It doesn't take a genius or high-level scholar to know that communication is an essential part of our day-to-day lives. Without it, how would we order food, drive on the street, or maintain friendships? Yet, countless people underestimate (or completely overlook) the importance of intercultural communication.
Yes, intercultural communication can come into play when interacting with people from different countries. Obviously, that aspect is close to our hearts. But this is just a sliver of the social importance of intercultural communication and how we use it.
Intercultural communication, as a broad concept, is largely rooted in sociology, psychology, and other fields of study. And understanding the nuances of how these disciplines and how they define intercultural communication isn't always easy.
Fortunately, at its core, intercultural communication is remarkably simple.
So what is the importance of intercultural communication in the modern world? And how can we best use intercultural communication to build relationships and minimize conflict?
Intercultural Communication: What It Is and How to Use It
First, a quick overview of communication:
Of course, the most obvious example of communication is the spoken word. But communication is so much more.
Communication can include things like body language, touch, written language, music and art, and mass media. If something communicates a message, no matter what that message is or how small it may be, it is communication. Even pure silence can act as communication.
When people use the term communication, they typically mean interpersonal or group communication. This is communication between an individual, group, or organization and other individuals, groups, or organizations.
This could be two people speaking one-on-one. Or it could be a company-wide e-mail sent out by a top-level manager.
So what is intercultural communication?
Intercultural communication describes any type of communication that bridges two or more different cultures. Again, this communication could be two people speaking to each other, a book, music, mass media, and more. It could even be two governments exchanging information.
But that begs another question entirely:
What is culture?
Most people, when asked to define two different cultures, think of the difference between varying countries or ethnic group. And they wouldn't be wrong.
In fact, an ethnic group just refers to a group of people who share cultural traditions.
And "traditions" is one of the best words to describe culture as a whole. Traditions are passed down through families and communities, making up a collective culture.
However, culture is not defined by national borders. Culture is everywhere.
So where do we get our personal culture?
Yes, your home country has a lot to do with your personal culture.
But your religion, or lack thereof, is also major a cultural influence. The type of food and music you were exposed to as a child and beyond shape your culture. The language, level of touch, and humor you grew up with are also a part of your personal culture.
And geographical differences in culture don't always mean crossing national borders.
Just think of the difference between a Texan and a native New Yorker. Or a New Yorker and a Californian.
People who grew up in the city, suburbs, or country, even if these areas are all within just a few geographical miles, would also all have slightly different community cultures.
While we're typically unaware of our cultural environment and how it may influence us, these factors are always present in our lives.
How can you improve your intercultural communication skills?
As you can see, the importance of intercultural communication cannot be understated. Especially in a world that is growing more connected by the day.
But being aware of differences in culture and having good intercultural communication skills are two entirely different things.
Fortunately, improving your intercultural communication skills is pretty much exactly the same as improving your communication skills as a whole.
Patience and understanding are two of the most important concepts in intercultural communication.
When communicating with those who share much of the same culture as us, we can often take these overlaps for granted. In intercultural communication, it's not uncommon for misunderstandings to occur.
These misunderstandings are completely normal. It's how you handle them and move forward with the communication that matter.
The Importance of Intercultural Communication in Day-to-Day Life
For expats, the importance of intercultural communication is quite obvious. Without these skills, navigating a foreign country, at least safely and effectively, is near impossible.
But understanding the importance of intercultural communication is crucial for everyone.
For several decades, now, the world has been going through something called globalization. And, with the constant advancement of communications technology, these changes are occurring at a faster rate each day.
Globalization has brought about a mixing of cultures that, really, we haven't seen before.
Yes, different cultures interact all the time. But, thanks to the Internet, almost anyone can reach out and learn more about or personally interact with different nationalities, religions, languages, cuisines, and more.
With Netflix, Youtube, Spotify, and other platforms, we can even consume the television and music of cultures on the opposite side of the world. That is especially true for United States citizens, whose media has been exported across the globe but who, until now, rarely had access to other nation's pop culture.
While the world's cultures certainly haven't blended seamlessly, increased awareness of the importance of intercultural communication can help bring about countless positive changes:
Removal of cultural barriers
One of the biggest benefits of increased intercultural communication is the removal of cultural barriers. While these barriers are almost entirely social, they can cause a variety of problems within workplaces, schools, and just in everyday social interactions.
When we talk about cultural barriers in this context, we're referring to the fear or hesitation that can come with communicating across cultural differences.
Maybe this fear comes from not sharing a common language, or from not understanding a religion. Or, maybe, it comes from a belief that you'll offend someone by not entirely understanding their culture.
These fears can cause social and functional issues within organizations that contain a variety of different cultural groups. Often, resistance to cross-cultural barriers can lead to the development of in-groups and out-groups in an organization.
While this isn't always a problem on a larger scale, it can make individuals feel excluded from the organization as a whole. This is especially true if there is a majority cultural group present in the organizations.
Many scholars advocate for the importance of intercultural communication as a way to increase social empathy.
To maintain effective and fulfilling intercultural communication, the participants need to be able to understand a culture they might not have any experience with themselves. In other words, effective intercultural communication often means "putting yourself in someone else's shoes."
One recognized empathy technique, especially in intercultural communication, is the development of a "third-culture" between the communicators. This development, though, isn't always conscious or mutual.
For example, a child of immigrant parents will often exist in a third-culture between their peers and their family. In some cases, their peers won't even realize that the child uses a different language, eats different food, and practices other cultural customs in their home life.
Vice-versa, the parents might not realize that the child "strips" much of their home culture when outside of the house.
Either way, the importance of intercultural communication and its relationship to greater social awareness and understanding is pretty clear.
Sharing of resources
In a sense, this benefit is an extension of the removal of cultural barriers. But, it's so important that we felt it needed its own discussion.
One of the most incredible aspects of culture is the inherent ability to view problems from varying perspectives. Tangible examples of this can be seen throughout history in the form of different farming methods, war strategies, and technological advancements.
Just think of how so many of the world's crucial inventions started in one culture and slowly spread via trade or colonialism.
Today, though, these solutions can be shared much more efficiently across cultural boundaries. But we still need to maintain open and honest intercultural communication to get the most out of humankind's collective innovation.
Potential Conflicts in Intercultural Communication
Unfortunately, even the most skilled intercultural communicator will run into conflicts from time-to-time.
But, in many ways, the importance of intercultural communication (at least when done effectively and honestly) is its ability to accept these conflicts as a fact of life. Denying that language barriers or disagreements will occur isn't helpful to anyone.
Instead, it's how one manages these conflicts that defines them as a communicator.
Possibly the biggest barrier to intercultural communication, both socially and professionally, is the presence of two or more different languages.
And, honestly, this is totally understandable.
Even if everyone is willing to be patient and understanding about cultural differences, a lack of shared language can stop communication in its tracks.
Common techniques for bridging language barriers include using a third-party translator, whether that be a person or program like Google Translate, or foregoing spoken language altogether. This second technique might not work in a business meeting, but it can be an effective way to find a nearby restroom or share a moment of gratitude with a stranger.
We waited as long as possible to discuss this often-ugly concept, but it's come time to delve into how ethnocentrism can undermine the importance of intercultural communication.
Ethnocentrism, in the simplest terms, is the belief that one's culture is superior to other cultures.
The concept of ethnocentrism, especially in sociological studies, can turn into a mile-deep rabbit hole.
Some scholars insist that a certain degree of ethnocentrism is necessary and healthy, as it fosters a natural pride and affinity for one's own culture. Others, though, paint any level of ethnocentrism as the root of racism and bigotry.
We're going to steer clear of any targeted political or social commentary here, but we will take a moment to reiterate how important empathy and mutual understanding is to intercultural communication.
Can we truly have open communication across cultures if everyone believes their culture is the correct way of living and viewing the world?
You may have answered "yes" or "no" to that question, that is entirely up to you. But we, instead, choose to subscribe to a belief that cultures are different, yes, but fundamentally equal in value.
The Future of Globalization and Expatriates
Whether you are an expatriate yourself or not, the importance of intercultural communication in this context is quite clear.
As globalization continues to occur, reaching into the world's furthest corners, the idea of living in a culture to which you are not native is becoming more and more accepted.
However, some political attitudes continue to make the act of bridging cultures a tricky way of life.
By understanding the importance of intercultural communication, though, you can make navigating the world just a little bit easier.
Have a humorous or eye-opening intercultural miscommunication story? Let us know what happened and how you handled it in the comment section below!