Difficulties in intercultural communication: What not to do

What is it that makes intercultural communication, especially about sensitive issues, difficult?

I can think of many reasons – and I’d be interested in also hearing your thoughts. As one of many of the difficulty, I think the following pattern frequently occurs:


When people get defensive about sensitive issues they often make generalizations and give labels intended to attack the credibility/image of another person or group (e.g. derogatory slurs – which are too abundant to name them all – or terms such as worthless, “evil”, bigot, and so on). In an emotionally vulnerable state – instead of isolating conversation to specific aspects of an issue or policy that they disagree with (while generally having respect for the people involved), too often people make sweeping generalizations that do little good (even for their own cause) and usually only end up doing more to alienate groups and polarize differences. In this kind of an environment people tend to minimize their own faults (and if they admit them at all, justify them through some sort of blame) while at the same time over-emphasizing the negative in the other side.


These kinds of interactions are painfully evident internationally in disagreements between China and Japan, arguments between various racial groups in South Africa, and the controversies between Sunnis and Shiites, Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East, the so-called “war on terror”, and the list goes on and on.

In the U.S., this kind of pattern has contributed to an increasing divide between liberals and conservatives (as seen in unfair over-generalizations by either side of controversial political figures such as Hillary Clinton or George Bush).

Historically and recently inter-religious discussions also prove difficult.

So it is not surprising what happens when you combine religion and politics. It easily becomes evident why religion and politics are two issues that usually are omitted from polite discussions.

I’d like to look at recent online discussions about politics and religion, and briefly compare them to some larger international issues. I want to also consider the interesting dynamic that occurs with Internet communications; one aspect of which is how people can anonymously post comments regarding sensitive issues. Additionally I’d like to question to role of existing media and entertainment sources in existing interpersonal and intercultural relations.

I’m very interested in other people’s thoughts on the pattern that I speak about.

  • Do you see the same pattern?
  • What, in your opinion, contributes to it?
  • What do you think are the best approaches to mediate such conflicts?
  • How can disagreements about issues be productive instead of destructive?
  • What has been the role and impact of the Internet?
  • What has been the role of media and entertainment sources in either propagating or dismantling stereotypes, etc.?

To be continued…

Training Presentation on Cultural Competence

Training Presentation on Cultural Competence

Light Bulb

I just presented at a training day yesterday for the editing department of a large international organization which creates both print and media instruction in nearly 50 languages around the world. They asked me to come and present about cultural differences in teaching and learning expectations.

They already create some great material and do quite a bit that is cutting edge. I find it interesting, however, how the idea has persisted as long as it has that if you simply translate something into a different language then that means other people will be able to understand it and use it. Wrong.

In the best case, you should take the time to do a lot more to customize messages so they are more relevant to specific audiences – so the message is more credible and resonates in a way that people can understand it and chose what to do with it from there.

At the very least, there needs to be more done in order to avoid miscommunication – to take out concepts / illustration / logic patterns, etc… which (1) cause confusion, (2) bring unintentional amusement (see the picture of a sign below from a hotel I stayed at my last visit to China), and (3) especially which might be offensive.

funny sign in China

Sure if it is in the right language that helps, but there is so many more assumptions that are made in teaching and learning which are very different in different areas of the world.

Here is a list of a few of the ones I covered:

Credibility of speaker/information

What we notice when we look at images

Logic styles in writing and speaking

Emphasis on written vs. spoken word

Emotional appeals in the overtones of certain values/stories

Shared Knowledge and Schemas

Cause and Effect Reasoning

Each of these areas has relevent research which clearly denotes important cultural differences. Now, which “differences really make a difference” and which “similarities really are significant” – that is what we hope to discover as we continue research along these lines.

As we are continuing with research and development, however, I highly recommend these 5 questions as a guide to dealing with cross-cultural information exchanges:

  1. What message, or experience, do you – or he/she/they – want to communicate or receive?
  2. How important or relevant is the message or experience – to you and the “other” person(s)?
  3. What conditions, customs, concerns, attitudes, and/or values (yours and theirs) hinder or help communication of the message or experience?
  4. What specific interpersonal or media communication methods, or patterns, succeed most and succeed least? Why?
  5. How do you and they determine message effectiveness and the possible need for further communication experience?

(by Lynn Tyler, November 1975, CultureGram Communication Aid)

Training Presentation on Cultural Competence

Story emphasizing need for more cross-cultural competence among instructional designers


In an article presented at AECT this year entitled “Instructional Design in a Flat World” Dr. Russel Osguthorpe makes the point that in a world that is flattening (see Friedman, 2006), instructional design needs to change. Osguthorpe considers three important implications that the discipline of instructional design must consider as it moves forward: (1) changing metaphors, (2) cross-cultural competence, and (3) practice-based theory.

In the section on the need for more cross-cultural competence, Osguthorpe shares this interesting story:

“In the 1980s in cooperation with a foundation based in New York City, I began work on a long-term technology integration project in Beijing, China. At the commencement of the project, I had no understanding of Chinese culture or language. Knowing that I would return to Beijing many times, I became determined to learn something of their language and customs. At one point in the project, the foundation director in New York City called to ask if I would go to Beijing and meet with our counterparts to settle a misunderstanding. By that time I could converse in Chinese and was beginning to understand something of the culture. When I arrived in Beijing and met with the project manager, I could sense immediately that something was wrong. Only after prolonged conversation did he pull out the fax we had sent and pointing to it said, “We don’t agree with this, so we have decided to end the project.”

The fax he referred to was in our view a working document, but to our Chinese friends it was a final non-negotiable letter of agreement. I explained to him that this was simply an initial draft, open to revision—that if there were points he wanted to change, we could discuss those. When he understood that critical point, everything changed. Together we revised the letter of agreement, and the project continued as planned.”

Again and again is highlighted the need to be aware of each other’s cultural differences so that we do not unintentionally offend, or even distract and miscommunicate from what we are indeed trying to say.