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Intercultural business communication


As David Glass is well aware, effective communicators have many tools at their disposal when they want to get across a message. Whether writing or speaking, they know how to put together the words that will convey their meaning. They reinforce their words with gestures and actions. They look you in the eye, listen to what you have to say, and think about your feelings and needs. At the same time, they study your reactions, picking up the nuances of your response by watching your face and body, listening to your tone of voice, and evaluating your words. They absorb information just as efficiently as they transmit it, relying on both non-verbal and verbal cues.


The most basic form of communication is non-verbal. Anthropologists theorize that long before human beings used words to talk things over, our ancestors communicated with one another by using their bodies. They gritted their teeth to show anger; they smiled and touched one another to indicate affection. Al­though we have come a long way since those primitive times, we still use non-verbal cues to express superiority, dependence, dislike, respect, love, and other feelings.

Non-verbal communication differs from verbal communication in funda­mental ways. For one thing, it is less structured, which makes it more difficult to study. A person cannot pick up a book on non-verbal language and master the vocabulary of gestures, expressions, and inflections that are common in our culture. We don't really know how people learn non-verbal behaviour. No one teaches a baby to cry or smile, yet these forms of self-expression are almost universal. Other types of non-verbal communication, such as the meaning of colors and certain gestures, vary from culture to culture.

Non-verbal communication also differs from verbal communication in terms of intent and spontaneity. We generally plan our words. When we say "please open the door," we have a conscious purpose. We think about the message, if only for a moment. But when we communicate non-verbally, we sometimes do so unconsciously. We don't mean to raise an eyebrow or blush. Those actions come naturally. Without our consent, our emotions are written all over our faces.

Why non-verbal communication is important

Although non-verbal communication is often unplanned, it has more impact than verbal communication. Non-verbal cues are especially important in con­veying feelings; accounting for 93 percent of the emotional meaning that is exchanged in any interaction.

One advantage of non-verbal communication is its reliability. Most people can deceive us much more easily with their words than they can with their bodies. Words are relatively easy to control; body language, facial expressions, and vocal characteristics are not. By paying attention to these non-verbal cues, we can detect deception or affirm a speaker's honesty. Not surprisingly, we have more faith in non-verbal cues than we do in verbal messages. If a person says one thing but transmits a conflicting message non-verbally, we almost invariably believe the non-verbal signal. To a great degree, then, an individu­al's credibility as a communicator depends on non-verbal messages.

Non-verbal communication is important for another reason as well: It can be efficient from both the sender's and the receiver's standpoint. You can transmit a non-verbal message without even thinking about it, and your audi­ence can register the meaning unconsciously. By the same token, when you have a conscious purpose, you can often achieve it more economically with a gesture than you can with words. A wave of the hand, a pat on the back, a wink—all are streamlined expressions of thought.

The functions of non-verbal communication

Although non-verbal communication can stand alone, it frequently works with speech. Our words carry part of the message, and non-verbal signals carry the rest. Together, the two modes of expression make a powerful team, augment­ing, reinforcing, and clarifying each other.

Experts in non-verbal communication suggest that it have six specific func­tions:

• To provide information, either consciously or unconsciously

• To regulate the flow of conversation

• To express emotion

• To qualify, complement, contradict, or expand verbal messages

• To control or influence others

• To facilitate specific tasks, such as teaching a person to swing a golf club.

Non-verbal communication plays a role in business too. For one thing, it helps establish credibility and leadership potential. If you can learn to manage the impression you create with your body language, facial characteristics, voice, and appearance, you can do a great deal to communicate that you are competent, trustworthy, and dynamic. For example, Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton has developed a homespun style that puts people at ease, thereby help­ing them to be more receptive, perhaps even more open.

Furthermore, if you can learn to read other people's non-verbal messages, you will be able to interpret their underlying attitudes and intentions more accurately. When dealing with co-workers, customers, and clients, watch care­fully for small signs that reveal how the conversation is going. If you aren't having the effect you want, check your words; then, if your words are all right, try to be aware of the non-verbal meanings you are transmitting. At the same time, stay tuned to the non-verbal signals that the other person is sending.


Although you can express many things non-verbally, there are limits to what you can communicate without the help of language. If you want to discuss past events, ideas, or abstractions, you need words—symbols that stand for thoughts — arranged in meaningful patterns. In the English language, we have a 750,000, although most of us recog­nize only about 20,000 of them. To create a thought with these words, we arrange them according to the rules of grammar, putting the various parts of speech in the proper sequence.

We then transmit the message in spoken or written form, hoping that someone will hear or read what we have to say. Figure 1.1 shows how much time business people devote to the various types of verbal communication. They use speaking and writing to send messages; they use listening and read­ing to receive them.

Speaking and writing

When it comes to sending business messages, speaking is more common than writing. Giving instructions, conducting interviews, working in small groups, attending meetings, and making speeches are all important activities. Even though writing may be less common, it is important too. When you want to send a complex message of lasting significance, you will probably want to put it in writing.

Listening and reading

It's important to remem­ber that effective communication is a two-way street. People in business spend more time obtaining information than transmitting it, so to do their jobs effec­tively, they need good listening and reading skills. Unfortunately, most of us are not very good listeners. Immediately after hearing a ten-minute speech, we typically remember only half of what was said. A few days later, we've forgotten three-quarters of the message. To some extent, our listening prob­lems stem from our education, or lack of it. We spend years learning to express our ideas, but few of us ever take a course in listening.


Forms of Business Communication

imilarly, our reading skills often leave a good deal to be desired. Recent studies indicate that approximately 38 percent of the adults in the United States have

trouble reading the help-wanted ads in the newspaper, 14 percent cannot fill out a check properly, 26 percent can't figure out the deductions listed on their paycheques, and 20 percent are functionally illiterate. Even those who do read may not know how to read effectively. They have trouble extracting the important points from a document, so they cannot make the most of the information presented.

College student are probably better at listening and reading than are many other people, partly because they get so much practice. On the basis of our own experience, no doubt realise that our listening and reading efficiency varies tremendously, depending on how we approach the task. Obtaining and remembering information takes a special effort.

Although listening and reading obviously differ, both require a similar approach. The first step is to register the information, which means that you must tune out distractions and focus your attention. You must then interpret and evaluate the information, respond in some fashion, and file away the data for future reference.

The most important part of this process is interpretation and evaluation, which is no easy matter. While absorbing the material, we must decide what is important and what isn't. One approach is to look for the main ideas and the most important supporting details, rather than trying to remember everything we read or hear. If we can discern the structure of the material, we can also understand the relationships among the ideas.


As Bill Davila knows, the first step in learning to communicate with people from other cultures is to become aware of what culture means. Our awareness of intercultural differences is both useful and necessary in today's world of business.


Person may not realise it, but he belongs to several cultures. The most obvious is the culture he shares with all other people who live in the same country. But this person also belongs to other cultural groups, such as an ethnic group, a religious group, a fraternity or sorority, or perhaps a profession that has its own special lan­guage and customs.

So what exactly is culture? It is useful to define culture as a system of shared symbols, beliefs, attitudes, values, expectations, and norms for behaviour. Thus all members of a culture have, and tend to act on, similar assumptions about how people should think, behave, and communicate.

Distinct groups that exist within a major culture are more properly re­ferred to as subcultures. Among groups that might be considered subcultures are Mexican Americans in East Los Angeles, Mormons in Salt Lake City, and longshoremen in Montreal. Subcultures without geographic boundaries can be found as well, such as wrestling fans, Russian immigrants, and Harvard M.B.A.s .

Cultures and subcultures vary in several ways that affect intercultural communication:

Stability. Conditions in the culture may be stable or may be changing slowly or rapidly.

Complexity. Cultures vary in the accessibility of information. In North America information is contained in explicit codes, including words, whereas in Japan a great deal of information is conveyed implicitly, through body language, physical context, and the like.

Composition. Some cultures are made up of many diverse and disparate subcultures; others tend to be more homogeneous.

Acceptance. Cultures vary in their attitudes toward outsiders. Some are openly hostile or maintain a detached aloofness. Others are friendly and co-operative toward strangers.

As you can see, cultures vary widely. It's no wonder that most of us need special training before we can become comfortable with a culture other than our own.


When faced with the need (or desire) to learn about another culture, we have two main approaches to choose from. The first is to learn as much as possible—the language, cultural background and history, social rules, and so on—about the specific culture that you expect to deal with. The other is to develop general skills that will help to adapt in any culture.

The first approach, in-depth knowledge of a particular culture, certainly works. But there are two drawbacks. One is that you will never be able to understand another culture completely. No matter how much you study Ger­man culture, for example, you will never be a German or share the experiences of having grown up in Germany. Even if we could understand the culture completely, Germans might resent our assumption that we know everything there is to know about them. The other drawback to immersing yourself in a specific culture is the trap of overgeneralization, looking at people from a cul­ture not as individuals with their own unique characteristics, but as instances of Germans or Japanese or black Americans. The trick is to learn useful gen­eral information but to be open to variations and individual differences.

The second approach to cultural learning, general development of intercul­tural skills, is especially useful if we interact with people from a variety of cultures or subcultures. Among the skills you need to learn are the following:

Taking responsibility for communication. Don't assume that it is the other person's job to communicate with you.

Withholding judgment. Learn to listen to the whole story and to accept differences in others.

Showing respect. Learn the ways in which respect is communicated— through gestures, eye contact, and so on — in various cultures.

Empathizing. Try to put yourself in the other person's shoes. Listen carefully to what the other person is trying to communicate; imagine the person's feelings and point of view.

Tolerating ambiguity. Learn to control your frustration when placed in an unfamiliar or confusing situation.

Looking beyond the superficial. Don't be distracted by such things as dress, appearance, or environmental discomforts.

Being patient and persistent. If you want to accomplish a task, don't give up easily.

Recognizing your own cultural biases. Learn to identify when your as­sumptions are different from the other person's.

Being flexible. Be prepared to change your habits, preferences, and atti­tudes.

Emphasizing common ground. Look for similarities to work from.

Sending clear messages. Make your verbal and non-verbal messages con­sistent.

Taking risks. Try things that will help you gain a better understanding of the other person or culture.

Increasing your cultural sensitivity. Learn about variations in customs and practices so that you will be more aware of potential areas for miscommunication or misunderstanding.

Dealing with the individual. Avoid stereotyping and overgeneralization.


The more differences there are between the people who are communicating, the more difficult it is to communicate effectively. The major problems in inter-cultural business communication are language barriers, cultural differences, and ethnocentric reactions.


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