The secret of successful intercultural communication

from: Chaney & Martin, 2003, p. 57

“What is the secret to successful intercultural communication?” This was one of the questions I was asked after my lecture on “New directions in intercultural communication” at United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain. In my lecture I had been exploring the assumptions underlying the intercultural communication advice literature, particularly in the vein of Geert Hofstede’s work. Detailed arguments against the banal nationalism, monolithic and monodimensional views of culture, and the pseudo-objectivism undergirding that strand of the intercultural communication literature can be found here and here, and also in my new book. So, my response was about the importance of appreciating diversity and avoiding advice that closes the mind to other cultures rather than opens it to an appreciation of diversity. Ultimately, there is no golden bullet simply because intercultural communication per se does not exist.

Intercultural communication advice is based on the assumption that intercultural communication is intercultural communication is intercultural communication, as encapsulated in this diagram from the textbook Intercultural Business Communication by Chaney & Martin. The assumption is that the cultural value orientations of “collectivism” vs. “individualism” operate in all societies in the same manner. Not only does such a diagram reinforce and re-create the East-West dichotomy rather than explaining it, it also suggests that difference works along the same dimensions in different cultures. However, explicit instruction about how to think imparted by suit-and-tie-wearing fathers to their only son is without a doubt one of the most extraordinarily specific cultural practices one can think of. As a matter of fact, I don’t know anyone, from any background I am familiar with, who goes about teaching cultural values in this way. Not only are “Eastern” or “Western” fathers unlikely to be explicitly teaching their sons “to think for themselves” or “to do what is best for the family,” the inculcation of values, which in themselves are highly diverse, is subject to a wide range of practices. Diagrams such as these don’t teach about cultural difference; such literatures close the mind to cultural difference.

So, part of the secret to successful intercultural communication is to avoid advice that closes the mind! Even if it may sound intuitively right, as much intercultural communication advice literature does, because it is built on widely circulating stereotypes and reinforces them.

There is no magic bullet because we do not meet as representatives of national cultures unless we choose to see each other and engage each other as representatives of national cultures. It all depends on context. In the absence of useful advice from much of the literature that makes intercultural communication its business, I hold with the golden rule of all faiths and moral philosophies: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

What is your secret of successful intercultural communication?

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Lachlan Jackson

    Great post Ingrid.
    Its certainly not ‘my’ secret to intercultural communication, but one frequently parroted (and shamelessly essentialist) expression to have gained currency among the foreign community where I live is “T.I.J”. Standing for “This Is Japan”, its a tongue-in-cheek, multi-purpose, ready-to-deploy answer to any symtomn of so-called culture shock, misunderstanding, or otherwise confusing encounter with the ‘locals’, whoever they may be. That people actually use it is, well…interesting. 😉

  • Thanks, Ingrid, for blogging from Al Ain! I’m pretty good at ‘intercultural communication’;-) and my secret all depends on the context in which it occurs. I just don’t think ICC is something ‘special’ or ‘difficulty’ as many ICC textbooks often have us believe. Personally I like what you said at the end of your ICC course at Sydney University in the early 2000s, “Know yourself”;-)

  • Ingrid, you wrote: “we do not meet as representatives of national cultures unless we choose to see each other and engage each other as representatives of national cultures”.
    This is the key, I think. Choosing to represent things like the places where we happened to be born means, to me, choosing to teach rather than learn, including when we may identify with more than one culture.
    So I think one answer to your question about the secret of ICC is this: learn. We do this when we acquire the cultures and languages that we like to call “our own”, which we learned from other people, so it should not be overly complicated to do likewise later on in life, with what other people also call “our own”.
    Great post!

  • khan

    A lucid read, many thanks, your post triggered thoughts on intercultural communication. Addressing the question, I personally draw inspirations from Shellys lines: life is a dome of many colored glass and Kants categorical imperative: Act only according to a maxim by which you can at the same time will that it shall become a general law or: Act as if the maxim of your action were too become through your will a general natural law
    Thinking on it linguistically, I neither view communication as a function of free will only nor totally determined by external world forcing regularities. Also, I think communication is also not entirely determine by context alone. I think it is somewhere in between objective and subjective positions of intercultural communication.

    Thanks very much for triggering our thoughts on it.

    A thought provoking post!


  • Xiaoxiao Chen

    Ingrid, Thanks for the post sent from UAE! Thanks for reminding us that there is no golden rule or fixed secret in intercultural communication. We used to follow the keys or tips offered by a lot of intercultural communication literature which, in fact, tend to put constraints on our mind or even close our mind, and we still wondered why our intercultural communication competence hadnt improved as a result. From my personal experiences, I had valued the importance of appreciating diversity, and after reading your post, I know it is equally important to avoid advice that closes the mind to other cultures rather than opens it to an appreciation of diversity.

  • vahid

    Thank you Ingrid for the interesting post.

    My secret is this:

    “”Never””” listen to the following advice:

    “Eastern Asian speakers use the ‘topic-comment’ order of presentation while Western speakers follow the ‘comment-topic’ order of presentation. So, if you come from an Eastern country and want to speak with a person from the West, change your order of presentation to ‘comment-topic’ in order to avoid misunderstanding.”


  • steven

    an interesting post… I have heard that many japanese preface any comment or opinion with ‘ware ware nihonjin’ which I believe translates to ‘we japanese’. Perhaps the language has changed, but this indicates that any personal opinion or representation in a cross cultural setting is not a personal one, but a strong reflection of the culture they represent…