misinterpreted.
Physical cues are even more important when there is a potential language barrier. Mouth shapes can help people understand other languages, and facial expressions can indicate meaning even if someone’s words are unclear.
7. Be Conscious About Jokes and Idioms
Every culture, nation and language has unique phrases, idioms, jokes and slang. It’s natural to use these words and phrases without thinking about it. However, they’re not a good idea during intercultural communication.
Phrases, jokes and idioms easily get “lost in translation,” whether between languages or cultures. People unfamiliar with your language or culture will likely miss your meaning, resulting in confusion. Some jokes and phrases may even be insulting to people from different cultures.
It’s wise to think twice before using any colloquialisms during intercultural communication. Sometimes they are fine, but it depends on the people you’re speaking to and the specific context.
8. Be Polite and Open-Minded
Ultimately, good intercultural communication is simply about being polite and open-minded. Be mindful of how you interact with people from backgrounds and regions different from your own. When in doubt, stick to good manners and clear speech. Remember, we all might have different mannerisms, languages, traditions and sayings, but we’re all people at the end of the day.
Intercultural Communication Made Easy
Intercultural communication may initially seem complicated, but a few central practices make it much easier. Always respect cultural differences, even if you don’t entirely understand their purpose. If a saying, word, phrase or practice is unclear to you, it’s completely acceptable to ask for clarification. If you are open-minded and polite, you can interact positively and respectfully with anyone!