Prior to their assignment, most expats will be busy preparing for the “hard facts” of international life, so to speak: They are busy filling in visa application forms for the entire family, labeling different 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 “social skills” of an international lifestyle, such as intercultural communication.
Other expats-to-be, who are slightly less stressed out, might already be taking language classes for their new home country. People often think that speaking another language fluently is what intercultural communication is all about. Of course, speaking the local language is extremely helpful. However, social interaction is about much more than language skills.
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 should it matter to you?
Inter-, as you’ll probably know, comes from the Latin word for “between”, and the dictionary defines “communication” as “exchanging information”. Therefore, let’s draw the following conclusion: Intercultural communication refers to exchanging information between people from different cultures. Sounds very easy, doesn’t it? It’s the “cultures” part of this simple definition where things start getting a tad complicated.
Academic researchers 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. To understand what intercultural communication is all about, you first need a good grasp of what “culture” refers to.
When talking about culture in everyday conversation, the word might refer to high-brow interests: intellectualism, literature, the fine arts, etc. “My cousin Peggy’s a real culture vulture. She goes to every new opera performance in town, and loves spending her free time at the museum!”
Or, to get back to the international context, a globe-trotting friend might chat with you about various countries. “I love the Italian culture,” he would say. “Italian food is excellent, and they are so much nicer to kids in Italy than us back home.”
One mistake that many people make is to assume that a foreign country’s culture is just this: heritage and arts, food and table manners, social etiquette and family life, festivals and rituals. In fact, experts call this assumption one of the dominant myths about culture.
Actually, what you can see and touch is only the smallest part of a different culture. Some teachers like using the “iceberg model” in their lectures. Cultures should rather be regarded as 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 expat, it’s best to obtain some basic information about intercultural communication.