Institut für englische Sprache und Didaktik
Intercultural communication is one of the buzz words of our times, especially in foreign language teaching.
Intercultural communication can be defined as an exchange process between persons of different cultures. It deals with the question of how people with a different cultural background can understand each other.
But why do we have to think about intercultural communication? Why is this topic such an important theme at the moment?
Intercultural communication has become more and more important in a world where everything is becoming global.
A few decades ago, only international managers and diplomats needed to think about intercultural communication and its problems. These days, it is not exclusively international managers or diplomats but “ordinary” people from different cultures who come into contact with each other every day. Our world has changed extremely: While in the past most people were born, lived and died in a limited geographical area, not often encountering people from other cultures, the world of today can be characterized by an ever-growing number of contacts resulting in communication between people with different cultural backgrounds. As a consequence, the world of today has become a “global village”.
This phenomenon can be explained due to various reasons: The internet makes it possible to communicate with people from all over the word, modern technologies give people the chance to travel further and faster than ever before. Not only big firms, but also all kinds of organizations act more and more globally instead of locally. The European Union allows people to move to other European countries, to work and to live there.
We live in a multicultural society with various cultures. We work with people from other cultures; study in class with them and meet them in all kind of situations in our daily life.
Therefore, intercultural communication competence has become a theme which concerns everybody and which will even become more and more important in our world of globalization.
In order to avoid misunderstandings or even hostile attitudes ending up in conflicts, in order to live peacefully in the “global village” and be able to solve the growing number of global problems which do not stop at national borders, the ability to understand people from different cultures and to communicate competently with them has taken on an extreme urgency. However, achieving this aim sounds easier than it is.
To communicate competently with people from other cultures, it is not enough to speak the same language as they do.
Even though two people speak the same language it is possible that they do not understand each other. This thesis becomes obvious in the following critical incident: A Japanese negotiating with a German business partner says that the deal will be difficult. When the German asks how his company can help to solve the problem, the Japanese is confused. While the Japanese meant that the deal is off, the German thought there were only some obstacles which can be overcome.
This phenomenon can be explained due to the fact that both speakers know the linguistic rules of the language such as grammar and vocabulary, but they are not aware of the cultural norms, attitudes and behavior of their communication partner. They have linguistic competence, but no intercultural communication competence. This lack of intercultural communication competence and the ignorance of cultural differences might cause many misunderstandings.
In order to understand the sources of misunderstandings and to be aware of intercultural communication problems, it is necessary to know and to understand the concept of communication.
Since it is not possible to transmit messages directly from one person’s brain to that of another person, we have to put our ideas into codes that can be transmitted.
Consequently, communication can be described as an exchange of messages between a sender and a receiver. In this process the sender encodes the message, which means that he produces a set of symbols and the receiver has to decode the message, which means that he tries to understand the meaning of the symbols by interpreting or making sense of them.
However, the message the sender thinks he has sent might be very different from the message the receiver gets because (s)he has interpreted it differently. In other words, sent and received messages are never identical. This can be explained by the fact that communication is a very complex process in which symbolic messages can be conveyed from one person to another, but meanings cannot. Furthermore, communication does not only include verbal, but also nonverbal messages.