Intercultural Communication in the Workplace

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Intercultural Communication in the Workplace


Communication is one of the most common tools of interaction among people. Communication has been around the stone ages or you can say from the very being of time, so that the people can convey ideas to each other there has always been felt the need for communication. As we know that man is a social animal, he or she can only survive in such an environment where they can interact, socialize and communicate among one another that are present around them. Man has a natural extinct of forming groups and tribes. In order to address to the various problems and issues that occur or are faced by people, they have a need to send across to other people a message so that they would help him or her, therefore communication became a necessity.  (Daft, 1997)


Culture is a system of knowledge, which is shared by a large group of people. Culture is considered as symbolic way of communication, these communication symbols include skills, knowledge, behaviors, values, and motives etc. of individuals or of groups. The meaning of these symbols are learned and communicated in the society through institutions such as organizations and societies etc. For example, in an organizational the culture is basically concerned with how the employees of the company understand the characteristics or elements of the organization’s culture and not with if they like the culture of the company or not. (Fullmer, 1983)

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Intercultural Communication

Intercultural communication is a process of sending and receiving messages between people, whose cultural background leads them to deal, interpret verbal and non – verbal signs differently(McQuail, 1989). There are two trends that contributing to the rapidly increase in the importance of intercultural communication in the workplace. These trends are 1) the global marketplace and 2) the multicultural workforce. (McQuail, 1989)

Multicultural Workforce

Diversity plays a major role in the multicultural workforce of a company. Having a diverse culture in an organization is considered to be a beneficial process that will help in an employee’s growth while it also increases the cultural sensitivity as well as the skills of the management, it is considered to be a 2 way process. Such a cultural diversity is one of the trends that are contributing to the importance of intercultural communication within the organization. Diversity awareness helps the employees learn to communicate with other employees from other cultural context. Increasing diversity within organization means that the management of the organization needs to develop programs that deal with global and as well as domestic diversity and with potential conflicts like language barriers or cultural differences.  (Bovee, Thill & Schatzman, 2003)

Cultural Differences

The biggest issue that is being faced by most companies is that great deals of employees do not understand the cultural differences of each other, and this causes a breakdown in communication.

Communication Issue: Hewlett – Packard (HP) bought its US engineers together with its French engineers, so that they would develop and design software together. And this caused a cultural difference and that difference broke down the communication. What happened is that the US engineers sent long and detailed emails to the French engineers, but the engineers in France saw the detailed messages as patronizing and they replied those detailed emails with short and quick messages. The engineers in US, when saw those messages believed that their counterparts in France were withholding important information from them. This whole communication process was non – verbal and due to misunderstanding from both sides this whole process of communication got out of control. The end result of this situation was that the management of Hewlett – Packard (HP) had to hire a team of consultants, so that they would train their engineers on both sides to deal with their differences.

Diagnosis of the Communication Issue: Culture is a shared system of symbols, beliefs, attitudes, values, expectations and norms of employee’s behavior in an organization. It must be remembered that individuals learn from culture directly and indirectly from other members in the organization. The diagnosis of the communication issue can be done through 2 ways either by recognizing the cultural differences in the company and the second is over coming ethnocentrism.

1)      Recognizing the cultural differences: Problems like these arise when individuals assume, wrongly, that the other person’s attitudes, values, knowledge and beliefs. The management can improve intercultural sensitivity by recognizing and accommodating four main types of cultural differences. They are 1) contextual difference; it is one of the ways where individuals assign meaning to a message in accordance to cultural context, message stimuli and implicit understanding, 2) legal and ethical differences; cultural context also influences legal and ethical behavior of the employees. For example, low context cultures like Germans, value written words more than oral communication. They believe that word agreements are binding. When a company is conducting its business overseas and across cultures, the management has to keep it messages ethical by applying 4 principles; seek mutual ground actively, send and receive messages without any sort of judgment, send those messages which are honest and lastly show some respect for cultural differences. 3) Social differences; social behavior is another distinguishing factor among all of the cultures. In any culture rules of social etiquette may be formal or informal. And in case if formal rules are violated for any reason, the members of the culture will be able to explain why they are upset about it and if informal rules of any culture are violated for any reason, the people of that culture will feel uncomfortable and will not be able to tell the person who violated those rules why. Social differences will include use of manners, roles and status, attitudes towards materialism and attitude towards time. 4) Non-verbal differences; nonverbal communication is more reliable than verbal communication but only in the same culture because nonverbal communication is perceived differently in different cultures. Nonverbal communication would include personal space and use of body language. (Bovee, Thill & Schatzman, 2003)

2)      Overcome ethnocentrism: when the management is communicating overseas and across cultures, open mindedness is consider very important and it is very effective for communication. To overcome any sort of ethnocentrism the management must remember to acknowledge distinctions, avoid any sort of assumptions and it not suppose to make any sort of judgments. (Murphy, Hildebrandt,  & Thomas, 1997)

Strategies for dealing with the issue: Strategy is very important if the company wants to deals with its communication problems. Strategy is the formulation, implementation and evaluation of cross functional decisions that enable the organization to achieve its stated goals and objectives and in our case would be to overcome the company’s communication issues like cultural differences. Once the company has recognized the cultural elements and has overcome its ethnocentrism, the company is then ready to develop strategies which will solve any future communication problems and it will help the employees to communicate effectively. It can be done through the following:-

1)      The management needs to learn about other cultures, because it would help the management to send and receive intercultural messages effectively.

2)      The employees have to break through the barriers of language to communicate effectively with each other.

3)      The employees would need to improve their writing and as well as oral skills. (Murphy, Hildebrandt,  & Thomas, 1997)


Bovee, C L., Thill, J V. & Schatzman, B E. (2003), ‘Business Communication Today’. Singapore: Pearson Education Ltd.

Daft, R. L. (1997), ‘Management’. The Dryden Press

Fullmer, R.M. (1983).  ‘The New Management’. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company

McQuail, D (1989), ‘Communication’. Longman

Murphy, H A, Hildebrandt, H W & Thomas, J P (1997), ‘Effective Business Communication’. The McGraw – Hill Companies


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