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Most companies must deal with customers, suppliers or employees drawn from a range of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. 

And while the term globalisation has been somewhat overused in the last couple of years, international collaboration remains strong as ever, highlighting the significance of cross-cultural communication and the need to approach it strategically.

In the field of public relations, practitioners have developed a deeper understanding of what intercultural communication really means: We tell stories. We inform the masses. We make people feel something. It is an exciting, challenging and rewarding area to work in. 

But these tasks become more difficult, the more our environment is characterized by multi-faceted relationships and permeable borders. Before we begin to communicate, we now must endeavour to understand how to do so effectively across cultures. We have to venture off the beaten path, because established communication routines will not always lead to the desired outcome in a multicultural setting.

And yet, there is a bit of a stigma to the field of cross-cultural communication: At University, it would usually be the easy class with seemingly obvious yet sometimes rather vague learning objectives. In the work environment, aspects of intercultural communication are often shrugged off as a overrated obstacle on the way to achieving business goals or finishing projects. 

After all, it is just other humans we are dealing with – and so communication on a cross-cultural level is often still regarded as something that just ‘happens’ as part of regular management tasks. However, depicting differences in communication patterns across different cultures can make team work more efficient, misunderstandings can be avoided, problems can be addressed early on. 

Just because cultural differences – as potential stumbling blocks – are sometimes considered to be common knowledge, it does not mean people are necessarily aware and perceptive of them when it comes to their own behaviour. 

Reflecting on and eliminating communication barriers has to be a conscious process; it takes active work from all parties involved.

Although it seems to be such a basic thing, a number of projects still lack effective intercultural communications management. The resulting dimension of economic influence this deficiency can have on projects is then often very surprising for businesses and managers. 

As a first step, speaking more than just one’s mother tongue is very helpful when it comes to winning over potential clients or reaching out to new business connections. Moreover, people in generally profit immensely from learning another language: studies have shown that it extends intellectual and analytical capabilities while at the same time strengthening cognitive and critical thinking abilities. 

In order to build meaningful relationships with potential or existing business partners, it is of great benefit to have at least a basic understanding of their respective language.

But intercultural communication goes beyond the superficial understanding, beyond the immediate mastering of a foreign language with all its secret perks and hidden traps. An enormous vocabulary and a thorough understanding of grammar will only get you this far. 

It is a given, that communication means more than just verbal phrases: It includes facial expressions, eye contact, charades, sign language, sometimes physical contact. And so, cross cultural communication also entails more than just word and their literal meaning. The trick is to hear and see it all, like the motifs underpinning the words in a conversation, but also to understand the underlying heuristics influencing our understanding of them.

In conversations, we immediately take mental shortcuts in order to make sense of is being said. We classify the ideas that are being presented to us, often based on prior experience.

Interpretations, however, are already very subjective and become even more so, when engaging with people in an unfamiliar environment, where this prior experience will – simply put – not address the correct connotations.

Germans often enough find the more relaxed Australian work attitude refreshing at first, but might at the same time feel slightly disrespected, when their formal protocol of addressing a new contact is not being observed. 

In England, if you want someone to do something for you, it would be a faux-pas to simply ask. Instead, at first enquire about the other person’s health, the families’ health, the weather (very important!) and the most recent football match, before  finally saying ‘’Oh, by the way…”, then come up with the actual point of the conversation while constantly reinforcing that you feel guilty for having to ask in the first place. 

Taiwanese business people will be very polite and friendly when talking about a potential collaboration. In the end, however, they will value long-standing relationships over a newcomer with a really good idea or a great price offer, who, in turn, thought the meeting went really well and already considered the deal closed. 

These are mere examples, yet, these examples show one thing: We might not always be able to get the bigger picture in the first place, missing out on important details that are needed to communicate effectively. We have to take different points of view and try to understand the actions, values and needs of the people involved. Getting the right message across, encoding and articulating meaning, and reflecting a distinctive world-view—can be a highly complex factor to handle in any communication or general business setting. 

Cross-cultural communication can be a challenge, but nevertheless a very rewarding one at the same time. Embracing communication within diverse cultural boundaries, rather than perceiving it as a threat, can lead to a competitive advantage and is, in the end, essential for responding to the demands of our globalized economies.