What Did You Just Say? Intercultural Communication in the Workplace Today4 min read

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Wow! Only half an hour on the job and the new guy, Ahmad from Bahrain, has already closed his first sale! Walking by his desk, I decide to give him a thumbs-up and congratulate him on a job well done. Little did I know Ahmad interpreted my hand signal to mean that I am angry with him and wish to stick my thumb up a place, where the sun does not shine. 

This is just one example from many that demonstrates how communication can go wrong at a workplace, filled with people from different cultural backgrounds. Globalisation is making the world a smaller place and increasing the diversity of the labour force. Thus, clear and effective communication among co-workers from a variety of cultural backgrounds is becoming increasingly important. But how does one go about this?

A Definition of Intercultural Communication

Firstly, we need to understand how communication works in general.  Communication begins with a message, which you wish to relay to someone else. This message needs to be transformed into a signal so that it is clearly understood. The signal can be a variety of things such as – images, words, symbols or even a gesture like the one mentioned above. The signal is then turned back into a message by the intended recipient.

The danger of miscommunication lies in this switching between message and signal, because both sender and recipient partly use their own cultural frameworks in this process. There is therefore a higher chance of distortion, when sender and recipient are from different cultures. So, intercultural communication is more about bridging these differences in coding a signal and interpreting it than anything else.

There is also a field of study  called cross-cultural communication, which examines the differences between cultures and contrasts them. However, intercultural communication looks specifically at what happens when these different cultures interact. There are a few tips, which can help you overcome these differences and ensure that your message does not become distorted.

Some Tips for Effective Intercultural Communication


First, you need to be conscious that cultural differences do exist in your workplace. Not everyone is cut from the same cloth or has the same background as you. Sure, everyone probably speaks English this day and age, but this does not mean that everyone will understand all the nuances, metaphors, references or slang you use. Try at first to communicate in a slow, clear and easy to understand manner, and work your way up from there. Being more aware of your own culture and the presence of others also helps you identify differences and address them more easily and promptly.

Second, be curious about your colleagues’ respective cultures! People of different cultures have different wants and needs for what they consider an ideal workplace. Persons from India for example highly value harmony and personal relations with their colleagues, whereas the Dutch prefer directness, facts and (unbridled) truth. By knowing and understanding these cultural preferences you can anticipate reactions and package your message more appropriately to maximise both the intercultural understanding and workplace efficiency.

Third, you need to keep communicating and learn from each other’s cultures to create your own unique office culture! Your Japanese colleague may try to be a little more direct and a bit less hierarchical in his communication, while your German co-worker may try to take more risks and be creative instead of following the rules to the letter. It may be difficult at times and there will be misunderstandings, but the only way you and your colleagues can know these things and learn from each other, is when you keep on communicating!

Learning Intercultural Communication

In short, be aware of your own culture, be open and curious about other cultures in your workspace, and keep communicating! This will keep out any message distortion, making your intentions clear for your colleagues and the work atmosphere even better.  If you want to learn more or even take a course in intercultural communication, check out our courses for a great selection!

Author Bio: Hans Wurzer is an Arabist, writer, political scientist and communication enthusiast. He currently writes articles about (intercultural) communication and personal development for Springest. Prior to this he has lived and worked in the Middle East, North Africa and the United States.

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