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Communicating Across Cultures - Part 2

Intercultural communication is a field of study and research that, with increased globalisation, has attracted more and more interest. It seeks to explore the communication patterns, behaviours and perceptions of the world of people with different cultural and geographical backgrounds.

Intercultural competence

Since we tend to communicate more across borders now, intercultural competence, the ability to have succesful communication with people with other cultural backgrounds than ourselves, is in great demand, not only in diplomacy, but also in business life. In the future job market, this might give people with a bilingual and bicultural background a great pre.

Intercultural competence implies going beyond the stereotypes that we are all familiar with, like this joke about various European cultural identities:

Heaven is where the police are British, the chefs French, the mechanics German, the lovers Italian, and it is all organised by the Swiss.

Hell is where the chefs are British, the mechanics French, the lovers Swiss, the police German, and it is all organised by the Italians.

Now - use your intercultural competence and study the cases below.

What Went Wrong? Explain.


A contigent of Chinese businessmen were invited to Norway to work out ways to collaborate and negotiate business treaties with a huge Norwegian company. The negotations were successful - up to a point. The Norwegians wanted to buy their potential partners a lunch in a posh restaurant. They made up their minds that they would treat their guests to a "koldtbord", i.e. food that is not not served hot. Even if the lunch included exclusive things - salmon, roast beef and salads, their Chinese guests' behaviour changed dramatically, and it was difficult to put the negotations back on track again. What went wrong?

Discuss first - then click for comment.


If the Chinese really want to pay respect to the guests they serve HOT food, cold food is an insult.

The examples of cultural collisons are many when culturally informal people like Norwegians and Americans interact with more culturally formal people, like the Chinese and the Japanese. Here is another one...


When in China, an American student wanted to visit a former classmate that had spent a few months in the USA as an exchange student. He thought it was polite to bring a gift. When he tried to hand his former friend the gift, the receiver strongly declined it. What was wrong?

Discuss first - then click for comment


To not appear greedy the Chinese normally decline a gift three times. The giver is expected to insist.


The same American as in the example above, thought he had learned his lesson, and when meeting his former friend's family, he found what he thought was an appropriate gift. He wrapped it nicely in white paper and insisted that a member of the Chinese family should take it, and they, as expected, declined. However, this time the family refused altogether to receive the gift. What was now wrong?

Discuss first - then click for comment


The gift had a white wrapping; the colour white in China typically symbolises Death. Colours might take on different symbolic values in different cultures. The safest thing in China is to go with red (as it means Luck). You can entrust it to the shop assistant if you buy it in the country you're visiting.


The Canadians also meet difficulties in China. A Canadian female professor had made a room reservation at a fashionable hotel in Beijing.Since she was in China on holiday, she entered the hotel dressed in shorts and a worn-out T-shirt. As it turned out her reservation was not registered at the hotel. When discussing what to do with the clerk behind the counter, she met neither sympathy nor service. The professor insisted that the clerk should fetch his manager, but the clerk ignored her. It was sorted out, though, when the professor presented her visiting card with her title printed in capitals. Why this change in behaviour?

Discuss first - then click for comment


In China (and Japan) the company you work for or what you work with matters more than you as a person.


A Norwegian family had for many years had close relations with a Filipino family in Norway. The accounts from the Philippines had really stirred their interest to explore the country, and when they were invited to visit relatives of the their friends, they soon made up their mind to go. They were met with an incredible hospitality and generosity. The family noticed that their hosts had a house altar with a candle always lit to the Virgin Mary's honour, and started a conversation about religion. When one of the Norwegians stated that he did not believe in God, their Filipino hosts could not conceal how shocked they were. They quickly had to change the subject. Why did this proclamation cause shock?

Discuss first - then click for comment


90% of the people in the Philippines are Catholics and devoted church goers. Even if Norway have many members of the State Church, Norway is a very secular country. Common wisdom suggests that you should always avoid talking about subjects that stir strong emotions, one is religion, another is politics.


Define the following expressions and give examples:
  • intercultural communication
  • intercultural competence
  • stereotype
  • levels of formality
Last updated 05/13/2018
Written by: Eli M. Huseby

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