When I first encountered the words “Intercultural “ and “Communication” I thought about something related to languages. No wonder a similar concept had to be invented, given the hyper fast increasing of globalisation trends.
But, suprise, surprise, being intercultural doesn’t mean just being polyglot. Or poly-cultural. For those who approach for the first time this idea, it is worth taking two minutes of your busy life and have quick glance at the multi-faceted world of interculturalism. And yes, we are all somehow involved in it.
Aside from language, intercultural communication focuses on social attributes, thought patterns, and the specific cultures of different groups of people. And actually, it is an extremely broad concept that includes many different applications.
Let’s imagine just for a minute a big iceberg. We all know that icebergs have a tiny part which is visible above the sea level, while the biggest part of the iced mountain is hidden under the sea. To understand the real meaning of culture, I want you to assume that the visible part of our iceberg is a culture as we usually think of it: language, wearing, phisical traits, music, art, ethnicity, politics, organizational patterns etc.
Can you guess what the invisible part hides?
An incredibly amount of important stuff.
By going down indeed we do find basic things like time and space concepts, courtesy, facial expressions; or leadership, the idea of beauty, emotional management and social interaction capacity. The deepest part of the mountain reveals roots and pillars of that specific culture: identity, defined roles in society, values and norms, ideals, etc..
That is the reason why, when successfully approaching to different cultures, before appealing common and abused stereotypes it is extremely important to show awareness of the deepest part of the cultural iceberg.
Easy, right? But it is not that easy when it comes to apply these consideration in real life.
Intercultural awareness is a more-than-useful tool in current international business. And I bet many of you have a job that is even slighlty related with it! To make it faster and easier, I am going to tell you a real short story.
An american bussinessman goes to China. He has to conclude a very important agreement with a chinese enterprise. He wants to look as polite as possible and he thinks about getting a gift for the chinese counterpart’s daughter, who, he knows, is about to marry. He buys a luxurious watch and flies to Beijing. When the meeting starts, he is very pleased to give the present himself. As soon as they saw the watch, the chinese delegation suddenly become extremely nervous and refuse to negotiate.
In Chinese tradition, clocks are linked with death and are a very embarassing and unpleasant gift to receive. Chinese take symbols very seriously and have a very specific protocol that must be always followed in negotiations. Unfortunately, the american businessman ignored the cultural aspect and ruined the agreement.
Also in international issues and within the so-called Mediation and Conflict Resolution area national leaders must have this kind of awareness. Preconceived ideas, stereotypes, assumed values can foster a little dispute and make it burst into a never ending war. I am not saying that the cultural aspect is the main cause of international or national disagreements; I am just reminding that cultural differences in ways of managing meetings, disputes and conflicts are quite often forgotten or not considerd at all.
A real and complete leader should be fully aware of those factors. For those of you who want to know a little bit more, I recommend Carley H.Dood in his book Values and Intercultural Communication (1997). He says there are some important tips to take into account when someone is conducting a resolution process where very different cultural factors are involved:
a)Do as others do.
c)Do not assume that you know the world view
and e)Discover when to use formal and informal modes (some cultures indeed, like Chilean, as member of a collectivistic culture, would prefer informal modes).
Does it make sense? I guess so. And have you ever thought about it?