Intercultural Communication

The success of personal and professional relationships depends on the effectiveness of intercultural communication. Working with customers and partners from different cultures can be challenging and requires a great deal of skill. Intercultural expertise minimizes the possible risks when involved in international affairs. The inability to communicate between cultures can result in embarrassment, confusion, and offense.

Intercultural Communication occurs between individuals with different cultural backgrounds. Cultural differences are reflected in various ways. Verbal language, body language, gestures, and phrases can take several meanings between many cultures. Research concludes facial expressions displaying emotions are universal but rules on the use of the expressions differ. (Kazdin) Intercultural conflict usually results from miscommunication or misunderstanding, which is why intercultural communication skills are important. This paper will attempt describe a scenario where intercultural communication causes conflict or confusion and offer strategies to avoid future conflicts.

Description of the Communication Issue
John, a New Orleans native, is relocated after Hurricane Katrina. He is new to the city of Houston, Texas, and Patricia is the first person he meets. Despite John’s strong accent strange use of words, she thought he was a nice guy. Patricia had to ask him to repeat things more that once and noticed that he referred to the sidewalk as a banquet (ban-ket), and he wanted to know what the hamburger at McDonald’s was dressed with. Patricia had also heard a great deal about New Orleans’ culture and was interested in learning more.

John asked Patricia where she stayed. She didn’t understand, so he rephrased the question asking where she lived. The two exchanged numbers and Patricia promised to show him around the city the following day. John asked Patricia if it would be inappropriate to call her that evening. Patricia gave John permission to do so because she was truly interested in John’s conversation.

John gives Patricia a call and when she answers, he says “Good night.” She is confused, but responds, “I hope you have a good night, also. I guess I will talk to you tomorrow.” Patricia then hangs up the phone. John is puzzled now, because he was calling to continue the previous conversation the two were engaged in. John then wonders whether he called too late or if Patricia was interested in talking to him, and he was unsure whether he should call Patricia again. Patricia wonders why John only called to say good night, but she thought it was a nice gesture.

John, having grown up in New Orleans, uses the phrase, “Good night,” as a greeting. John was unaware that by saying this to someone in Houston, the person would assume he was saying good-bye. Patricia was familiar with the term being used as a conversation ending and didn’t understand John’s intentions. Patricia was not aware of sayings and terms used in New Orleans, on John didn’t know that such saying took on totally different meanings when used elsewhere.

Communication is expressed through a person’s cultural background, therefore, differs among individuals. Through communication, ethnic, social, and professional identities are reflected. A person’s identity is more that how a person is label, but how the person acts and reacts in the presence of like and unlike individuals.

Ineffectively communicating in intercultural situations can be damaging to relationship building. Cultures have different conceptions and ideas of what is appropriate. Body language and personal space must also be considered. Language is the most important element in intercultural communication and the use of language determines the effectiveness.
Proficiency is an important factor when communication occurs between two people of different cultural backgrounds. Trust, awareness, respect, and honesty are needed to develop the necessary skills to communicate cross-culturally. Competence is not something that can be learned easily, competence is a process that requires practice and patience. Whether a potential customer or friend, communication plays a role in the fate of the relationship.

“Constructive and destructive intercultural conflict management depends on many factors. One of the key factors is the ability to apply flexible communication skills in managing both culture-based and individual-based differences. Constructive intercultural conflict management is defined as the use of culture-sensitive communication skills to manage the process of conflict productively and reach important goals of all parties amicably. By contrast, destructive conflict means the parties are engaging in inflexible thinking and inflexible conflict patterns that lock them into prolonged cycles of defensiveness and mutual dissatisfaction leading to escalation or total impasse.”(Ting-Toomey, 1999) Resolution of conflict requires that parties are mindful is the contribution of a different approach. Parties must also share a common goal and be willing to experiment with conflict management skills.

Improvement Strategies
Avoiding broad and stereotypical statements is an important strategy in avoiding intercultural communication conflict. One should never assume that the thought and actions of all members of a cultural group will be the same. Use of racial or cultural stereotypes can possibly offend members of that race or culture. Ethnic humor is also unacceptable because this can be viewed as prejudice or discrimination. One must also be aware that sayings, phrases, and statements differ in cultures, even if he or she is not familiar with the different meanings. Individuals should listen attentively, still if disagreement arises, and pay attention to gestures, tones, movements, and other forms of communication.

In a diverse, multicultural society, citizens need to be sensitive and knowledgeable about linguistic and cultural differences.(Kottak & Kozaitis, 2003) By increasing awareness about different ethnic or linguistic backgrounds, the chance of offending or making someone feel discriminated decreases. Although most Americans speak English, the language is not always spoken to the same extent so careful consideration must be taken when communicating with others of different cultural backgrounds.

Effective communication is the key element in building successful personal or professional relationships. Developing the skill needed to communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds can be a difficult task. Learning to communicate effectively with people from different cultures can help one to avoid conflict, confusion, and embarrassment.

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