Intercultural Dimensions

by Dr. Irina Ivliyeva (2013)

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

George Bernard Shaw

Culture is the name for what people are interested in, their thoughts, their models, the books they read and the speeches they hear, their table-talk, gossip, controversies, historical sense and scientific training, the values they appreciate, the quality of life they admire. All communities have a culture. It is the climate of their civilization.

Walter Lippmann

What is Intercultural Communication?

Intercultural communication is how people from different cultures, languages,
social and economic backgrounds, beliefs and religions come together to work
and communicate with one another. Demand for people skilled in intercultural
communication continues to increase as the world moves closer and closer to
becoming a true global village. People realize that there are barriers and limitations
when entering a foreign territory.  Without knowledge of intercultural communication they can unknowingly cause
confusion and misunderstandings.

The skills of intercultural communication are the same general
communication skills that can be used universally in all cultures and races. Listening
without judging, repeating what you understand, confirming meanings, giving
suggestions and acknowledging a mutual understanding
are examples of such
communication skills. Respect is a common language in all world
cultures. When respect is shown for other peoples’ cultures and religions, the
favor is returned.

There are three phases to becoming skilled in intercultural communications: knowledge, awareness, and
understanding. Intercultural knowledge refers to a surface level contact
with cultural characteristics, values, beliefs and behaviors and is critical to
cross cultural understanding. Intercultural awareness develops from
intercultural knowledge as people appreciate foreign cultures internally and
display a greater flexibility and openness in their own behavior and attitudes.
Intercultural understanding is the basic ability of people to recognize,
interpret and correctly react to people or situations that could otherwise lead
to miscommunication because of cultural differences.

As intercultural knowledge and awareness increase, tendencies of different cultures and nationalities become
familiar, but it important not to stereotype. A stereotype is an
incorrect perception of people based on minimal experience. It is usually a
negative statement which often contain the words “all, every, always, never”.
You may know one Japanese person who is very quiet so you conclude that all
Japanese are quiet and reserved. This is even true of positive stereotypes.
For example, the assumptions that all Chinese are great at math, all Germans
are well organized, and all English are well mannered, are far from the truth,
although the intent behind the statement is positive.

We encourage you to discover other cultures of the world and use this prism to take a closer look at
yourself. Remember: real intercultural understanding only comes through experience!

The Basics of Active Listening

The following principles are
provided to help people working in multicultural environments improve the most
basic communication skills – listening.

1. Listen carefully. Frequently ask yourself “What’s going on here?” and check your assumptions.

2. Make eye contact when speaking or listening to students and colleagues.

3. Pay attention to body language, your own and that of your students and
colleagues.(eg., folded arms mean, “I really don’t want to hear this.”
Fidgeting says, “Can we get this over with? I’m busy.”). When applicable, set
aside regular times
to talk.

4. Clarify the meaning of a person’s statement. Repeat back to the
student what he or she has said to you; paraphrase it with a statement
such as “so what you are saying to me is …”

5. Ask open-ended questions. If “yes/no” questions are asked, the
conversation will be shortened, and the student may feel that he or she didn’t
get to communicate with you.

6. Respond with complete sentences.

7. Check in and make sure that the student understands what you are saying to him or her.

8. Pay attention to tone. Sometimes what is said is less important than how it is said.

9. Verbally remind a student that he or she can speak with you without feeling judged. Don’t respond with accusatory
or blaming words or tones
. (e.g., You should have …; I told you so …; You are the one who ...).


General Intercultural Communication Tips

Building an understanding of
other peoples’ cultures, communication styles and behaviors can help you to be
more successful in dealing effectively with people in an
intercultural environment. Even without tons of textbooks and articles, you can
use basic principles to improve your intercultural communication skills while
working in international and multicultural environments.

1. Be patient and show respect! Although culture affects differences in communication
patterns, there are many exceptions within each group depending on class, age,
education, experience, and personality. Things may not get done when and as
expected, thus be patient with yourself and others. The way you treat people
determines the way they will treat you.

2. Set rules! How do you approach punctuality, meetings, emails, verbal
agreements, disagreements, etc? Try and develop rules as a group rather than
having them imposed.

3. Ask questions when you don't understand or are in doubt. When communication
results in conflict, be aware that problems might have more to do with style or
process than with content or motives. Learn to understand different
communication styles. Asking questions prevents jumping to conclusions.

4. Check and double check! A few minutes spent double-checking that all parties are
“on the same page” saves hours of work down the line.

5. Don’t judge people because of the way they speak. Sometimes people who do not
have English as their mother tongue will read more proficiently than they
speak. It is a good idea to always write things down as a back up.

6. Not everyone in the world thinks “time is money.” Understand that for many
people work is low down on the priority list with things like family taking a
much higher place. Do not expect people to sacrifice their own time to meet

7. Avoid jokes, words, or expressions that are hot buttons, such as those that are
based on ethnicity, race, or gender. Be wary of differences in sense of humor
in an intercultural environment: one man’s joke is another’s insult.

8. Self-reflect and stay positive! Communicating across cultures requires extra effort.
Good communication requires commitment and concentration. A good intercultural communicator not only looksoutward but also inward. Take time to reflect on your own communication,
management or motivation style, and see where you can improve as an individual.


Practical Tips to Classroom Communication in the USA

The 21st century American classroom is a true multicultural and multilingual environment.
Consider the following statement: “With a steep rise in the number of foreign
graduate students in the last two decades, undergraduates at large research
universities often find themselves in classes and laboratories run by graduate
teaching assistants whose mastery of English is less than complete. The issue
is particularly acute in subjects like engineering, where 50 percent of
graduate students are foreign born, and math and the physical sciences, where
41 percent of graduate students are [also foreign born], according to a survey
by the Council of Graduate Schools, an association of 450 schools. This is
despite a modest decline in the number of international students enrolling in
American graduate programs since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.”
(Alan Finder, “Unclear on American Campus: What the Foreign Teacher Said”. NY
Times, June 24, 2005,

Student needs and instructor responsibilities vary depending on academic backgrounds, cultural backgrounds,
and individual personalities. The following tips can help you to embrace the differences in learning and teaching styles.

1. Never say you understand if you do not; never pretend that you do not understand when you do.

2. Ask for assistance/information; listen and follow directions.

3. Honesty and pleasantness are essential; openness/frankness is absolutely necessary; say what is actually being thought (with tact).

4. Topics of conversation are almost the same in every country. However, avoid inappropriate questions (“personal” or “private” e.g., personal finances, age, health, sex, religion, politics etc.

5. Be aware of the time: schedules are important; arrive at appointments/classes promptly; acknowledge personal privacy; minimize telephone calls; respect others’ time schedules.

6. Personal space is 2-3 feet; eye contact means interest and sincerity; hand shaking is used mainly at the time when people are introduced or when they have not seen each other for quite some time.

7. Politeness is used appropriately – not too frequently; no bowing; avoid nodding (this indicates agreement).

8. In the US a woman is to be regarded as an equal; male chauvinism or a “macho” attitude is a “no-no”.

9. Be assertive without being aggressive; not all things are negotiable. Avoid trying to “make a deal” or ask for exceptions.


Recommended Readings

1. Althen, Gary – American Ways: A Guide for Foreigners in the United States (Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, Inc., 1988). An introduction to American culture with a section about cultures and cultural differences, a section about specific aspects of American culture – including education and a section listing activities that can help visitors from abroad better understand U.S. society.

2. Barnes, Gregory – The American University: A World Guide - (Philadelphia: ISI Press, 1984) An interesting readable discussion of the American higher education system as it compares to higher education systems elsewhere.

3. Barnes, Gregory – Communication Skills for the Foreign-Born Professional – (Philadelphia: ISI Press, 1982). Particularly recommended for foreign scholars, this book offers pointers about nonverbal communication among American and explains some important points about English usage.

4. Cah, Steven M. – Saints and Scamps – Ethics in Academia – (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1986) A philosopher’s discussion of the ethical obligations of college and university faculty in the United States.

5. Gullette, Margaret M. (Ed) – The Art and Craft of Teaching – (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984) A collection of useful essays on various aspects of being a teacher: lecturing, test questions, grading, etc. filled with sound, practical advice.

6. Meyers, C. & Holt, S. Success with Presentations: A Course for Non-native Speakers of English. Aspen Productions: Burnsville, MN, 2002. Practical tips for making successful presentations in the classroom and beyond.