What is intercultural communication? And why is it important to understand intercultural communication in the modern workplace?
My workplace recently went through the process of “offshoring”. Many of the responsibilities of the business were taken away from our Australian staff and placed into the hands of staff from other countries. In my particular business unit, a large share of the work was entrusted to our new colleagues in the Philippines.
At first it was assumed that working with them would be straightforward. We had video phones and advanced networking capabilities, and they all spoke English, so how difficult could it be? We soon learned though, whilst not difficult, it could be fraught with intricacies that would require some adjustment from staff on both sides. We would all have to learn how to master the art of intercultural communication.
So, what is it? “Intercultural communication is … communication between and among people from different cultures” (Cai 2010, p.2). Therefore, whenever we, the Australian staff, communicated with them, the Filipino staff, we were engaging in intercultural communication.
Culture can be described as “a set of shared norms, practices, behaviours, values, beliefs, and artefacts that are transmitted from generation to generation” (Cai 2010, p.2). Therefore when we communicate with individuals from a different culture, we are coming from two completely different places in terms of what we think of as normal, and how we interpret behaviour in general and communication in particular (Swinburne Online 2015 Week 4, Activity 1).
So when learning how to communicate effectively with people from a culture other than ours, we must first explore the extent of our enculturation, which is the invisible internalizing of our own culture’s norms and practices (Dwyer, 2012). This was made starkly apparent to me within the first ten minutes of our “Cultural Effectiveness” training at work. For the first five minutes, we had to briefly describe who we were and what we did. I watched on with intrigue as the facilitator wrote random words and statements of mine on a whiteboard. The next five minutes were spent examining these words and discussing why they had absolutely no meaning to anyone outside of my own culture. For example, in describing my role, I used the phrase “I wear three different hats”, meaning I had three distinct and unrelated areas of responsibility at work. To anyone else in Australia, this meaning would be immediately apparent. But for my Filipino colleagues, they would have smiled politely then started wondering why I sat at my work desk with three hats perched on my head. This highlighted the fact to me that I was so embedded within my own culture I no longer saw where I differed from the rest of the world (Dwyer, 2012).
This would then require me to adopt an approach of acculturation, which is adjustment to a new culture (Dwyer, 2012), in order to effectively communicate with my new, foreign-culture colleagues.
High-Context VS Low-Context
One of the first steps in this process was learning the difference between high-context and low-context cultures. The terms “high-context” and “low-context” specifically refer to how much the context surrounding the medium of communication influences the intended message of the communication (Hall, 1976).
By way of example, Filipino culture is a high-context culture, in which the words of a conversation themselves only convey part of the meaning (Hall, 1976). Australian culture is a low-context culture, in which the implicit meaning of the words used convey the majority of the intended message (Hall, 1976). Therefore, when a simple email message is sent from an Australian colleague stating, for example, “can you please send me a copy of policy document 123”, the meaning is entirely contained within the statement – we want a copy of the policy document. However, a Filipino colleague may receive this email and respond with, for example, “so, would you like me to send you a copy of policy document 123?”, because for them a large part of the context is missing. Are we upset with them for not sending it already? Are we upset with them for some other reason? Are we shouting, or simply asking? How much authority do we have over them, and therefore what is the appropriate way to respond? The Australian colleague may become frustrated, thinking “what’s this question for? I quite clearly stated what I wanted! Why do they need to ask?”
This obviously leads to conflict in the communication, and context plays an important role in how individuals deal with conflict (Croucher et.al. 2012). This necessitates understanding the specific ways in which people from high- and low-context cultures deal with conflict (Croucher et.al. 2012). Positively resolving this conflict requires understanding the Anxiety and Uncertainty Management model (Gudykunst 1985). Participants in a communication between cultures can experience a high degree of uncertainty in the meaning, which leads to anxiety, and this can be managed when the participants make the effort to communicate effectively and bridge cultural gaps (Gudykunst 1985). Further, Australian culture is an individualist culture and Filipino culture is a collectivist culture, with the cultural focus on the welfare of the individual and the welfare of the family/community respectively (Hofstede 1980, 2001). Individualists tend to avoid conflict, whereas collectivist cultures tend to compromise and integrate conflict (Cai and Fink 2002).
An important aspect of high-context culture that I had to learn was the concept of “saving face”, which impacts how individuals in high-context culture approach disagreement and conflict (Leonard 2015). For my off-shore colleagues, it was better to “save face” and diffuse any conflict, whether realised or foreseen, than to openly state that they disagreed with anything we said, or did not know what we were talking about. For example, I was once in a meeting with a Filipino counterpart, an Australian colleague, an Australian manager and a Filipino manager. My Filipino counterpart was asked to create a training document, and was then asked if he had created this specific kind of document before and knew what to do. He responded by saying “yes, I’ve done it before, I know exactly what to do, I will get onto that right away!” However, as soon as the meeting ended, he called me and confessed he had never done it before, he had no idea what to do, and could I please help him. At first I found it astounding that he would openly lie about something so important in a business meeting. However, framed in the perspective of a high-context culture and a compromising and integrative conflict style, I realised he would have “lost face” if he created conflict by telling the truth in front of his managers, and instead chose to diffuse the foreseen conflict by being agreeable and reassuring. It was much easier for him to confess to me, someone on the same authority level as him, and ask for my help after the meeting.
This experience also highlighted to me an interesting and important aspect of all communication, which is attribution theory.
An early pioneer of this theory, Harold H. Kelley, described attribution theory as “a theory about how people make causal explanations, about how they answer questions beginning with ‘why?’” (1973, p.107). In other words, when we perceive the actions and behaviours of another, how we attribute the motivations behind them, and how we explain the causes behind the consequences of those actions and behaviours (Kelley, 1973).
I may experience a colleague telling an overt and knowing lie in a management meeting, and assume that the colleague is disingenuous, full of pride, and willing to lie in order to maintain their perceived self-image in front of their superiors to prevent possible loss of self-gain. However, as it turned out for me, this initial attribution would be entirely in error. But the attribution would have held and I may have lost respect for a colleague who deserved it, and treated the colleague in a distrusting manner they did not deserve.
Where attribution theory really gets interesting is when we compare how we allocate attributions to ourselves in contrast to others. Let’s for a moment imagine the lie had gone unconfessed; the consequence would be that the required training material would either never have been produced, or have been produced to a very low standard and required re-writing. I would have pointed the finger at my colleague and his lack of honesty and integrity as the cause of the consequence (Oddi 2015). However, let’s say the individual concerned was me, and I was too afraid to admit I didn’t know what I was doing, and lied to “save face”. When the document was not produced, or produced to a very poor standard, I almost certainly would not have assumed that it was because I was a dishonest person who lacked integrity (Oddi 2015). Undoubtedly I would have explained it away by saying I was under a lot of pressure in the meeting, and my manager is so inflexible he would not have accepted my lack of ability, and I also had no training or support to produce the document, therefore I can’t be held accountable for the resulting consequences (Oddi 2015). As human beings, when we are the actor we tend to take credit when things go right (internalized) and blame others when things go wrong (externalized), but when others are the actor, we point to outside causes of someone else’s success (externalized) and implicit character flaws in someone else’s failure (internalized) (Oddi 2015).
Mastering intercultural communication, especially between high- and low-context cultures, and understanding attribution theory are all steps along the path to effective communication at work. Fortunately there are a wealth of resources available at our fingertips to do just that. Please feel free to contact us if you require any further information.
Cai, D 2010, Intercultural Communication, SAGE Publications Ltd, London.
Cai, D, Fink, E 2002, Conflict style differences between individualists and collectivists, Communication Monographs, vol. 69, pp. 67–87.
Croucher, S.M., Bruno, A, McGrath, P, Adams, C, McGahan, C, Suits, A, Huckins, A 2012, Conflict Styles and High–Low Context Cultures: A Cross-Cultural Extension, Communication Research Reports, vol. 29. No.1, pp. 64-73.
Dwyer, J 2012, Communication for business and the professions: strategies and skills, 5th edn, Pearson Education Australia, Frenchs Forest NSW.
Gudykunst, W.B. 1985, A model of uncertainty reduction in intercultural encounters, Journal of Language and Social Psychology, vol. 4, pp. 79–97.
Hall, E.T. 1976, Beyond Culture, Anchor Press, New York.
Hofstede, G 1980, Culture’s consequences, SAGE Publications Ltd, Beverly Hills CA.
Hofstede, G. 2001, Culture’s consequences (2nd ed.), SAGE Publications Ltd, Thousand Oaks CA.
Kelley, H. H. 1973, The Processes of Causal Attribution, American Psychologist, vol. 28, pp. 107–128.
Leonard, D 2015, ‘Week 4 Activity 1: You do what now?’, COM10007 Professional Communication Practice, discussion board post on Blackboard, Swinburne Online, 2 April, viewed 11 April 2015.
Oddi, S 2015, ‘Week 3 Activity 1: Attribution theory’, COM10007 Professional Communication Practice, discussion board post on Blackboard, Swinburne Online, 24 March, viewed 11 April 2015.
Swinburne Online 2015, ‘Week 4: Intercultural communication – communicating across cultures at work’, COM10007 Professional Communication Practice, discussion board forum on Blackboard, Swinburne Online, March, viewed 11 April 2015.