3 things you didn't know about intercultural competence.

Veröffentlicht am 1. Juli 2024 um 10:40

What is intercultural competence in business? And why does it matter? 

Picture this: You meet a new business contact at a trade fair. You start talking, and you realize this person is interesting and would benefit from having in your network. So, you hand them your business card with one hand and make the great conversation feel a little awkward. 

Because a person from Asia would have expected to get the card with both hands from you, you are paying them less respect.

There are many other ways to be culturally competent - some as dramatic as the example above, others more subtle. Start building your intercultural competence today by learning these 3 surprising lessons.

1. Culture is shown through language.


In a recent coaching session, I discussed how a client deals with business problems. We were brainstorming expressions you could use to introduce a problem.

My client said something like: "There is a problem with your delivery." Directly translating from German into English, as many clients do. 

Many smart, intelligent, competent, and high-level businesspeople always make mistakes like this, which can have consequences for their business rapport with English speakers. 

When I gave him the English phrase "There seems to be a problem with your delivery," he worried that it was too vague and that he could come off as unsure if there really was a problem.

As a native German speaker, I understand the way of thinking. However, in business in Germany, if you say this, you might sound insecure. 

But with an anglophone speaker, you sound negative and too blunt, like you're not trying to solve the problem. I had to learn this firsthand when I was troubleshooting business problems in Ireland.

In the English-speaking world, you use vague (indirect) language to talk about problems in business. It has nothing to do with you as a person being insecure, far from it.  

It is simply the way language is influenced by culture. Besides, the indirect language is more polite, and it sounds like there is more problem-solving about to happen - less finite.


2. The impact of generalisations.


Generalisations can become an obstacle when you deal with business partners from abroad. 

Okay, firstly, they might help you create awareness of this particular culture in your brain. Noticing differences in cultural communication can help you be aware. Then, you can adapt your way of speaking and keep observing and learning.

But problems happen when you use a way of thinking for all the people of the culture and maybe even believe it is true.

Take, for example, one of my former clients who believed that the French don't want to speak English. I could give him counter-examples of French clients and friends who spoke English on a very high level. It didn't help. He had the generalisation in mind that the French don't speak and want to speak English and got rather emotional about it. And this is the danger. When you are dealing with a French person and have this generalization in the back of your mind, a sentence that hints at it might slip off your tongue when emotions kick in. And this can lead to disappointment and distrust.


3. Do's and Dont's = danger!


They often prepare with these lists before businesspeople go on a business trip. Lists of what to do--and what not to do with people of different cultures make you feel as if everything is under control and more predictable suddenly. That's why sometimes businesspeople are rather keen on them. 

They are handy and give you the most important information in a flash. You don't need to bother with things like reflecting on situations or what different expressions might mean in your situation.

But what if someone surprises you?  What if someone's behaviour or reaction is not on your list? Do you know how to adjust? How do you know when your communication style is not working, and it's time to get curious and try something new? 

For example, if you're getting ready to close a deal in the Middle East and your business partners want to settle with just an oral agreement. In Europe, this can seem surprising, but failing to understand the weight of oral agreements in the Middle East--or being judgmental or shocked at this way of doing things can erode rapport and make it impossible to come to an agreement in business.

Remember that you are dealing with people, and they don't work like a machine whose manual you just follow.

The lists of do's and narrow your perspective and awareness when you should have an open mind and be flexible in your behaviour.




In this post, we have discussed how culture is shown through language, the impact of generalizations, and the dangers of do's and don'ts.

Although it might cost your brain much more energy, it is essential to remain curious and open-minded. That way, you can learn a lot about other cultures and have deep conversations with your business partners. 

Generalisations and lists of do's and don'ts can have the opposite effect. When you disapprove of what you have learned because you're used to doing things differently, sometimes a situation requires flexibility and a deeper and nonjudgmental understanding of cultural norms. 

When you're closing a deal, a moment of discomfort or an embarrassing cultural misunderstanding can undo months of negotiations. And you need more than a "do and don't" list to change that.

This kind of work often requires some work with an experienced coach. If you have any questions, please get in touch with me

Sign up for my newsletter to get more information on intercultural competence and business English.

Kommentar hinzufügen


Es gibt noch keine Kommentare.