Intercultural communication is a highly complex skill that is divided into a large number of different sub-skills. While a blog post could never be enough to cover all of these sub-skills, I am trying to list the most important one’s in this article.
At this point my goal is merely to draw your attention onto different aspects of skills needed for intercultural communication and to give you a quick introduction why they are important. In future blog posts, I am going to focus more onto what is required in order to develop these skills and what strategies you can use in order to develop them within yourself.
So, let’s get right into it.
The importance of self-awareness in intercultural communication can not be underrated. It has a number of factors to it, some of which I will outline here:
- self-awareness of how you act and how these actions are perceived by others
- self-awareness of cultural assumptions that are guiding your life
- self-awareness of stereotypes that are influencing you
- self-awareness of your strengths and weaknesses in the field of intercultural communication
- self-awareness to what degree you have an understanding of the host culture
- self-awareness to what degree you are able to deal with shocking cultural differences
As you can see in this list, self-awareness is a skill that allows you to monitor the interior workings of your thoughts- as well as your belief system. By paying conscious attention to these internal processes, you will be able to learn and grow as an intercultural communicator. In order to to that, you will have to integrate internal feedback into your daily learning routine.
2) Mindfulness and awareness of the external environment
Whereas self-awareness is the conscious concentration onto your internal processes, it is equally important to be mindful of the external environment. An effective intercultural communicator constantly monitors the actions, emotional state, non-verbal behaviors and a variety of other factors among the people in their cultural environment.
Awareness of the external environment requires us to put our deep concentration on the smallest little details and to put these pieces of information together in order to form a big picture understanding of the environment.
During conversations with people from our own cultural background, to a certain degree we can predict what is going to be said. This is due to so-called cultural scripts, which are essentially programs that have been installed into our psyche through the environment that we grow up in leading to common behaviors among a group of people.
These cultural scripts allow us to sometimes work on “automatic” mode as they give us a certain degree of predictability and therefore lower our need to use high levels of energy in this matter. Of course, this is also a bad thing in our own cultural environment. It stops us from paying close attention to the people around us and thus reduces the quality of our conversations significantly.
In new cultural environments, however, the impact is even more significant. Because we do not share the same cultural scripts, not maintaining full concentration means that we simply do not notice the cues necessary for us in order to interpret the other side’s behavior.
So, are you always 100% concentrated during your conversations with others?
3) Emotional control
The ability to control your emotions allows you to go through the first phase of shock, when you are confronted with a behavior that goes against your belief system, without directly being judgmental about the other side.
When you let your emotions take a hold of you, it is nearly impossible to look at a strange behavior and to say: “hey, I am not sure what this is all about. Before I disregard all of this as nonsense, I better take my time and carefully reflect about its meaning!”
While it is not possible to “switch off” your emotions, it is possible to remain aware of them.
Once you notice that you are feeling uncomfortable with the situation, you can then withdraw from it for the time being and give yourself the space for more research and reflection. You will have to find out what this behavior really means from a local perspective, while at the same time reflecting on your own thoughts and feelings about it. And that brings us to the next skill.
4) Self reflection
Being aware of your own mental- and emotional state is one thing. But once we have achieved this, then we also need to develop the ability to be reflective about our internal and external processes.
Effective intercultural communicators constantly need to ask questions like:
- what does the behavior I have just observed really mean?
- how do I feel about these behaviors and what do they mean to me?
- what behaviors do I do regularly that offend people in the new cultural environment?
- how does my own belief system differ from that of the local people?
- how can I integrate the new belief system into my existing one?
- what situations that I am confronted with in the new cultural environment make me uncomfortable and why?
There is a nearly endless number of questions that I could list here as examples. The important point here is to figure out for yourself which questions you need to ask yourself under which circumstances. And in order to do so, you will first need to be aware of both your internal and external state. It is only when you actually notice the different problems you have, that you will figure out which questions you will need to ask- and find an answer for.
5) Processing feedback
Self reflection is not developing its full potential without the ability to accept- and effectively process feedback.
As intercultural communicators, there are different types of feedback that are important for us. There will be questions like: did we achieve the results that we wanted to achieve? How did the other people respond to us? How did the people around us perceive our behavior? What is the people’s non-verbal behavior telling us about our own performance? What is our cultural mentor saying to us about which aspects of our communication process are going well and which one’s aren’t?
Pure self reflection means that we are exclusively open for internal feedback, and that is indeed an important skill. Being observant about the people around us and being open towards their feedback, however, is equally important.
It is simply not possible to analyse our strengths- and weaknesses completely on our own accord. We need people with more experience in intercultural communication, with more experience in dealing with this particular cultural environment, and most importantly with a different perspective on our own actions. They need to guide us in terms of which aspects of intercultural communication we need improvement in.
This requires us to listen to other people. It requires us to stay open to their feedback without becoming defensive. It requires us to be reflective about the points they have mentioned. Ultimately, it requires us to integrate the feedback into our own self.
The ability to understand another person’s emotions and thoughts of another person while being able to putting yourself into their shoes is incredibly important for effective intercultural communication.
Since we do not fully understand the cultural perspective of the other party, being able to read their emotional state is perhaps the only tool we have which provides us with feedback about how our behavior is perceived by them.
At the very minimum, in this way we are able to see whether our behavior makes the other person comfortable or uncomfortable. This then tells us whether it would be necessary to adjust our behavior, or whether we can continue acting in the same way we did before.
Unfortunately, especially when dealing with cultures that have an indirect communication style, it is very unlikely that the other person will tell you directly when perceive your behavior as problematic. Consequently, the ability to read the other side’s emotional state at least gives you an intuitive feeling as to what steps you need to take from that point on.
Perhaps you will have to ask them what it is that makes them uncomfortable, or you need to find a third party whom to describe the situation and get their view on the issue. Regardless of what it is you will change, empathy is the skill that will tell you when adjustments are necessary.
7) Perspective taking
On first view, this well known idea of “putting yourself into the shoes of the other side” seems to be the same thing as empathy. While they are closely related, there are some small but important differences.
When you are taking on the perspective of the other side, you are asking yourself questions like:
- if I was in his or her situation, how would I feel?
- if I was in his or her situation, what goals and objectives would I have?
- if I was him or her, how would I perceive my own behavior?
- if I was him or her, what assumptions would I make about this situation?
- if I was in his or her situation, what would be the next steps I’d take?
In that sense, when we try to take another person’s perspective, we are trying to act out the character that is the other person in our head. Instead of simply trying to understand how the other party feels, we try to actually “become” that person for a moment in order to be able to understand their emotions, predict their behavior and try to understand their perspective on our very own actions.
8) Ability to analyse the cultural system
Systems thinking is a skill that allows us to see the world as an interaction of different elements which form a bigger whole.
The important saying that something is “greater than the sum of its parts” is a direct quotation from the early systems thinkers and is one of the most central tenets of the field until today. But why is this important?
Well, when you are moving to a new country, you are also entering a completely different cultural environment whose different cultural elements interact with each other in completely different ways than you are used to.
Let’s just take the example of a poly-chronic perspective towards time. When you are entering a culture like this (Indonesia for example) you will be surprised why people are always coming late. You will wonder how this could possibly be a more efficient way of doing things than what you are used to. Consequently, it is likely that you will dismiss the cultural behavior of the local people as something “worse” than what you are used to.
What you are forgetting at this point is that the behavior of coming late is part of a larger cultural system.
Whereas you where wondering how this could possibly be a “more efficient way of doing things”, in a poly-chronic culture efficiency simply isn’t the goal of the people. Rather than maximizing efficiency, one of their primary goals might be to maintain harmonic relationships with the people around them.
Perhaps for you this again sounds strange. How can they maintain harmonic relationships if they always come late. After all, they are wasting your time by making you wait and so the relationship is destroyed!
Well, again this is not how people from a poly-chronic cultural system will think. Getting things done on time is often not their first priority. Let’s say that you are the owner of a company in Indonesia. Your first goal is to build a harmonic environment for your extended family members as well as other people who have joined your company.
In other words, the first goal of the company is to build a family-like organization that supports the livelihood of a large number of people while also creating an enjoyable working environment for everyone. In that circumstances, profitability becomes only a minor secondary goal, making efficiency less important.
The main problem with “systems” is that they consist of such a large number of elements interacting with each other, that it is simply impossible to find straightforward cause and effect relationships. As such, it is incredibly difficult to get a complete understanding of how a particular cultural system works. In fact, for any given culture, we can spend our whole lives just trying to analyse them, and there will still be new things to learn all the time.
And yet, it is incredibly important for any intercultural communicator to develop the ability to analyse the cultural system of our host culture as a whole.
This is one of the core skills that any intercultural communicator needs to develop. At this point, I will primarily talk about cognitive adaptability, which is the ability to integrate new ways of thinking into your existing belief system.
Why is cognitive adaptability important?
If you have read some of my earlier blog posts, I am often writing about this idea of “being stuck in our own cultural conditioning“. What this refers to is the fact that we bring our own belief system with us when we are entering a new cultural environment.
In that new cultural environment, we are then confronted with ideas, assumptions and beliefs that can can range all the way from being different from our cultural conditioning to being the complete opposite.
As intercultural communicators, it is our task to integrate these new ways of thinking into our existing belief system. If we are unable to do so, we will always remain the same person who we used to be before moving. Only, that at this point we are going to be unhappy, uncomfortable and frustrated.
Why? Well, because we are living in an environment where everything that happens around us goes against our own beliefs which inevitably makes us feel uncomfortable.
Essentially, we have three options of how we are going to deal with exposure to different cultural beliefs:
- we find ways to fully adapt to the new cultural belief system (often called assimilation)
- we “remain true to ourselves” and simply stick with our own cultural beliefs (often called segregation)
- we find ways to integrate the new cultural beliefs with our existing one’s (becoming bicultural)
While both fully assimilating into a new cultural environment as well as becoming bicultural are forms of adaptation, I personally believe that complete assimilation can not make us happy. A sense of our cultural background will always remain within ourselves, and suppressing it can only lead to unhappiness on the long term.
But in the end, the choice is yours. Do you want to assimilate, segregate yourself, our become bicultural?
10) Instant behavioral switching
One of the qualities of a truly bicultural person is the ability to switch back and forth between behavioral patterns from their different cultural backgrounds immediately.
A person who has completely internalized the Greek, Persian and American culture could walk into a party where people from all these three different cultures are, and somebody observing her closely would think that she is suddenly turning into a different person when switching their attention from one person to the other.
Sometimes, this ability to switch between the different cultures that we have internalized is perceived as a way of “acting” in the sense that we are not honest about who we really are. But this simply isn’t the case.
A truly bicultural person has internalized two- or more different cultures very deeply, thus making both of them an important part of their own identity. This allows him or her to switch to a completely different behavioral pattern immediately once that cultural identity is “triggered” by external factors such as meeting somebody from that particular cultural environment.
So, what are the next steps?
One thing that I believe would be very helpful for you is to have a look at these different skills needed for intercultural communication, and to think about where your strengths- and weaknesses lie among all of them.
All of them are skills, which means all of them can be developed and improved. Consequently, you can choose among those skills which you believe you are weak at, and then work on becoming better at them one by one.
In the next few weeks, I will also write individual guides for each of these skills including different strategies on how to improve on them. If you have any specific requests on which one’s you want to be written first, feel free to send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter by putting down your e-mail into the “subscribe now!” box on the top right of the page in order to receive weekly updates on intercultural communication!