For expats, intercultural communication can be the key to success.
Prior to their assignment, most expats will be busy preparing for the “hard facts” of expatriate life, so to speak: They are busy filling in visa application forms for the entire family, labeling boxes and crates for the relocation company, or negotiating some last clauses in their new employment contract. There is not much time left for thinking about the “soft skills” of an expat life-style. Soft skills like intercultural communication…
Intercultural Communication: An Introduction
Others, who are slightly less stressed out, might already be taking language classes for their new home country, thinking that speaking a foreign tongue is what intercultural communication is all about. Of course, speaking the native language in a foreign country is a big part of intercultural communication. However, intercultural communication doesn’t stop at the verbal level.
Obviously, as the very phrase suggests, intercultural communication is about cross-cultural competency rather than about language only. So what does it mean? And why indeed should you care?
Intercultural Communication: A Basic Definition
Inter-, as you’ll probably know, comes from the Latin word for “between”, and the dictionary defines “communication” as “exchanging information”. Therefore, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that intercultural communication simply refers to exchanging information between two cultures. Sounds very easy, doesn’t it? But it’s the “culture” part of this basic definition where things start getting a tad complicated.
Academic researchers in the field of intercultural communication often start out with the observation that “culture” is a word with a very vague meaning. Or rather, a word with lots of different meanings. A ground-breaking study by two anthropologists in the 1950s found that there were no less than 164 (!) definitions of the word “culture”. To understand what intercultural communication is all about, you first need a good grasp of what “culture” refers to.
Intercultural Communication: What’s Culture Anyway?
When talking about culture in everyday conversation, completely unconnected with intercultural communication, the word might refer to high-brow culture: intellectualism, literature, the fine arts etc. “My cousin Peggy’s a real culture vulture. She goes to the opera every Sunday, and loves spending her free time at the museum!” Or, to get back to the expat context, a globe-trotting friend might chat with you about various national cultures. “I love the Italian culture,” he would say. “Their food is excellent, and they are so much nicer to kids than us back home.”
One mistake that many a traveler or expatriate makes is to assume that a foreign country’s national culture is just this: its heritage and arts, food and table manners, visible social customs and family life, festivals and rituals. In fact, experts in intercultural communication call this false assumption one of the most dominant myths about culture.
Actually, in intercultural communication, what you can see and touch is only the smallest part of a foreign culture. Some teachers of intercultural communication like using the “iceberg model” in their lectures. The culture of any country is like an iceberg. 7/8 of an iceberg are hidden from your view. So, if you want to avoid ending up like the Titanic during your time as an expatriate, it’s best to familiarize yourself with some basic principles of intercultural communication.