It’s all just words. What is being said. And so much more behind it: the thought of what to say, and the decision not to say certain things. Gestures, looks, expressions. Communication.

With people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, it’s only too clear that there will be differences. First of all, in the languages we grew up with and learned to speak; what subjects are considered topics for everyday speech, and which are rather sensitive; to what extent the communication is meant to support a social relationship or to be just the facts.

Intercultural communication has come to be of ever greater importance. Some people marry between cultures; some do international business; most come into some contact with people from other backgrounds. Maybe it has been given too much importance.

There are obvious blunders, areas of cultural sensitivity which one should know about. Most issues, however, are not all that sensitive. We may have misunderstandings, and more easily so when what we consider normal is different. Still, the differences between cultures hide both the variability within each and every culture, and the misunderstandings that can occur when people are supposed to understand each other anyways, coming from similar backgrounds, making them all the less aware and careful.

The trouble is that intercultural communication training – at least the kind you get from books and lectures – means only too well… Many times, it teaches all too many small things.
Knowing not to stick your chopsticks into the rice isn’t going to help you much in China when you find that people actually do, and don’t care. Or maybe they don’t, because they stick them in sideways, not truly upright. Knowing that an East Asian may not want to directly say “no” could be helpful, but when it makes you see every “I’ll think about it” as a “no,” it’s taking you too far.

The situation at hand is the important thing to consider: it is not helpful to communication not to know anything about the likelihood that a person from a different background will react differently to what one is used to. The things which are noticeable and noticed are less likely to be the problems, however. The trouble are the small things which go unnoticed except as a nagging issue, where both don’t know why the other is acting the way s/he is, but both are doing things only “the normal way.”

Intercultural communication, in most situations which truly matter, is direct communication between persons.

Listening, getting to know one’s opposite, as an individual person and not a representative of a culture, is one of the things that count most. The diversity between people, within culture, is always greater than the diversity between cultures. We are human beings, not machines, after all. Yet, we tend to act just the way we learnt to act, as if on-program – and when something outside the normal program happens, we react defensively.

Thus, maybe the most overlooked aspect of intercultural communication is the person in the mirror: oneself.

Many of the misunderstandings arise from the simple problem that we learn most about the other culture, what people of that do – but not always so much of what our own preconceptions are, let alone how to deal with them.

“Cultural intelligence” – like in David Livermore’s Leading with Cultural Intelligence: The New Secret to Success – goes there, focusing on the person in question and his/her psychological faculties. Training for these may be harder than simply reading some books about the wondrous ways in which those strange others from exotic lands talk and act, but more of a journey of self-discovery. It will also prepare you better to actually listen to what the other is communicating, and where you are reacting in ways that may not be appropriate for the new context you find yourself in.