In basic communication theory, differences are seen as barriers, while similarities
provide the matrix in which communication is made possible. In intercultural
communication, this is turned around. Differences are central and dealing with them is
fundamental cross-cultural skill. The argument that “we should emphasize our
similarities rather than our differences” simply perpetuates cross-cultural communication
difficulties. Differences constitute both the essence of cross-cultural learning and the
medium of intercultural communication.
Differences in intercultural communication fall into four categories:
1) Customary Behaviors – specific ways of behaving toward parents, children, cousins
and others, and specific ways of acting out feelings about past, present, future. Different
cultures expect different behavior from their members and different attitudes toward
past, present and future.
2) Cultural Assumptions and Values – behind the behaviors, are assumptions and
values a culture group holds. If some values and norms are violated or contradicted
when meeting people from different backgrounds, it is very difficult to suspend judgment.
The response is usually automatic and unconscious. Those contradictions and violations
will raise walls, through it is hard for people to hear what the other people are saying.
People are making interpretations and giving meaning to the communication that fit into
their value framework.
3) Patterns of Thinking – at an even deeper level, cognitive patterns differ from group
to group (inductive/deductive thinking; intuitive/reason-bound; rational/emotional, field
sensitive/field independent, etc)
4) Communicative Style – Each culture has developed its own communicative style
(gestures, personal space, touching, tone and volume in speech, speech speed,
language, etc). When people are accustomed to one style, encountering another can be
confusing or annoying. Languages reflect and/or have adapted to communicative style.
When shifting to a second language, people usually bring the communicative style of
their first language. This may cause discomfort in listener that is distracting and serves
as interference in the communication process.
Adapted from: Multicultural education: A Cross Cultural Training Approach, M. D. Pusch (Ed.)
ToT ESJ, Belgrade, Serbia, April 2007
Bridging differences
Three basic principles in intercultural communication are:
1) We need to be secure in and positively identified with our own culture
2) We need to be aware of the degree to which we are culturally conditioned
3) We need to respect and appreciate cultural differences encountered in others
Guidelines for successful intercultural communication
A) Listening skills – in intercultural communication skillful listening to the verbal and
non verbal messages without filtering them through our own system of values and
expectations is and imperative.
B) Perception checking – our perceptions about the other person and about what is
being said to us are embedded in our own assumptions and values and in our
expectations of the other person. Those perceptions must be checked. It is necessary to
ask if that which happens between us and the other person has the same meaning for
both of us.
C) Seeking feedback - the feedback giving and receiving process is itself culturally
influenced. The manner in which feedback is requested may not appear to be polite;
there may be inflections or even appropriate gestures or facial expressions that must
accompany the request if it is to be recognized for what it is. Asking for feedback can be
emotionally risky, often slow and frustrating process, but untangling accumulated
misunderstandings, or living with them, is far more difficult than engaging in the process
of requesting immediate feedback while communication is taking place.
D) Resisting judgmental reactions – judging someone on the basis of words or
behaviors which may either a) have utterly different meaning for each of you or b) be a
function of culturally conditioned habits that have little reference to the immediate
situation, can have serious consequences. Suspending judgment while listening allows
us to be more open to another`s thoughts, ideas and feelings and reduces
defensiveness in intercultural communication.
E) Cultivating self-awareness – being conscious of own behavior patterns,
communicative style, operational assumptions and values and patterns of thinking. One,
of course, can not and should not be continuously self-conscious in relationship with
other people, but a periodic re-examination of one`s cultural nature, however, is
F) Taking risks – in order to open some channels of communication with another
person, we must often take some emotional risks (asking for feedback, saying
something personal that can make us vulnerable, etc). Cross-cultural learning and
intercultural communication take place best where participants have established enough
trust to permit some exposure of themselves.
ToT ESJ, Belgrade, Serbia, April 2007

intercultural communication