8 Chapter 8: Communicating Difference at Work & Intercultural Communication

Communicating Difference at Work & Intercultural Communication

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How would you deal with Japanese customers? How would you behave when invited to dinner by a Moroccan customer? Is there any kind of basic “international business behavior”? Would you be able to work for a German company? What about the American way of dealing with the working force? Any businessperson should have an answer for each one of these questions. Daily practice often shows professionals that working abroad or in an international setting is harder than expected beforehand and that academic contents do not seem basic in some specific situations, as in some of those expressed above. It is crucial to learn how to deal with difficult moments that many business people often have when working in an international setting. This week our readings should provide a simple introduction to the art of communicating effectively for business purposes.

By the end of the 20th century, 80 percent of U.S. products were competing in international markets. The direct investment of foreign-based companies grew from $9 trillion in 1966 to more than $300 trillion in 2002. Many products we assume are American, such as Purina Dog Chow and KitKat candy bars, are made overseas. Brands we may think are international, Grey Poupon mustard, Michelin tires and Evian water, are made in the United States.

For managers, having international experience is rapidly moving from “desirable” to “essential.” A study by the Columbia University School of Business reported that successful executives must have multi-environment and multinational experience to become CEOs in the 21st century. The ability to compete in the global economy is the single greatest challenge facing business today. Organizations will want to negotiate, buy and sell overseas, consider joint ventures, market and adapt products for an international market and improve their expatriates’ success rate. All of this involves communication.

Etiquette, manners, and cross cultural, or intercultural communication have become critical elements required for all International and Global Business executives, managers, and employees. As international, multinational, transnational, multi domestic, and global business continues to expand and bring people closer, the most important element of successful business outcomes may be the appreciation and respect for regional, country, and cultural differences.

Learning the skills of proper etiquette, manners, and intercultural communication is very important when conducting business in another culture. In recent years practitioners in a wide variety of fields—scientific cooperation, academic research, business, management, education, healthcare, politics, diplomacy, development, and others—have realized just how important    intercultural communication is for their everyday work. Fast travel, international media, and the Internet have made it easy for us to communicate with people all over the world. The process of economic globalization means that we cannot function in isolation but must interact with the rest of the world for survival. The global nature of many widely diverse modern problems and issues call for    cooperation between nations. Intercultural communication is no longer an option, but a necessity.

Because important decisions in business usually affect citizens of more than one nation, the question of whether communication between people of different nations is effective and whether all parties emerge with the same understanding is of crucial importance. Individuals who deal with people from other cultures want to learn how to improve their performance through improving their communication skills. Numerous resources have sprung up to meet this emerging market in the business, academic and international relations communities: leading authors have written books and articles on the topic; business services provide consultation for improving the conduct of international business; universities and other educational institutions offer programs or degrees in Intercultural Communication; and researchers have established international journals and academic societies specializing in research on intercultural communication.

Working in a global team and dealing with business partners or customers across cultures raises challenges and demands new attitudes and skills. Without the right approach, cultural differences greatly reduce effectiveness in the early stages of a relationship. But active management of the internationalization process and a conscious effort to acquire new skills will release fresh sources of competitive advantage.

In a world that is increasingly interconnected, the success of organizations and their people depends on effective cross-cultural communication.

In all these contacts, there is communication which needs to be as constructive as possible, without misunderstandings and breakdowns. Research on the nature of linguistic and cultural similarities and differences can play a positive and constructive role.
Lack of knowledge of another culture can lead, at the best, to embarrassing or amusing mistakes in communication. At the worst, such mistakes may confuse or even offend the people we wish to communicate with, making the conclusion of business deals or international agreements difficult or impossible.

Donnell King of Pellissippi State Technical Community College provides some examples from the advertising world of how simply translating words is not enough—deeper understanding of the other culture is necessary to translate meaning effectively.

Products have failed overseas sometimes simply because a name may take on unanticipated meanings in translation:

  • Pepsi Cola’s “Come Alive With Pepsi” campaign, when it was translated for the Taiwanese market, conveyed the unsettling news that, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.”
  • Parker Pen could not advertise its famous “Jotter” ballpoint pen in some languages because the translation sounded like “jockstrap” pen.
  • One American airline operating in Brazil advertised that it had plush “rendezvous lounges” on its jets, unaware that in Portuguese (the language of Brazil) “rendezvous” implies a special room for having sex.
  • The Olympic copier Roto in Chile (roto in Spanish means ‘broken’)
  • The Chevy Nova in Puerto Rico (no va means ‘doesn’t go’)
  • A General Motors auto ad with “Body by Fisher” became “Corpse by Fisher” in Flemish.
  • A Colgate-Palmolive toothpaste named “Cue” was advertised in France before anyone realized that Cue also happened to be the name of a widely circulated pornographic book about oral sex.

This type of mishap is not an American monopoly: A successful European chocolate and fruit product was introduced into the U.S. with the unfortunate name “Zit.”

Naming a product is communication at its simplest level. The overall implications of intercultural communication for global business are enormous. Take the case of Euro Disney, later renamed Disneyland Paris. For the year 1993, the theme park lost approximately US $1 billion. Losses were still at US $1 million a day in 1994-95. There were many reasons for this, including a recession in Europe, but intercultural insensitivity was also a very important factor. No attention was paid to the European context or to cultural differences in management practice, labor relations, or even such simple matters as preferred dining hours or availability of alcohol and tobacco. Euro Disney signals the danger for business practitioners immersed in financial forecasting, market studies and management models when they overlook how culture affects behavior. Few things are more important to conducting business on a global scale than skill in intercultural communication.

For all these reasons, communication is crucial to business. Specialized business knowledge is important, but not enough to guarantee success. Communication skills are vital.

TED TALK: Valerie Hoeks: Cultural Difference in Business


  1. How many multinational corporations can you name? What is the potential impact of their product (s) in countries like China or India (or in other specific countries)?
  2. Can your workplace be considered multicultural? Why or why not?
  3. At your job (now or in the past), how did you refer to your boss, and vice versa? Is this indicative of a low or high power distance value?
  4. Can you think of any examples of differences related to individualism or collectivism leading to intercultural communication conflicts on the job?
  5. How do you view work? Is hard work a virtue or a necessary evil?
  6. How might different attitudes toward work lead to intercultural communication conflicts?
  7. Have you communicated with someone with limited English proficiency? What strategies did you use? Are there any other strategies that you wish you had thought of then?
  8. What did the authors mean when they said, “To have good intercultural business communication, people need to slow down and sneak up on information”?
  9. How do the communication styles of honesty and harmony differ?
  10. What are some of the etiquette roles at your place of business?
  11. How do you feel about affirmative action policies? Do you think they are helpful or harmful to minorities?
  12. What are some of the reasons companies address affirmative action and diversity issues?


GSC Library Article:

Chitakornkijsil, P. (2010). Intercultural communication challenges and multinational organization communication. International 

     Journal Of Organizational Innovation, 3(2), 6-20.



Clarke, C.C., Lipp, G.D. (1998). Conflict resolution for contrasting cultures. Training and Development, 52: 15.

Garcez, P. M. (1993). Point-making styles in cross-cultural business negotiation: A microethnographic study. English for Specific Purposes, 12(2), 103-120.

Sanchez, J., & Stuckey, M. E. (1999). Communicating culture through leadership: One view from Indian Country. Communication Studies, 50, 103-115.


Important Concepts for Understanding Intercultural Communication

If you decide to take a class on intercultural communication you will learn a great deal about the similarities and differences across cultural groups. Since this chapter is meant to give you an overview or taste of this exciting field of study we will discuss four important concepts for understanding communication practices among cultures.

High and Low Context

Think about someone you are very close to—a best friend, romantic partner, or sibling. Have there been times when you began a sentence and the other person knew exactly what you were going to say before you said it? For example, in a situation between two sisters, one sister might exclaim, “Get off!” (which is short for “get off my wavelength”). This phenomenon of being on someone’s wavelength is similar to what Hall describes as high context. In high context communication, the meaning is in the people, or more specifically, the relationship between the people as opposed to just the words. Low context communication occurs when we have to rely on the translation of the words to decipher a person’s meaning. The American legal system, for example, relies on low-context communication.

While some cultures are low or high context, in general terms, there can also be individual or contextual differences within cultures. In the example above between the two sisters, they are using high context communication, however, America is considered a low context culture. Countries such as Germany and Sweden are also low context while Japan and China are high-context.

Speech Styles

Other variations in communication can be described using Gudykunst and Ting-Toomey’s four communication styles. Thinking about these descriptors as a continuum rather than polar opposites is helpful because it allows us to imagine more communicative options for speakers. They are not fixed into one style or another but instead, people can make choices about where to be on the continuum according to the context in which they find themselves.

This first continuum has to do with the explicitness of one’s talk, or how much of one’s thoughts are communicated directly through words, and how much is indirect. Direct speech is very explicit while indirect speech is more obscure. If I say, “Close the window,” my meaning is quite clear. However, if I were to ask, “Is anyone else cold in here?” or, “Geez, this room is cold,” I might be signaling indirectly that I want someone to close the window. As the United States is typically a direct culture, these latter statements might generate comments like, “Why didn’t you just ask someone to shut the window?” or “Shut it yourself.” Why might someone make a choice to use a direct or indirect form of communication? What are some of the advantages or disadvantages of each style? Think about the context for a moment. If you as a student were in a meeting with the President of your university and you were to tell her to “Shut the window,” what do you think would happen? Can you even imagine saying that? An indirect approach in this context may appear more polite, appropriate, and effective.

Remember the fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? As Goldilocks tasted the porridge, she exclaimed, “this is too hot, this one is too cold, but this one is just right.” This next continuum of communication styles, succinct/exact vs. elaborate, can be thought of this way as well. The elaborate style uses more words, phrases, or metaphors to express an idea than the other two styles. It may be described as descriptive, poetic, or too wordy depending on your view. Commenting on a flower garden an American (Exact/Succinct) speaker may say, “Wow, look at all the color variations. That’s beautiful.” An Egyptian (Elaborate) speaker may go into much more detail about the specific varieties and colors of the blossoms, “This garden invokes so many memories for me. The deep purple irises remind me of my maternal grandmother as those are her favorite flowers. Those pink roses are similar to the ones I sent to my first love.” The succinct style in contrast values simplicity and silence. As many mothers usually tell their children, “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.” Cultures such as Buddhism and the Amish value this form. The exact style is the one for Goldilocks as it falls between the other two and would be in their words, “just right.” It is not overly descriptive or too vague to be of use.

Remember when we were talking about the French and Spanish languages and the fact that they have a formal and informal “you” depending on the relationship between the speaker and the audience? This example also helps explain the third communication style: the personal and contextual. The contextual style is one where there are structural linguistic devices used to mark the relationship between the speaker and the listener. If this sounds a bit unfamiliar, that is because the English language has no such linguistic distinctions; it is an example of the personal style that enhances the sense of “I.” While the English language does allow us to show respect for our audience such as the choice to eliminate slang or the use of titles such as Sir, Madame, President, Congressperson, or Professor, they do not inherently change the structure of the language.

The final continuum, instrumental/affective, refers to who holds the responsibility for effectively conveying a message: the speaker or the audience? The instrumental style is goal- or sender-orientated, meaning it is the burden of the speaker to make themselves understood. The affective style is more receiver-orientated thus, places more responsibility on the listener. Here, the listener should pay attention to verbal, nonverbal, and relationship clues in an attempt to understand the message. Asian cultures such as China and Japan and many Native American tribes are affective cultures. The United States is more instrumental. Think about sitting in your college classroom listening to your professor lecture. If you do not understand the material where does the responsibility reside? Usually, it is given to the professor as in statements such as “My Math Professor isn’t very well organized.” Or “By the end of the Econ. lecture, all that was on the board were lines, circles, and a bunch of numbers. I didn’t know what was important and what wasn’t.” These statements suggest that it is up to the professor to communicate the material to the students. As the authors were raised in the American educational system they too were used to this perspective and often look at their teaching methods when students fail to understand the material. A professor was teaching in China and when her students encountered particular difficulty with a certain concept she would often ask the students, “What do you need—more examples? Shall we review again? Are the terms confusing?” Her students, raised in a more affective environment responded, “No, it’s not you. It is our job as your students to try harder. We did not study enough and will read the chapter again so we will understand.” The students accepted the responsibility as listeners to work to understand the speaker.

Collectivist versus Individualistic

In addition to the four speaking styles that characterize cultures so do value systems. Of particular importance to intercultural communication is whether the culture has a collectivistic or individualistic orientation. When a person or culture has a collective orientation they place the needs and interests of the group above individual desires or motivations. In contrast, the self or one’s own personal goals motivate those cultures with individualistic orientations. Thus, each person is viewed as responsible for their own success or failure in life. From years of research, Geert Hofstede organized 52 countries in terms of their orientation to individualism. Look Here to see the results.

When looking at Hofstede’s research and that of others on individualism and collectivism, important to remember is that no culture is purely one or the other. Think of these qualities as points along a continuum rather than fixed positions. Individuals and co-cultures may exhibit differences in individualism/collectivism from the dominant culture and certain contexts may highlight one or the other. Changing is difficult. In some of your classes, for example, does the Professor require a group project as part of the final grade? How do students respond to such an assignment? In our experience we find that some students enjoy and benefit from the collective and collaborative process and seem to learn better in such an environment. These students have more of a collective orientation. Other students, usually the majority, are resistant to such assignments citing reasons such as “it’s difficult to coordinate schedules with four other people” or “I don’t want my grade resting on someone else’s performance.” These statements reflect an individual orientation.


Would you consider yourself an ally? When it comes to power struggles or lack of communication do you feel the need to speak up for those who have been marginalized? If so, you might say that you stand in solidarity. Communication Scholar Lilie Chouliaraki believes that in this day and age we have produced the “Ironic Spectator,” which is the term for those who sit by and watch others suffer while maybe “Liking” their post on Facebook in an attempt to show their solidarity. Solidarity is identifying and acting on issues you see in your environment that do not directly affect you (Ong 2013). People in positions of power can be an ally for marginalized people as a movement does not move without power. It is important to be a good ally and not seek to resolve the problem by yourself. Instead, make sure to support the people being directly affected and amplify their voice instead of raising yours, you may not have the same perspective.





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Organizational Communication COMM 3893 & MGT 3123 Copyright © 2017 by Julie Zink, Ph.D is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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