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February 26, 2012

Communication in an Intercultural Setting

Throughout history individuals from various cultures have interacted through trade, conflicts and relationships but never so much as today’s generations. People from all walks of life have the opportunity to interact with multiple cultures each day whereas in the past these interactions were only afforded to the rich and affluent members of society. Today cultures are bonding in a global society forcing us to pay closer attention to intercultural issues. Regardless of which culture you interact with, it is important to consider your actions as well as your words to avoid unnecessary conflict.

Communication is one of the most important issues faced during intercultural reactions, even among English speaking cultures. For example, someone speaking American English would say “sunglasses” whereas a British English speaker could refer to them as “specs” and an individual from a country speaking old English would refer to them as “goggles”. In addition to the different words, there are often different pronunciations for the same word. If you are not familiar with the different words and pronunciations used to describe an item, then a communication issue may arise.

Hand gestures are not much different as most cultures engage in some form of communication via hand signals or other body movements. In the US a thumbs up sign is a signal that something is good or has met with a person’s approval. In Islamic and some Asian cultures a thumbs up sign is an insult. In the US it is common to move your index finger in an upwards curling motion to request someone to come closer to you however, in Singapore this is a symbol for death and in Japan it is just as offensive as if someone in America was to stick up their middle finger.

Body language, also known as non-verbal communication, can be deemed equally offensive when interacting between many cultures. While it is acceptable to have your hands in your pockets while you are chatting with friends or colleagues in most Western countries, it is considered disrespectful if you are in Turkey. You also should avoid sitting with your legs crossed while in Turkey as well as Ghana as it is considered offensive. Even smiling can be taken wrong by some cultures. Some cultures see smiling as a sign of shallowness or that you have a lack of control whereas in America it is a popular gesture aimed at neutralizing a tense or negative situation.

Authentic Journeys: Bridging Culture on Virtual Teams

We help build effective, culturally competent global teams with focus on the cultures of the USA and India. Jennifer Kumar, Managing Director, an American citizen, has almost 10 years experience living, studying and working (owning a business) in India. Authentic Journeys Consultancy is registered as a Private Limited in India (Kerala) and an LLC in the USA (Salt Lake City, Utah). We provide onsite and live-online instructor-led courses, facilitation and corporate coaching.