Intercultural communication is as old as humanity. It happens when people from different cultural backgrounds interact with each other, and it can happen in all kinds of setting, be it trade and business, research, or leisure. But why is intercultural communication a special type of communicative skill, and how can we develop intercultural skills? To understand this, we first need to understand how culture and language are connected.
Cultures are about shared knowledge and shared values. They are based on a common history and common practices that have developed into what is accepted as “normal” behavior. Language as our main tool to communicate is part of this “normal”, or conventional, behavior.
But how does culture influence language?
Culture provides the context in which language is used. It determines what we talk about, what expressions we use, how loud we speak, how fast we respond, and what we assume others to know. Culture sets the rules of communication and shows children at an early age how they are expected to speak and behave.
Cultural Influence on Language
But culture doesn’t only determine the appropriate use of language. On a more unconscious level, culture influences how we describe the world. Take color terms. Italian has three words for different shades of blue – “azurro”, “blu”, and “celeste” – while Mayan lumps all shades of blue and green together in one single word – “yax”. This does not mean that speakers of Mayan are unable to distinguish between different shades of blue and green. Rather, it means that in Mayan culture, there is no need to explicitly distinguish between them.
Color terms help highlight how different languages describe the world differently. A Greek doctor in Athens once told me after I had been bitten by a dog that my leg would turn “black”. I was shocked for a second and thought that my leg was not going to heal, but then I understood that black is the color Greek assigns to bruises. In English and German, bruises are blue, while in Spanish, they’re purple. Such misunderstandings happen when we are misled by the assumption that linguistic conventions are the same across cultures.
Yet, culture penetrates language even beyond words. It also affects grammar. There are languages that indicate whether a statement is based on confirmed or hearsay knowledge. Linguists call this “evidentiality”. It exists in most indigenous languages of South America, as well as in Turkish and other languages. In these cultures, evidentiality expresses trustworthiness, and this principle is so pervasive that even Spanish and Portuguese have adopted it. For people from these cultures, it is important to come across as trustworthy. Otherwise, communication is likely to fail.
Just like trustworthiness, also politeness is guided by cultural values. In language, politeness determines which expressions are considered appropriate. Polite forms like German “Sie”, Spanish “usted”, English “sir”, or Portuguese “senhor” mark the high status of a person and the social distance between the speakers. In some cultures, these distances are more relevant than in others. The informal “du” is much more widespread in Switzerland than in Germany, and “tú” is more frequent in Spain than in Colombia.
Normally, we learn these rules about politeness and distance as we grow up in our culture. We learn them together with our first language. Given that we know our culture and context so well, we are hardly aware of how much these rules influence our behavior. In intercultural communication, however, context is less familiar. The understanding of what is “normal” differs and needs to be negotiated anew.
Dinstance is Key
As we navigate different understandings of “normalcy”, nothing can be taken for granted. So, we create a new context and start by establishing differences and commonalities. This process is guided by what we know and what we think the other person knows. The uncertainties in this process can be difficult to deal with but to develop an awareness of them is the first and most important step.
In creating a new context, we define the connection between us and the other person. Connections between people are always about finding the right distance and in intercultural communication, there are more factors that play in and increase the distance between people. In other words, intercultural communication is essentially about navigating the uncertainty of finding the right distance.
And how can we find the right distance?
Sometimes, finding the right distance can be as simple as knowing how close to a person someone should stand. But in intercultural communication, distance is often about power. Power can be measured as financial or political prowess, or as a higher position in a family or organization. And more challengingly, distance is also often defined along ethnic and gender lines.
The distance between the individuals will influence their behavior toward each other. It is important to find the most appropriate balance between being intrusive and evasive.
In Switzerland, for instance, personal space is relatively large, and it is important not to cross any lines. Visitors should never arrive early at an appointment to ensure the other person has time to get ready. And particularly in business contexts, people prefer keeping a respectful distance without using pushy or explicit words – otherwise, cooperation may end without any explanation.
In countries with a colonial past, by contrast, it is common to connect and bond on a more personal level. Trust and proximity are important, and people often mix business with private life. This is, however, more common among people of the same social group, as social classification is still strong due to increased interethnic contact and conflict in the past. Foreigners may therefore have a hard time building a solid friendship in Latin America if they speak with a strong foreign accent.
At the same time, cultural distance is very much about mindset, and also ethnic differences can be reduced by engaging in the same activities. Two bankers from Brazil and from England, for example, are likely to understand each other more easily than a teacher and a banker from the same country.
So, in essence, intercultural communication boils down to two issues: language and distance. No matter what the different cultures are, it is essential to use a language that everybody understands and to build a relationship that establishes the right distance for everybody to be at ease.
There are no clear instructions to follow; what matters is to be aware of these challenges and to learn how to use this awareness to navigate intercultural encounters. The more a person knows about how culture influences language and how to find the right distance, the more successful their intercultural communication will be.