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Intercultural communication

An Internet search on the topic of intercultural communication or cross-cultural communication yields over three million 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.

At the same time, 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. Donnell King of the Pellissippi State Technical Community College provides examples: A General Motors auto ad with ‘Body by Fisher’ became ‘Corpse by Fisher’ in Flemish. Pepsi Cola’s 1960s ‘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’.

Because important decisions in business, politics, education, health, and culture 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 are now available. We invite you to explore our portals, and to get in touch with feedback.
Related pages: Language and Diplomacy

Categorising cultures

Just what are the differences between cultures? Is it useful to look for patterns or categories to make it easier for us to understand these differences?

Kishan Rana, former Indian ambassador to Germany, points out that categorising cultures offers both advantages and disadvantages. Looking for categories is a useful tool for analysis and the training of diplomats, and can be used as initial device in preparing for cross cultural encounters. However, we should beware of creating and reinforcing stereotypes. Creating categories ignores fact that within any cultural are sub-groups which may have different traits, and also that individuals within a culture may not follow the norm. Rigid adherence to categories may lead to false assumptions.

Lewis categorisation

Richard D. Lewis, author of When Cultures Collide: Managing Successfully Across Cultures (London: Nicholas Brealey, 1993), divides cultural characteristics into three groups: “linear active”, “multiactive” and “reactive”. He argues that people of different nations exhibit characteristics from each of these groups to different degrees. For example, some linear active traits are: introvert, plans ahead methodically, works fixed hours, follows procedure, limited body language; some multiactive traits are: extrovert, plans grand design but impatient with detail; works any hours, does several things at once, interrupts frequently, interweaves personal and professional; and some reactive traits are: introvert, sees whole picture, plans slowly, subtle body language.

Lewis categorises nations by determining which of the groups their characteristics tend to fall within. The nations with the most linear active traits are the Germans and the Swiss. Typical examples of multiactive nations are Latin Americans, Arabs, Africans, Indians and Pakistanis. Nations showing reactive traits are the Japanese, and to a lesser degree the Chinese.

High context and low context

Raymond Cohen of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Negotiating Across Cultures: International Communication in an Interdependent World, revised ed., Washington DC: USIP Press, 1997) offers a system for analysing national negotiating styles in terms of the importance which negotiators attach to the broad cultural context in which they operate. Cultures fall into various places on a continuum from high to low context. Arab culture, for example, is high context as Arab negotiators attach great importance to context, for example history, and make a sharp distinction between the way matters of state should be conducted and matters of commerce. The first is the realm of principle and morals, and the second, the realm of haggling. Arab negotiators attach high importance to creating bonds of friendship and trust between negotiators, and respect for the honour and dignity of negotiating partners. Less developed, traditional societies tend to give rise to a high context approach.

American society is typical of the low context approach of more developed countries. These cultures view negotiation as an exercise in collective problem solving: knowledge and expertise are applied to find mutually acceptable solutions to problems, and partners expect to adopt a give-and-take approach. Low context cultures subordinate history, personal honour and personal relationships for the purpose of agreement. These cultural differences can lead to serious misunderstandings not only about the topic of negotiations, but about what it actually means to negotiate.

Professor Paul Sharp, head of political science at the University of Minnesota, points out that although Cohen’s approach is useful as a point of departure, it has some weaknesses:

…[the categorisation] misses the extent to which there exist variations within cultures which are themselves brought forth by different contexts…there are times and circumstances in which US negotiations are very high context, even on the proverbial second hand car lot. In Minnesota alone books have been written (and, more importantly, money has been made) providing outsiders with the context they need to make sense of what is, or may be, being communicated in the sparse conversations and non-verbal exchanges which participants in the culture instantly recognise.

In everyday life at least, Americans sometimes negotiate in a low context manner and sometimes they do not. The question to be asked is what kind of contexts give rise to which kinds of approaches to negotiating, and I have already suggested that an analysis of the balance of resources between those involved might be a starting point for an answer to this question. Syrians in their dealings with Americans and Israelis may take a high context approach, but Syrians in their dealings with the Lebanese or the Kurds, one suspects, may take a low context approach.

The second problem with the high context-low context approach resides in its characterisation of what is meant by low context. While Cohen and others are at pains to suggest that the low-context, American approach involves only one way of looking at the world which is not necessarily superior to others, they do tend to accept it on its own terms, namely that it is sparse or thin not only in its presentation but also in fact. By so doing, an opportunity is missed to put the use of language by Americans under the microscope. A closer examination reveals, of course, an implied universe of assumptions about what is important, how the world works, and America’s proper place within it, not to mention the place of others. (Talking to Americans: Problems of Language and Diplomacy, Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)


Are there cultural differences in the use of ambiguity? Drazen Pehar, researcher on language and diplomacy, offers these reflections:

Measured by the use of ambiguities in peace agreements, there is no significant difference between so-called “low-context” and “high-context” cultures. Both low- and high-context cultures use ambiguous language to bridge the gap between negotiating parties. We have Wilson’s 14 Points side by side with the Oslo Accords; Chinese cross-textual ambiguities in the Shanghai Communiqué together with American referential ambiguities in the very same document. We have both the Dayton Accords and the Rambouillet draft agreement drafted by American negotiators. We have the Yalta Declaration drafted jointly by representatives of high- and low-context cultures… In other words, there is no direct and positive correlation between the use of ambiguous provisions, on the one hand, and types, or kinds of culture, on the other. For me, this is good news for diplomacy. Negotiators from different cultures rely on similar means to arrive at the text of an agreement. This means that, at least when it comes to the use of ambiguities, there may be a common diplomatic culture, a common culture of drafting an agreement. In other words, there is no pre-determined cultural barrier to hugely affect one’s attitude towards an ambiguous proposal. (“Use of Ambiguities in Peace Agreements,” Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

However, Norman Scott, director of diplomatic training programs at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva suggests:

It is possible (even probable) that different languages, emerging from and reflecting distinct cultures, offer varying scope for ambiguity, intended or unintended. Some maintain, for example, that the Chinese are predisposed to underspecification and ambiguity as a culture-conditioned stance in interpersonal communications; while the opposite holds true of United States citizens…

If this is true, differences in the grasp of the language used in negotiations could conceivably confer a distinct advantage on diplomats seeking to introduce ambiguities in negotiated texts in order to serve their own purposes. (Ambiguity Versus Precision: The Changing Role of Terminology in Conference Diplomacy, Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Read more: Ambiguity in Diplomacy

Other categorisations

Steven A. Beebe, Susan J. Beebe, and Mark V. Redmond (Interpersonal Communication: Relating to Others, Needham Heights, Mass.: Allyn & Bacon, 1996) propose several other categories of differences between cultures:

  • Masculine versus feminine approaches to interaction: masculine cultures value achievement, assertiveness, heroism, and material wealth. Feminine cultures value relationships, caring for the less fortunate, and overall quality of life.
  • Tolerance of uncertainty versus avoidance of uncertainty: cultures in which people need certainty to feel secure are more likely to have and enforce rigid rules for behavior and develop more elaborate codes of conduct, either formal or informal.
  • Concentrated versus decentralized power: some cultures value equality and distribution of power more. Others expect a hierarchy and that some people will have more power than others.
  • Individual versus group achievement: Some cultures put more emphasis on individualism; some place most emphasis on the good of the group.

Improving intercultural communication

How can diplomats improve their intercultural communication? Amb. Kishan Rana believes that the key lies in formal training for diplomats in cross cultural communication.

‘Cross-cultural skills cannot be taken for granted, as qualities that diplomats master intuitively.’ He writes that in the past the dominance of Western diplomacy and the fairly homogenous nature of the discourse of diplomacy made such training largely unnecessary. But the reality today is different: ‘Today, the addition of many layers of diversity demands explicit training in this area, but as before, the practitioner must integrate theory with practical needs, and adapt his learning on the basis of experience.’ However, Rana makes the important point that “to be adept at cultural understanding is not to adopt the cultural style of others, or abandon one’s own cultural characteristics. The aim is to reduce the distance from the “other”, and to gain insight.’

Rana further suggests that more directness in communication on the part of diplomats may reduce the incidence of misunderstanding between cultures: ‘diversity of cultures and languages suggests for diplomacy practitioners more directness and less resort to indirect signaling in dealing with non-homogenous interlocutors.’ (Cross-Cultural Sensitivity and Language, Signaling and Diplomacy, Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Raymond Cohen’s efforts to improve communication between negotiators from different cultures included the development of a lexicon of negotiating terminology in Middle Eastern languages and English as a guide for conducting or following negotiations in these languages. He writes: “Behind the preparation of the lexicon lay the conviction that differences between languages matter deeply. Living and working in two languages, English and Hebrew, I was struck by how each language seemed to manifest a different outlook on the world. Things that could be said easily and elegantly in one tongue lent themselves to laborious expression in the other. Where one called for understatement, the other required hyperbole. Ostensibly slight nuances of tone and nice distinctions evoked quite far-reaching differences of association and meaning.” The lexicon takes a variety of words and concepts related to negotiation, examining them for differences in distinctions drawn, historical associations, contrasting values and differences in emphasis. For more information about Cohen’s lexicon of Middle Eastern negotiation, read his paper Language and Negotiation, a Middle East Lexicon (Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001).

Paul Sharp provides advice for negotiators in dealing with American mediators. He notes that most literature on negotiation is written to advise Americans and other Westerners about negotiating with foreigners. However, ‘for the diplomatic profession…how to talk to Americans is a much larger shared problem than how the Americans talk to everybody else.’ Sharp points out that many of the problems other nations encounter when dealing with Americans are not cultural at all, but common problems any nation faces when dealing with a richer and more powerful nation. As advice, he suggests the same rules that are given to American diplomats for dealing with others: show respect for other cultures and make necessary adjustments to avoid offence:

On the big question of the relationship between language and the ‘out there’…I would suggest showing respect for American claims to a privileged access. Respect here can mean several things. As a Briton who has lived in the US for fifteen years and before that was congenitally disposed against even visiting the place, let alone living there, I am happy to concede that, as civilizational models go, they, the Americans, have got a lot of things right and, more importantly, they have got a lot of things right in the judgment of many less privileged than ourselves around the world. …Taking Americans seriously, however, can also mean simply acknowledging their power and wealth. (Talking to Americans: Problems of Language and Diplomacy, Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Finally, Donnell King suggests some general guidelines for bridging the gap between different cultures:

  • Seek information about the culture. Knowledge is power. Prejudice stems from ignorance…do your homework, don’t make assumptions.
  • Be other-oriented. As Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz, we’re not in Kansas anymore. You can no longer rely on the assumptions of your own cultural heritage. This is not to tear down the value of your own culture; it is to make you aware of the richness that is available to you in other viewpoints. This also does not mean to try to be something you are not. It does mean allowing the other to be whomever s/he is rather than who you think that person should be.
  • Ask questions. Be prepared to share information about yourself, and be sensitive in the way you ask (you don’t want to be perceived as prying). But open communication helps in reducing the uncertainty that is present in any relationship.
  • Develop mindfulness. This is another way of saying “be aware.” Acknowledge that there is a connection between thoughts and deeds, and become aware of your own thinking and assumptions. Be conscious. Be active, not reactive. Be aware of your own self-talk.
  • Develop flexibility.
  • Tolerate ambiguity. Communicating with someone from another culture produces uncertainty, which can be uncomfortable. Learn to tolerate the discomfort until you come out on the other side.
  • Avoid negative judgments. Resist thinking that your culture has all the answers. It has its strengths; so do other cultures.

Cultural diplomacy

Cultural diplomacyDiplomacy has always involved communication with other nations. However, as Dr Kamel Abu Jaber, president of the Jordan Institute of Diplomacy and former Jordanian Minister of Foreign Affairs points, out, ‘the idea of a language of diplomacy…is that it should not be culture-bound but an attempt at transcending such boundaries to create a quasi neutral vehicle of exchange.’ (Language and Diplomacy, Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

So why has intercultural communication become such an important issue in diplomacy in recent years? Kishan Rana points out that for several reasons, differences between nations are now more significant than in the past:

First, the breadth of diversities is far greater than what confronted the earlier generations of professionals, in a global community of some 189 UN member-states. Second, we live in an age when diversity is celebrated, and burnished with pride more than ever earlier. Third, within countries, there are sub-state diversities that have gained new impetus around the world, and this adds to the cultural management challenge. We see this in differences, between regions, communities and religious and ethnic groups. For instance, the same Europe that is witness to the world’s most intensive political unification process via the EU, now enjoys greater diversity at subsidiary levels. Fourth, the professional diplomat is less homogenous in background and training, and his/her values are no longer cast in the same template as could be assumed even a few decades in the past. Further, this diplomat has dealings with a far wider range of government officials and those outside the government, especially the civil society representatives, academia, and other constituencies, at home and aboard.

Paul Sharp agrees that cultural differences are increasingly significant for diplomacy due to globalisation, but expresses some doubt that that they did not play a role in diplomacy in the past:

…the separateness of cultures has been historically presented as a raison d’être for diplomacy as a cosmopolitan caste of privileged professionals. They served their Princes and Peace, not only by pursuing interests, but also by keeping affairs of state properly insulated from passions, morals, and cultural peculiarities of those whom they were increasingly forced to represent, the peoples of their respective countries. A shared diplomatic culture distinguished by a common language and acquired by similar patterns of socialisation, it was argued by writers on diplomacy from de Callières and de Wiquefort to Satow and Nicolson, was the key to preserving this insulation.

However, the historical record of classical diplomacy provides grounds for treating these writers’ confidence in this regard with scepticism. Either the diplomats of 1914 did not share a common understanding of what was happening, or they were unable to get their respective leaders to accept that understanding. Clearly, the professionals were not as good at finessing the culture problem as their defenders thought they were simply because they could not. As libraries of philological, philosophical, and sociological inquiry in the twentieth century made clear, a direct correspondence between language and the material reality it purported to describe could not be taken for granted. The lingua franca of the day, be it Latin, French or English, was steeped in its own peculiarities of understanding and ways of seeing the world, and even professionals who acquired fluency in it did so with their habits of thought and understanding firmly structured by their own cultures mediated by their own languages.

If one adds to this the great irony of globalisation as far as diplomacy is concerned, namely that it is bringing together more and more people steeped in their own cultures and languages (politicians, business people, advocates and lobbyists for public transnational causes, and individuals), one begins to sense the scale of the contemporary problems posed to diplomacy by questions of language and culture.

…Nevertheless, faith (or so it must seem at times) leads them to believe that some shared understanding is, in principle, always attainable for if it were not, there would be no point in having diplomats trying to find what it was. (Talking to Americans: Problems of Language and Diplomacy, Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Raymond Cohen discusses the effect of cultural differences on the language of negotiation, particularly in a Middle Eastern context:

By definition, negotiation is an exercise in language and communication, an attempt to create shared understanding where previously there have been contested understandings. When negotiation takes place across languages and cultures the scope for misunderstanding increases. So much of negotiation involves arguments about words and concepts that it cannot be assumed that language is secondary and all that ‘really’ counts is the ‘objective’ issues at stake. Can one ever speak of purely objective issues? When those issues include emotive, intangible concepts such as ‘honor’, ‘standing’, ‘national identity’, ‘security’, and ‘justice’ can we really take it for granted that the parties understand each other perfectly? And if not, what can be done to overcome language barriers?

The case for the importance of language and culture rests on the view that semantic distinctions reflect different interpretations of reality and normative modes of behavior. Words and their translations are not just interchangeable labels denoting some given, immutable feature of the world but keys opening the door onto different configurations of the world. A stone is an object that speakers of all languages can recognize and respond to at a non-linguistic level. They can kick it, throw it in a pond, or use it to crack a nut. The moment language is used and the object is named, culture enters the picture. As opposed to the thing itself, the word ‘stone’ or its equivalents is a cultural notion. As such it is steeped in the culturally-grounded meanings of the given language community in the light of its history, religion, customs, and environment.

The word is therefore a shorthand symbol capable of evoking a unique range of specialized references, uses, and associations. Words are polysemic, that is, they have multiple clusters of meaning and usage. Across languages these spreads of meaning occupy different semantic fields, though they may well coincide and overlap in certain places. Speakers of Hebrew and English may talk of ‘peace’, using the word in appropriate contexts, and referring to the same legal precedents. But what they mean by peace are subtly different phenomena. ‘Peace’ refers in English to a relationship established by treaty between states concluding war, an ideal prophetic vision of harmony, and tranquility. Shalom shares in the Biblical vision of universal accord but lacks the legal features that ‘peace’ acquired in the European state system from centuries of diplomatic practice. Moreover, deriving from an ancient Semitic root referring to wholeness or completeness, shalom importantly connotes ‘health, welfare, greetings, and safety’. Hence the common Israeli army bulletin broadcast after a military operation: ‘All our planes returned b’shalom to base.’ Here b’shalom means ‘safe and sound’, not ‘in peace’. (Language and Negotiation: A Middle East Lexicon, Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Translation and interpretation

InterculturalOver the last century various ethnic groups have become more aware of their identity and rights. In some countries ethnic minority groups have demanded the right to education, media and other  services in their own languages, at times leading to armed conflict with the majority groups in their countries.

In the last few decades contact between nations has increased, as more and more countries take an active and interactive role in international affairs. Both of these processes have led to an awareness of linguistic rights as human rights. At the same time as English has gained currency as an international language and as the most commonly used diplomatic language, international organisations are recognising the various languages of member states as official or working languages for  their proceedings, both oral and written. In diplomacy, now more than ever before, interpreters and translators are of vital importance.

The 1996 Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights is one of the results of increased awareness of linguistic rights.

Professor Dietrich Kappeler, former director of the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies, describes the history of language use in diplomacy:

Documents exchanged between countries in the past were written in the single vehicular language then in use in Europe: Latin. In the 18th century French had become the generally accepted diplomatic language, so much so that even diplomatic notes addressed to the British Foreign Office by the Legation of the USA were written in that language. The 20th century saw a gradual emergence of English as a second and later even dominant diplomatic language. At the same time, a growing number of countries insisted on the use of their own language in diplomatic correspondence and joint diplomatic documents. As a result the United Nations admitted to five languages at its inception (Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish), to which Arabic has later been added by informal agreement. In the European Union, all twelve languages of the members are currently in use and their number is bound to grow as new members will be admitted. Translation and interpretation have therefore become a major element in present-day diplomatic life. (Texts in Diplomacy, Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Dr Stanko Nick, Croatian Ambassador to Hungary, makes the point that although it has frequently been argued that one language or another is more suitable for diplomacy as it is clearer, more flexible, more expressive, or more eloquent, the “mere fact that historically such a role has been taken in turns by so many languages (Acadian, literary Chinese, Greek “koin`e”, mediaeval Greek, Latin, Arabic, Turkish, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Italian, Dutch, German, French, and English) proves that linguistic or semantic reasons are not decisive. On the contrary, it can be said that the dominant role of one language or another in diplomacy has resulted from the political, strategic, economic, cultural or other domination of one power or another in international relations.” (Use of Language in Diplomacy, Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)


Roger Chriss, a professional translator, describes the role of the translator:

Translators are language professionals. They are applied linguists, competent writers, diplomats, and educated amateurs. Like linguists, translators have to be capable of discerning subtleties and nuances in their languages, researching terminology and colloquialisms, and handling new developments in their languages. Like writers, translators have to be accustomed to working long hours alone on a subject which interests few people and with a language that few people around them know. Like diplomats, translators have to be sensitive to the cultural and social differences which exist in their languages and be capable of addressing these issues when translating. And like educated amateurs, translators have to know the basics and some of the details about the subjects they deal with. (“Translation as a Profession,” on Roger Chriss’s website The Language Realm – a Website about Translation and Language)

In diplomacy one of the main drawbacks of the growing need for translation is cost. Nick points out that although most organisations and conferences try to limit the number of languages used by selecting several official or working languages, the cost of interpretation and translation is astronomical. “Several years ago it was calculated that the translation of one single page to all official languages of the UN amounted to the value necessary to cover the cost of living for one person in India for a whole year! When one takes into account the number of international organisations, and the thousands of pages translated almost daily it is easy to subscribe to the proposal of introducing Esperanto as the language for international communication.” (“Use of Language in Diplomacy,” Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Another drawback to the use of translation in multilateral diplomacy is the complexity of the task of producing equivalent documents in different languages. Kappeler writes:

Versions in working languages are based on the records of simultaneous interpretation. Versions in other languages have to be prepared separately. All have to go before the drafting committee which therefore needs at least one member for each language. Preferably however members of a drafting committee should master two or more of the languages used so as to ensure proper concordance of texts. The drafts submitted to the committee are prepared by the secretariat of the negotiating body, which must check recordings of simultaneous interpretation and produce versions in languages which were not used as working languages. The complexity of the task of a drafting committee explains why, in some cases, it will re-convene after the treaty has already been authenticated, with the express competence of making linguistic adjustments between the various versions. (“Texts in Diplomacy,” Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)


Vicky Cremona and Helena Mallia, professional conference interpreters, explain the difference between the work of a translator and that of an interpreter:

Translators work alone, facing a white sheet of paper and a text. They recreate the text by becoming its second author, understanding and recreating the author’s writing skills… The interpreter’s work is not a solitary one. The interpreter works directly with an orator, who possibly elaborates his text as the topic unfolds, expressing his thoughts directly without any time for re-elaboration or rewording. The interpreter also works directly with a public, the floor, who is listening simultaneously to him and to the orator. (“Interpretation and Diplomacy,” Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Types of interpretation

There are two main types of interpretation: consecutive and simultaneous.

In consecutive interpretation, the interpreter listens to the speaker and takes notes, and when the speaker chooses (at intervals of anything from a few minutes to half an hour), renders the speech into the target language.

In simultaneous translation, the interpreter sits in a booth and listens to the speaker through headphones, then instantly renders the speech into the target language, a few seconds to a minute behind the speaker. Although quality and accuracy are not as high as in consecutive interpretation, speed and intensity are higher.

Cremona and Mallia describe some of the techniques they use as conference interpreters, which center on identifying key words for the conference topic before the conference and listening carefully for those words during the speeches:

Interpreters are chameleons, they have to lend themselves to the topic under discussion, and blend themselves with the general decor… Certain interpreters choose to specialise in particular areas, in order to be able to handle the language peculiarities of a particular field. 

…an interpreter must seek other sources of information beforehand. It is important for an interpreter working in the diplomatic field to follow closely world political, social and cultural events. Sources for these may include local and foreign newspapers, journals dealing with current affairs, news broadcasts, as well as a very good knowledge of history and geography.

Interpreting for diplomatic conferences takes some particular skills, according to Cremona and Mallia:

In diplomatic conferences, confidence in the interpreters is essential. The underlying tensions which may arise between delegates or country representatives can worsen if the interpreters are not trusted. In fact, in certain cases of great tension, delegates prefer to speak in or translate into a language they do not really master rather than passing through an interpreter. This is why it is important to ensure that the interpreters chosen are of the calibre and have experience in dealing with situations where tact and savior-faire are an asset. (“Interpretation and Diplomacy,” Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Interpretation — and translation — pose some difficulties in diplomacy, for example, cost, lack of accuracy, and the difficulty of translating exactly the same concepts to a different language. However, so far, interpretation is the best option we have. Stanko Nick examines the various ways diplomats speaking different languages can communicate with each other, and the drawbacks of each method:

One solution, obviously, is that one of the interlocutors speaks the language of the other. Problems may arise: the knowledge of the language may not be adequate, one side is making a concession and the other has an immediate and significant advantage, there are possible political implications, it may be difficult to apply in multilateral diplomacy, etc. A second possibility is that both sides use a third, neutral, language. A potential problem may be that neither side possesses full linguistic knowledge and control, leading to possible bad misunderstandings. Nevertheless, this method is frequently applied in international practice because of its political advantages. A third formula, using interpreters, is also very widely used, particularly in multilateral diplomacy or for negotiations at a very high political level — not only for reasons of equity, but because politicians and statesmen often do not speak foreign languages. This method also has disadvantages: it is time consuming, costly, and sometimes inadequate or straightforwardly incorrect (even if the translator has a good knowledge of both languages, he/she may not be familiar with the particular subject which can be extremely specific — from the protection of the ozone layer to the homologisation of sports records; it was not without reason that the slogan traduttore-traditore, translator = traitor, could be found in mediaeval Italy). Finally, there is the possibility of using one international synthetic, artificial language, such as Esperanto; this solution would have many advantages, but unfortunately is not likely to be implemented soon, mostly because of the opposition of factors that dominate in the international political — and therefore also cultural and linguistic — scene. (Use of Language in Diplomacy, Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Database on International Communication

The following are excerpts from Diplo’s Database on Intercultural Communication.

Diplomats and Intercultural Communication

A core part of a diplomat’s work is easing communication among different national and professional cultures. For example, a diplomat must, on the one hand, understand local culture and cultural patterns in the country of assignment, in order to comprehend and influence local developments. On the other hand, the diplomat has to ‘translate’ local cultural developments and present them in a lanuguage clear to decision-makers back at home. Another cultural transition managed by the diplomat is between professional cultures. For example, with negotiations on the environment, the diplomat must translate the language and logic of the environmentalists into language understable to politicians, and vice versa. This task is sometimes more difficult than communication between different nations.
Contribution by: Jovan Kurbalija

Shift from Euro-Centric to Global Diplomacy

‘Classical diplomacy consisted only of interactants who belonged to the same JudeoChristian family of cultures. But as the European-centered structure of Classical Diplomacy weakened after WWI, cultural anthropological perspectives began to be accorded serious consideration in diplomatic policymaking.’

Source: Getinet Belay, ‘7 Ethics in International Interaction: Perspectives on Diplomacy and Negotiation,’ Communication and International and Intercultural Ethics, ed. Fred L. Casmir (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997) 241.
Contribution by: Jovan Kurbalija

Function of Language

‘In the straightforward style of American culture, language has primarily the instrumental function of transmitting information. For the members of the face-salient societies, however, it performs the important role of social lubricant, easing and harmonizing personal relations.’
Raymond Cohen (1997). Negotiating Across Cultures. Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 112-113.
Contribution by: Jovan Kurbalija

Intercultural Misunderstanding (USA-Japan)

‘On Prime Minister Sato’s 1969 trip to Washington, President Nixon insisted that Japan exercise export restrain. Mr Sato’s classic reply, delivered with a heavenward glance, was, “Zensho shimasu”. Literally translated as, “I will do my best”, the expression really means, “No way”. Nixon naturally understood it to mean that he had his guest’s agreement. When there was no practical follow-up he denounced Sato as a liar. But unlike Americans, who expect yes or no answers, Japanese are quite happy with the gray areas. “They hate no, and they hate “yes”.’
Raymond Cohen (1997). Negotiating Across Cultures. Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 113.
Contribution by: Jovan Kurbalija

Vocabulary of Negotiations

Raymond Cohen identifies a difference between high and low context cultures in the vocabulary of negotiating: ‘In the Anglo-Saxon tradition great stress is laid on creating the conditions for an equitable contest. A whole vocabulary, redolent with approvals, exists to describe this state of affairs: fair play, level playing field, rules of the game, due process, and so on. Face salient cultures in contrast, are less enthusiastic about competition, with its potential for affront and painful confrotation, than about ensuring a result that will protect their cherished dignity.’
Raymond Cohen (1997). Negotiating Across Cultures. Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 62.
Contribution by: Jovan Kurbalija

‘I’ and ‘we’ in Thai language

‘In Siam there are eight different ways of saying “I” and “we”, depending on whether the master speaks to the servant or the servant to the master… Each one of these synonimies is linked to the custom, character, and origin of the people…’
Anna Wierzbicka, Understanding Cultures Through Their Key Words, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, 10.
Contribution by: Jovan Kurbalija

Be careful with literal translations!

You should be cautious interpreting signs, instructions, and conversational idioms literally, as the following humorously suggests: In a Bucharest hotel lobby: The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable… and more at this address.
Contribution by: Jovan Kurbalija

Language Networks on the Internet

This article by Clay Shirky looks at new geographic networks being created over the Internet by langauge proximity. He writes ‘the internet is creating an American version of the British Empire, with the English language playing the role of the Royal Navy… in an information economy the vital protocol is language, written and spoken language… two countries border one another if and only if they have a language they can use in common.’ The implications reach into economics: ‘the degree to which a country can plug into a “language network”, especially the English network, will have much to do with its place in the 21st century economy… And as we would expect of networks with different standards, gateways will arise; places where multi-lingual populations will smooth the transition between language networks.’ Shirky makes the interesting point that 19th century imperialism, and the accompanying export of languages, will reshape the map of the 21st century.
Contribution by: Yasmeen Ariff

Promoting Multilingualism on the Internet

In this paper, presented at the Second International Congress on Ethical, Legal and Societal Challenges of Cyberspace, 1-3 October 1998, Taik-Sup Auh of Korea University makes the claim that ‘Multilingualism on the Internet is a necessary, if not the sufficient, condition for transforming an ephemeral cybersociety into a robust one.’ The terms are defined by Jim Falk: ‘Relationships within an ephemeral community, whether emotional or intellectual, are likely to be partial, satisfying only one or a few of the members’ needs.’ In contrast, a robust community is one in which ‘the members have not only a sense of interrelatedness and shared experience, but also share common ideals and believe that through by virtue of belonging to their community they can make great progress towards achieving their objectives than through belonging to other communities. Members will invest personal resources, energy and commitment into it because they consider it stable, growing, supportive and effective.’
Contribution by: Jovan Kurbalija

Liberty vs. Tyranny

Bernard Lewis (What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, 54) on 18th and 19th century Ottoman political thought: ‘Westerners have become accustomed to think of good and bad government in terms of tyranny versus liberty. In Middle-Eastern usage, liberty or freedom was a legal not a political term. It meant one who was not a slave, and unlike the West, Muslims did not use slavery and freedom as political metaphors. For traditional Muslims, the converse of tyranny was not liberty by justice. Justice in this context meant essentially two things, that the ruler was there by right and not by usurpation, and that he governed according to God’s law, or at least according to recognizable moral and legal principles.’
Contribution by: Hannah Slavik

‘Young’ Ottomans and Turks

In the mid-1860s a new movement was launched — the Young Ottomans. Even the use of the word ‘Young’ is interesting. We have now become accustomed in the Western world to using ‘young’ as a positive political term. In the Middle East in the nineteenth century this was new and strange. The connotation of “young” was inexperienced and immature, and no group would have thought of putting themselves forward for any kind of office on the basis of being young. On the contrary, all the terms of respect mean old, senior. The primary meaning of the Arabic shaykh and of the Persian pir is “old.” Both carry a connotation of political or religious authority. The Turkish aga has the primary meaning of “elder brother.” In some Turkic languages it means “father,” “uncle,” and even “elder sister.” In Ottoman usage it connoted command or authority, military or other. The Aga of the Janissaries commanded that corps; the Aga of the Girls (Kizlar agasi), the chief black eunuch of the imperial harem, maintained order in that institution. A similar respect for age — for seniority — appears in Western languages, in the common use of such words as “elder” and “alderman,” “Senate,” “Senator,” and “senior.” In is interesting that both the Young Ottomans and their later successors, the Young Turks, avoided using the normal Turkish word for “young” in their nomenclature. The Young Ottomans called themselves Yeni, which literally means “new.” The Young Turks called themselves Jöntürk, simply transliterating their French designation.” (Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, 58).
Contribution by: Hannah Slavik

Problems in the Study of Intercultural Communication

‘Suggesting that intercultural communication is above and beyond all else a matter of colliding cultures, of culture clashes and culture gaps, of uncertainty, stress and loss of confidence, often contributes to the construction of problems. It often generates stress, anxiety and so on, by presenting it as something strange, weird, unusual, in short by abnormalizing it. The abnormalization of intercultural communication is based on a gross hypostasis of ‘culture’ as the all-eclipsing contextual factor, and a massive overestimation of the degree and the nature of differences in speech styles.’ This paper by Prof. Dr. Jan Blommaert analyses problems with the study of intercultural communication and proposed a better analytical methodology.
Contribution by: Hannah Slavik

Meaning of the word ‘sustainable’

‘… the word “sustainable” as used in the Brundtland Reports refers nowadays to radically different approaches to development, which result in diametrically opposed economic practices. Increasingly, the word is used by North Americans to mean that development is sustainable for as long as there is a steady supply of resoruces to sustain it (which implies that resources may be destroyed if deposits of unexploited resources are identified). According to the European approach, on the other hand, development is sustainable only if the known enviornmental capital is preserved intact.’ (Louise Lassonde, Coping with Population Challenges, London: Earthscan Publications Limited, 1996, 9.)
Contribution by: Jovan Kurbalija

The Concept of Linguistic Imperialism

Language constitutes one building block of a nation’s cultural identity. In interactions with other nations, each nation should acknowledge respect for each others’ languages. Only then, intercultural communication turns into a dialogue between equals regardless of the nation’s size and power. However, the proponents of linguistic dominance claim that every language has its period of longevity (emergence, development, maturity, decay). Some languages which are culturally potent have a chance for sustained life. Others recede into oblivion through assimilation or/and integration into the dominant linguistic environment which overtakes them. In a Mail and Guardian article on 22 Novmeber, 2002, John Crace writes: ‘There are about 6 000 languages in the world, yet 95% of the population speaks just 15 of them. Economic imperialism has gone hand-in-glove with linguistic imperialism, as people abandon their mother tongues in favour of the globally dominant English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and Russian. As a result hundreds of languages have disappeared in the past 50 years, and experts predict there will be fewer than 3 000 languages left by the turn of the next century.’ This is a dangerous tread that needs to be reversed if we do not wish to have a whole set of langauges — and perhaps the cultures that accompany them — completely obliterated.
Contribution by: Valentin Katrandzhiev

Cultural Barriers in US-Iraq Relations

This article pubished by the Diversity Training University International in their weekly newsletter of 25 September, 2002, identifies and discusses the Top Ten Cultural Barriers in US-Iraq Relations: Ethnocentrism, Symbol Systems, Formulation of the Problem, Differences in a Sense of Fairness, Sense of History, Dehumanization, Morality, Avoiding Identification of Cultural Barriers, Unwillingness to Deal with Obvious Cultural Barriers, and Power.
Contribution by: Hannah Slavik

Language or Culture? – German and English

In this International Herald Tribune article of January 8, 2003, Emma Burrows points out that some words, for example “understatement,” do not exist in German for the simple reason that the concept does not exist. Germans tend to express themselves directly, which can be seen as rude by Americans, while Americans tend to use more polite formulations which may be considered false by Germans.
Contribution by: Jovan Kurbalija

Book: Intercultural Communication and Diplomacy

Intercultural Communication and DiplomacyIntercultural Communication and Diplomacy is a collection of papers presented at two conferences: the 2003 Conference on Intercultural Communication and Diplomacy, and the 2004 Conference on Organisational and Professional Cultures and Diplomacy.

Topics covered include basic theory, intercultural communication in practice in diplomacy, negotiation and conflict resolution, professional and organisational cultures, and training for diplomats. The papers in this volume approach the topic of intercultural communication and diplomacy from a wide range of cultural perspectives, as the authors originate from 17 different countries and a variety of professional sectors, including foreign services, universities, businesses, and non-governmental organisations. Read the chapters below.


  1. Introduction – Hannah Slavik
  2. Diplomats as Cultural Bridge Builders – Geert Hofstede
  3. Lessons from Two Fields: A Diplomat and an Interculturalist Converse – Lewis R. Macfarlane and Heather Robinson
  4. Language, Culture and the Globalisation of Discourse – Diana M. Lewis
  5. Portraying the Religions of the Mediterranean – Peter Serracino Inglott
  6. The Impact of Cultural Diversity on Multilateral Diplomacy and Relations – Dietrich Kappeler
  7. On the Importance and Essence of Foreign Cultural Policy of States: The Interplay between Diplomacy and Intercultural Communication – Heinrich Reimann
  8. Cultural Content on the Websites of Diplomatic Systems – Valentin Katrandzhiev
  9. Diplomacy on a South-South Dimension: The Legacy of Mao’s Three-Worlds Theory and the Evolution of Sino-African Relations – Sandra Gillespie
  10. Asymmetry of Cultural Styles and the Unintended Consequences of Crisis Public Diplomacy – R. S. Zaharna
  11. Multiculturalism for the Masses: Social Advertising and Public Diplomacy Post-9/11 – Biljana Scott
  12. Making the “Other” Human: The Role of Personal Stories to Bridge Deep Differences – Nike Carstarphen
  13. Intercultural Communication in Macedonia: Different People, Different Stories – Marina Tuneva-Jovanovska
  14. Communication Barriers to Negotiation: Encountering Chinese in Cross-Cultural Business Meetings – Yunxia Zhu and Sun Zhu
  15. Jargon, Protocols and Uniforms as Barriers to Effective Communication – Stefano Baldi and Eduardo Gelbstein
  16. Organisational Culture of UN Agencies: The Need for Diplomats to Manage Porous Boundary Phenomena – Raymond Saner and Lichia Yiu
  17. Challenges Facing Women in Overseas Diplomatic Positions – Caroline Linse
  18. Roma Rights Activists and the Political Establishment: Communication Problems and Barriers – Valeriu Nicolae
  19. A Clash of Professional Cultures: The David Kelly Affair – Biljana Scott
  20. Misunderstood: The IT Manager’s Lament – A Case Study in Inter-Professional Miscommunication – Eduardo Gelbstein
  21. Diplomacy, International Intervention and Post-War Reconstruction: Interactions between States, International Organisations and Local Authorities in the Implementation of the Dayton Accords for Bosnia and Herzegovina – Nadia Boyadjieva and Kostadin Grozev
  22. The Birth and Evolution of a Diplomatic Culture – Dietrich Kappeler
  23. The Idea of Diplomatic Culture and its Sources – Paul Sharp
  24. Diplomatic Culture and its Domestic Context – Kishan S. Rana
  25. ‘Control Yourself, Sir!’: A Call For Research into Emotion Cultures in Diplomacy – Wynne Elizabeth Russell
  26. On Intercultural Training of Diplomats – Alena Korshuk
  27. An Intercultural Model for Diplomacy Training in New Zealand – Yunxia Zhu
  28. Intercultural Competence and its Relevance for International Diplomacy – Daniel J. Kealey, Doug MacDonald and Thomas Vulpe
  29. European Challenges to Cross Cultural Borders – Elena A. A. Garcea


What’s next?

Diplo addresses the subject of Intercultural Communication through research, courses (online and in situ), policy discussions, and publications. We invite you to join us:

From our blog

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The Education field’s contribution to intercultural communication

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Training and courses



Summitry as intercultural communication

In one of his last essays before his premature death in 1972, Martin Wight described international conferences as ‘the set pieces punctuating the history of the European states-system, moments of maximum communication’.... Read more...


Intercultural competence and its relevance for international diplomacy

The changing nature of international diplomacy requires new knowledge and awareness of intercultural and other skills needed to perform effectively in the role of diplomat. The research presented in this paper serves to inform current and future planning for the select... Read more...

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On intercultural training of diplomats

Today the world is becoming smaller and smaller - distances shrink and become irrelevant, information flows are immense and very fast. People tend to speak foreign languages and, to their surprise, find out that this is not enough. There is more to it, and it is cultur... Read more...


Diplomats as cultural bridge builders

Diplomats are people who are on the fringe somewhere, because they are either permanently living in or at least dealing with alien cultures, cultures with different values. The success of a diplomat depends on this brinkmanship because, on the one hand, they must remai... Read more...

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Cultural content on the websites of diplomatic systems

The text discusses the importance of including cultural content on diplomatic systems' websites to promote understanding and build relationships between countries.... Read more...

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Intercultural Communication and Diplomacy

Intercultural Communication and Diplomacy is a collection of papers presented at two conferences: the 2003 Conference on Intercultural Communication and Diplomacy, and the 2004 Conference on Organisational and Professional Cultures and Diplomacy.... Read more...


Intercultural communication in Macedonia: Different people, different stories

This papers examines how the Macedonians and the Albanians live in Macedonia. How do they communicate? Is there friendship everywhere? How do the two nations, live together, how do they communicate. The answer to this question coming from two different people may revea... Read more...

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Jargon, protocols and uniforms as barriers to effective communication

This paper presents a number of case studies illustrating the role of jargon, protocols and uniforms in creating communication problems. The authors provide some pointers for improving communication and are conscious of the fact that in the five thousand years of recor... Read more...

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