Chapter 10: Intercultural and International Business Communication

Intercultural Communication

Learning Objectives

  1. Develop an awareness of nonverbal and verbal communication variances
  2. Manage language barriers
  3. Consider cultural customs and proper etiquette

Cross-cultural work environments mandate cross cultural communication, which may create complex and sometimes problematic encounters. This leads to frustration between collaborators, apprehension by potential clients to continue interaction, conflict between colleagues and eventually failure to meet deadlines, close the deal or maintain a business partnership. Targowksi and Metwalli (2003) believe the twenty first century business era will increasingly focus on the critical value of cross-cultural communication processes as this directly impacts efficiency and the cost of business.

Successful communication is a prerequisite for knowledge to effectively transfer between culturally diverse professionals. This makes the management of language barriers and the development of a robust repertoire of verbal strategies and nonverbal behaviors a necessity. Similarly, understanding and adhering to the etiquette and customs of culture is essential as it directly impacts the manner in which you communicate.

Etiquette and Custom Considerations

  • Appropriate topics of conversation
  • Conversation style
  • Punctuality
  • Business Dress
  • Titles
  • Private or prohibited topics
  • Meetings
  • Dining
  • Gift giving
  • Touching and proximity

Nonverbal Communication

Herring (1990) is credited with recognizing that nonverbal behaviors are a key part of communication and understanding. By increasing awareness of cultural variations in nonverbal communication patterns, cultural misunderstanding and miscommunication may be significantly reduced.  Non-verbal communication is categorized as non-word messages exchanged through facial expressions, gestures, personal space, body language, time-work habits, punctuality and silence. This includes but is not limited to both intentional and unintentional use of eye contact, smiling, touching, smells, colors, physical proximity, noises or silence and punctuality.

Chronemics, the attitude of a culture toward time, can be categorized into two categories; Monochronic or Polychronic. According to Chaney & Martin (2014), monochromic countries perform only one major activity at a time, they concentrate solely on the job and take their time commitments seriously. They show respect for private property and are accustomed to short-term relationships. Examples of this attitude are the United States, Switzerland, Germany and England. Polychronic cultures are comfortable doing many things at once, get easily distracted, and view time commitments casually. They are deeply committed to people, borrow or lend property often and build relationships for a lifetime. Examples of people possessing this attitude are from Latin American, Mediterranean and Arab countries.

While nonverbal behavior may only be viewed as supplementary in intercultural communication, it is used to complement verbal messages, and sometimes substitute and accentuate verbal messages. As such, making an effort to understanding the norms and differences should be researched to reduce miscommunication, social anxiety and potentially offense.

Experiential Learning

Another form of nonverbal communication includes thought patterns. Consider the difference between managers from the United States and Japan:

A decision to launch targeted marketing campaigns in both the Japanese and American countries seemed like an easy decision to my colleague from New York. The product had passed rigorous testing and according to focus groups from both countries, it was going to be a well received in both markets, although for different reasons. The Director of Marketing in New York signed off on the campaign the same day it was placed on his desk. He has leeway to make decisions at will as long as market research supports his judgment. Conversely, the Senior level Marketing Director in Tokyo, Japan received documentation to approve the campaign the day prior to the New York market. Without the careful inspection and full support of his Superiors, he is unable to sign off on the campaign himself. He carefully reviewed every word of the agreement and typed up his support of the project for his Senior Executive Board to review the following week. Prior to that meeting, he plans to meet individually with every member of the board to discuss their opinion on the project. This is an effort to minimize any errors or misgivings and maintain consistency at all levels. After numerous exchanges between the US & Japanese teams and some conservative concessions requested by Tokyo’s executive board, both markets eventually approved the campaign, ten days apart.

Verbal Communication

Employing verbal strategies in intercultural communication enhances the ability to deliver and understand speech between members of diverse cultures. These strategies can reduce confusion and misinterpretation while improving business relationships and work efficiency and productivity. Implementing a basic process of identifying the communication problem, formulating a plan, identifying the tools needed, testing the strategy and evaluating it’s success is a solid approach to overcoming verbal obstacles. Special cultural considerations should be given when evaluating the delivery of an understated messages, an exaggeration, compliments, incorporating moments of silence and voice inflections.

Verbal intercultural communication is more than just understanding a language different from your native tongue, it embracing the tone and tenor in which it’s delivered. Paralanguage refers to the rate and volume of a message delivery. A message delivered at an increased rate or volume of speech may signal impatience, anger or a desire to by heard. In contrast, we must also consider the tone and tenor may be the result of a cultural norm. In the Philippines and Thailand speaking softly is an indication of education and good breeding while in Arabic cultures’ speaking loudly is a sign of strength and sincerity. Even within the United States the rate of speech varies in different regions; Northerners speak faster than Southerners.

Manage language barriers[1]

To effectively manage language barriers consider implementing the following methods:

  • Avoid quick judgments of others with limited communication proficiencies
  • Articulate clearly and slow down
  • Avoid slang or jargons
  • Give others time to express themselves.
  • Use interpreters as necessary

Key Takeaway

Spend time researching verbal & non-verbal communication strategies and etiquette & cultural preferences before interacting in a cross-cultural environment to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings. This will help establish strong business relationships from the very beginning.


  1. Develop a strategy to manage language barriers through an email exchange, a phone or Skype call or in person meeting.

  2. Research the customs and etiquette of a country that interests you. Report on five of the ten considerations for the culture you researched.


Cardon, P. (2018) Business Communication: Developing Leaders for a networked world. New York, NY: McGraw Hill 2018, p.100-129.

Chen, L. (2002). Perceptions of intercultural interaction communication satisfaction: A study on initial encounters. Communication Reports, 15(2), 133-148.

Chaney, L., Martin, J. (2014) Intercultural Business Communication, 6th ed. Pearson.

Hall, E. T. (1989) Beyond Culture

Herring, R. D. (1990). Nonverbal communication: a necessary component of cross- cultural counseling. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 18(4), 1-7.

Schaub, M. (2017) SWS Business Communication, Grand Valley State University. Powerpoint Slides: Intercultural Business Communication, Cultural Patterns and Taxonomies.

Targowski, A. & Metwalli, A. (2003). A framework for asymmetric communication among cultures. Dialogue and Universalism, 13(7/8),49-67

  1. Business Communication: Developing Leaders for a networked world – Cardon, P. (2018)


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