Resources: Notes on Life and Language in the United States

Intercultural Communication: Become a Master in 5 Steps

Posted by Lindsay McMahon on Thu, Apr 04, 2013 @ 02:27 PM

intercultural communication how to developThe world is waking up and we are finally starting to realize that we need intercultural communication skills!

How are your intercultural communication skills?

On this blog alone, we get hundreds of searches each month on this topic. People want to know how to communicate better with people from different cultures at work.

It's a complex topic, but it's something we need to explore or we risk losing the next business deal, negotiation or sales pitch.

Not sure where to start? Check out today's article to learn the 5 steps that you can take to develop your intercultural communication skills.




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#1) Recognize that intercultural communication can be learned


Intercultural communication is not a talent or a gift.

It's not a skill that you are born with. Sure, it helps if you have lived abroad or if you have learned a second language, but these experiences are not required to develop this skill.

However, in 2013 and beyond you will fail if you don't learn this skill. I hate to be harsh, but it's true.

What business today does not interact with other cultures in one way or another?

We are in a new economy now and one of the major skills in demand is the ability to understand how cultures communicate, reason, negotiate, and problem solve differently.




#2) Figure out your own cultural values and assumptions


american cultural assumptions

Cultural self awareness is the name of the game here! Before you start to figure out the ways in which other cultures approach the world of business differently, you have to figure out how you approach the world of business.

Check out the diagram above. Language and things that are visible on a superficial level such as customs, traditions, holidays, and styles of dress are the parts of culture that sit above the iceberg. Those are easy to figure out! However, the aspects of culture that will give you more of a challenge are the ones below the surface. They are invisible, but they will impact your interactions in business 100% of the time!

Why is cultural self-awareness a challenge for people?

Because you have been unconsciously operating under assumptions and you don't even realize it. It's time to get smarter about yourself.


Here's an example:

time and intercultural communicationFor me, as an American, I assume that it's crucial to be on time or 5 minutes early for every professional meeting with a colleague, boss, or client.

If I am late to a meeting at work, I assume that the other person thinks I am unprofessional, lazy or that I just don't care very much about the business relationship. I come from a monochronic culture where time is linear. It can be wasted or saved and being on time matters.

Learn more about 13 common American cultural values.


To figure out your own cultural assumptions, ask yourself these questions:


  • What's a more important way to identify someone- their career or the family they come from?
  • Is it ok to disagree with or challenge your manager's ideas on a project if you think you have a better idea?
  • True or false: You (and no one/nothing else) will determine whether or not you become successful in life
  • When you need to communicate a point, do you tend to avoid saying it directly in your words, but imply it through body language or indirect stories?
  • When you conduct a meeting with another company, is it more important to "get down to business" right away or do you prefer to build the relationship and build trust before you can work with the new people?



#3) Immerse yourself in the target culture

 immerse yourself in the target culture  dive inIf you are working here in the United States and you want to really understand how to work with Americans in business, you need to immerse yourself in the American work environment.

What does that mean?

It means accepting the invitation to go out for drinks with your American colleagues after work instead of going home or hanging out with people from your own culture.

It's good to be curious.

Keep your eyes open, observe things around the office and ask your American colleagues lots of questions if you are confused about the way they conduct meetings, negotiate, solve problems, or build relationships.



#4) Avoid the temptation to stereotype

 quote about stereotypes by Ed KochWhen you first arrive in the United States, you might think that all Americans are punctual or that all Americans like to challenge each other's ideas in meetings.  Be careful- people are complicated and if you operate based on a static assumption about the other culture, you are likely to make a big mistake. There are 300 million people in the United States!

Culture is not just country of origin. Consider how the following things affect culture:

  • Culture of an organization or company
  • Gender
  • Regional differences
  • Urban versus rural
  • Social class
  • Religious values
  • Upbringing and personal history
  • Education
  • Other individual differences



#5) Use trial and error as a method for success

 develop intercultural competenceThe only way to develop great intercultural communication skills is by trying and possibly failing over and over again.

Instead of sitting in the corner at your next team meeting at work and avoiding participating, try to observe the way that your American colleagues are interacting and learn from it. You certainly don't have to "become American"- that's not the point.

What you need to do is develop an awareness of your own cultural assumptions, figure out what your American colleagues' cultural assumptions are and figure out where the gap is. What problems have arisen as a result of that gap? How can you understand that gap to have more creativity on your teams and get better results at work?

Here are some skills that will help you develop your intercultural communication ability faster:



  • Have empathy and do your best to understand how others feel in any situation
  • Be able to observe others and the way they interact
  • Be curious about why people use different norms, assumptions, and communication skills
  • Have patience and stay calm when things get complicated and confusing


Want to learn more about intercultural communication at work?


Even if you don't feel confident about your intercultural communication skills now, you can start developing them today. Follow the 5 steps that I mentioned today and you will be on your way. Thanks for reading!



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 Photo credit: blue2likeyou, Joe Shlabotnik, Horia Varlan,

Topics: United States Culture, Expatriate Support, Cultural Competence, Cross Cultural Coaching

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