ITL #462 Intercultural communications: if you want to catch a fish, listen to the river

1 year ago


When working with clients across the globe it’s vital to understand their differences. By Ralf Weber (pictured) and David Eisenstadt.

Even in our global village, companies again and again get trapped in intercultural communications issues. This is not restricted to medium-sized companies; it even happens to large enterprises. 

Problems can occur on three levels: 

  • semantics; through simple mistranslations 
  • cultural and behavior; when it comes to execution of own notions in foreign cultures, 
  • semiotics; for example, when it comes to the use of colors, which may have different meanings in various cultures; the application of ‘wrong’ formats in collaterals; wrong use of metric or imperial measures, etc.

In a globalized world, an understanding of different cultures, apart from stereotypes or anecdotal evidence, is essential. To reach people on a personal level needs intercultural communications.

This shows respect for a culture and the clients will pay back with loyalty.

Culture and intercultural

The development of cultures all over the world is based on each culture’s need for surviving in its own environment, be it tropical or arctic zones, regions with four or less seasons. Each environment has influenced the development of food and drinks, traditions and rituals, societies and communities, specific languages, techniques and skills, values, knowledge and stories, and also arts. 

To prevent getting lost in theories about ‘culture and intercultural’, let’s stick to Merriam Webster’s dictionary for the definition in the context of this article. Webster’s describes ‘intercultural’ in its 2021 online edition as “occurring between or involving two or more cultures.”

This can be as simple as recognizing whether a country operates using the Imperial or Metric system. In the case of Canada, it is more complicated, as Canadians use metric most of the time, but not when it comes to shoe and clothing sizes, recipe measurements, as well as body weight and measurements. 

Bridging the gap – intercultural communication

Communication theory is based on “every communication has a content and relationship aspect such that the latter classifies the former.” This is true for business communication as well. Transferred to intercultural communication, this means that ‘intercultural’ is more relationship-oriented with aspects like mutual understanding, embracing, behavior, psychology, and emotion, whereas ‘communication’ in business contexts is target-oriented.

In the business world, communication or at least interaction occurs in interpersonal situations when it comes to meetings or phone contacts, or in indirect contexts with digital or analog media. Business communication is characterized through target-orientation, visualization and verbalization of contents, charged with emotions, and controlled through KPIs and budgets.

Depending on how long a brand or a company has been promoted in new geographic markets, the goal-driven purpose of intercultural communication is more in the range of perception, recognition, persuasiveness, loyalty, action, and emotion rather than hard sales.

Deep in the brain

To get a better understanding on culture and communication, a deeper look in the human brain is helpful. Recent neurological research has shown that all information is evaluated emotionally in the brain. This takes place in the limbic system, where emotion and memory (i.e., experience) are organically connected to each other.

The combination of emotion and experience lead to imprints in the brain, a process occurring in the first years of our lives. Imprints define the way humans think and act. They are part of each culture’s survival kit and are forwarded from generation to generation. The survival kit provides experiences, techniques and skills to interpret phenomena in our lifeworld environment.

For communication specialists, it is important to decode the imprints to discover cultural codes. The culture code is the meaning we give a phenomenon based on the culture we are raised in. Each gesture, each word, each phenomenon carries its own cultural code, and they are key to our perception.

Quality does not mean quality

To give an example: the cultural code for ‘quality’ in Japan and Germany is ‘perfection.’ Users expect products to work perfectly. 

In Japan with its high density in population, its geographically restricted land area, and the country’s industrial history, efficiency is a decisive quantity. There is no space for useless products, or faulty products. Mistakes are expensive. Quality is a necessity. Perfection is a must. 

In Germany with its standards and norm-driven productions, its engineering skills and traditions, the cultural code for quality is also ‘perfection,’ whereas in the U.S., it just means that a product has to fulfill its functional purpose. In Canada, the attitudes toward quality depend greatly on the product. ‘Canadian-made’ is highly regarded for its superior quality unless it comes to automobiles, wines and home entertainment. In these cases, Japanese and German imports are more readily accepted and would be an easier ‘sell.’

Many German companies, particularly in B2B business, are absolutely proud of their product quality levels, and thus promote and name them in their business communication, and mistakenly keep them for a value-adding sales proposition and customer benefit abroad. When a German company promotes its products with ‘quality’ reasons in the U.S. and Canada, it believes it is communicating ‘perfection’ in its terms, whereas the North Americans often understand ‘perfection’ as ‘it works.’ 

Perception needs emotions

The cultural codes mentioned earlier are key to our perception but emotions are preconditions for perception. 

While communication is about perception and controlling emotional states, intercultural communication is even more so. It is important to make perception easy for the brain as most of our perception occurs ‘on the fly’ with the ‘autopilot’ controlling our senses while we move through the day. As soon as we have to add the ‘pilot’, i.e., the cerebral cortex where the consciousness is located, to perception and enhance understanding then the step-by-step recognition starts to work.

The human brain is trimmed for efficiency, especially for efficient communication. That is why we have logos and slogans: recognizing patterns means ‘intuition’ and works unconsciously – flying below the radar.

When a company tries to introduce a product in a new geographic market with its local culture, the communication (and maybe the product) has to be adjusted to the cultural environment. It does not work the other way round. 

This is especially critical in a multicultural country such as Canada, where the population is made up of Indigenous peoples, other Canadians by birth, and immigrants from around the world. To introduce a product in a Canadian geographic market, it would be wise to do research into the demographics of the specific area targeted. A product with advanced information technology features may be welcomed by Canadians in large metropolitan centres, where Internet speeds and WiFi access are abundant, whereas more basic technology would be the way to appeal to those who live in the Prairies and rural areas.

Overall, Canadians are more empathetic than Americans, so cultural/religious/ethnic sensitivity in advertising and communications is critical. It is important to keep up with trends as well, especially in North America, where oversize clothing for women is no longer isolated and priced over that of regular sizes. This is a sign of increasing empathy and inclusion for those who do not fit into the formerly societal size norm. 

How to check where a company stands

When it goes abroad, a company needs to ensure that its communications apply to cultures in those markets. A company may be #1 in its home market, but unknown when it enters the new market. As many as 70% of businesses fail when they enter the US-market, often due to ineffective brand communication, regulatory missteps or cultural misunderstandings. 

In seeking success in an overseas market, a company must position itself in order to have the brand-strategic basis to succeed. This includes having legal certainty regarding industrial property rights and trademarks; understanding the culture of the new geographic market; understanding its own strengths in all aspects, even psychological and how to transfer its reputation. Although this seems logical, there are companies that have opened branches in Canada without completing due diligence when it comes to researching rights, tax requirements, attitudes toward employees, etc.


In a business context, intercultural competencies to be considered include cognitive, affective and behavioral abilities shaping communications, in addition to goal-driven purposes and economic situations.

Helpful skills to have are:

  • Mindfulness: i.e., being cognitively aware of how the communication and interaction with others is developed. Merging the process of the interaction with the outcome and the desired communication goals. 
  • Cognitive flexibility: being open-minded to new information and accepting different perspectives
  • Behavioral flexibility: the ability to adapt behaviors and accommodate them to a different culture. 
  • Cross-cultural empathy: connecting emotionally with people, showing compassion, thinking in more than one perspective, and listening actively.

Intercultural communication is key when a company enters a new geographic market; the communication has to be adjusted to the cultural environment. It does not work the other way round. In this sense, the business author Richard Gesteland shaped two ‘iron rules’ as a helpful guideline: “In international business, the seller adapts to the buyer, and the visitor is expected to observe local customs.”

That’s it, in a nutshell. All other aspects are derived from that. If you want to catch a fish, listen to the river.




author"s portrait

The Author

Ralf Weber

The authors Ralf Weber, President and CEO m/e brand communication GmbH, Germany, and David Eisenstadt, Partner, tcgpr - The Communications Group Inc., Canada. Both are members of IPREX, a global communications organization represented in 70+ countries which has an Intercultural Brand Transfer tool in place.

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