An Internet search on the topic of intercultural communication or cross-cultural communication yields over 100 000 results. In recent years practitioners in a wide variety of fields—scientific cooperation, academic research, business, management, education, health, culture, politics, diplomacy, development, and others—have realised just how important intercultural communication is for their everyday work. Fast travel, international media, and the Internet have made it easy for us to communicate with people all over the world. The process of economic globalisation means that we cannot function in isolation but must interact with the rest of the world for survival. The global nature of many widely diverse modern problems and issues such as the environment, governance of the Internet, poverty and international terrorism call for cooperation between nations. Intercultural communication is no longer an option, but a necessity.
Because important decisions in business, politics, education, health, and culture these days usually effect citizens of more than one nation, the question of whether communication between people of different nations is effective and whether all parties emerge with the same understanding is of crucial importance. Individuals who deal with people from other cultures want to learn how to improve their performance through improving their communication skills. Numerous resources have sprung up to meet this emerging market in the business, academic and international relations communities: leading authors have written books and articles on the topic; business services provide consultation for improving the conduct of international business; universities and other educational institutions offer programs or degrees in Intercultural Communication; and researchers have established international journals and academic societies specialising in research on intercultural communication. In fact, intercultural communication has become a business in itself. Following are just a few examples:
Richard Lewis Communications is a company owned by the author of the popular When Cultures Collide: Managing Successfully Across Cultures (London: Nicholas Brealey, 1993). They offer business consultancy, run “cross-cultural training” courses and workshops, publish papers and workbooks, and develop software for intercultural communication. The website advises:
Working in a global team and dealing with business partners or customers across cultures raises challenges and demands new attitudes and skills. Our experience shows that without the right approach, cultural differences greatly reduce effectiveness in the early stages of a relationship. But active management of the internationalisation process and a conscious effort to acquire new skills will release fresh sources of competitive advantage.
The University of British Columbia Center for Intercultural Communication offers International Relocation Programs to prepare people for moving abroad to work, International Meeting Facilitation, Youth Internship Programs abroad, training for government officials involved in international development, community outreach and advocacy, and certificate and MA level programs in Intercultural Relations. They describe their work in this way:
In a world that is increasingly interconnected, the success of organizations and their people depends on effective cross-cultural communication. At the Centre for Intercultural Communication, we help our clients adopt a truly global perspective in order to work effectively across cultures. Program participants acquire cross-cultural knowledge, build intercultural expertise, and develop global capabilities in order to maximize value and minimize the risks associated with being involved in international activity.
Intercultural Communication is an academic journal specialising in the topic. From their policy statement:
The world today is characterized by an ever growing number of contacts resulting in communication between people with different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. This communication takes place because of contacts within the areas of business, military cooperation, science, education, massmedia, entertainment, tourism but also because of immigration brought about by labor shortage or political conflicts.
In all these contacts, there is communication which needs to be as constructive as possible, without misunderstandings and breakdowns. It is our belief that research on the nature of linguistic and cultural similarities and differences here can play a positive and constructive role.
Intermundo – the Culture Network describes itself as “the leading “intercultural network on the Internet”. They publish articles on various aspects of intercultural communication and current affairs, reviews of books on intercultural communication, information about relevant conferences, educational videos, and run online discussion forums.
Why is it important to improve intercultural communication?
Lack of knowledge of another culture can lead, at the best, to embarrassing or amusing mistakes in communication. At the worst, such mistakes may confuse or even offend the people we wish to communicate with, making the conclusion of business deals or international agreements difficult or impossible.
I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. – Mahatma Gandhi
Donnell King of Pellissippi State Technical Community College provides some examples from the advertising world of how simply translating words is not enough—deeper understanding of the other culture is necessary to translate meaning effectively:
A General Motors auto ad with "Body by Fisher" became "Corpse by Fisher" in Flemish.
A Colgate-Palmolive toothpaste named "Cue" was advertised in France before anyone realized that Cue also happened to be the name of a widely circulated pornographic book about oral sex.
Pepsi Cola's "Come Alive With Pepsi" campaign, when it was translated for the Taiwanese market, conveyed the unsettling news that, "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave."
Parker Pen could not advertise its famous "Jotter" ballpoint pen in some languages because the translation sounded like "jockstrap" pen.
One American airline operating in Brazil advertised that it had plush "rendezvous lounges" on its jets, unaware that in Portuguese (the language of Brazil) "rendezvous" implies a special room for having sex.