Chapter 10: Intercultural and International Business Communication

We should never denigrate any other culture but rather help people to understand the relationship between their own culture and the dominant culture. When you understand another culture or language, it does not mean that you have to lose your own culture.

–Edward T. Hall

Culture encompasses all learned and shared, explicit or tacit, assumptions, beliefs, knowledge, norms, and values, of an organized group of people who share a common history and communication system.

Learning Objectives

  1. To understand why effective intercultural and international business communication matters.
  2. Discuss the three significant factors that lead to international business failure.
  3. To define culture, diversity and cultural intelligence.

The twenty-first century business environment is expanding and increasingly attracting the interest of countries from developed and developing nations from all over the planet (Washington, Okoro, Thomas, 2012). Companies are going global and creating diverse teams that are being dispersed all over the world. Since the foundation of all successful international business is anticipating and understanding cultural and linguistic differences, then making the necessary adaptations in the way you communicate (Cardon, 2018), we must consider our cultural and value differences and develop a cross-cultural work relationship that is innovative, adaptable, empathetic and cooperative.

Due to a growing global market and diverse consumer needs, countries of the world are becoming increasingly interdependent and interconnected.  As such, it is critically important that participating countries and their organizations understand and appreciate one another’s cultural differences. According to Washington et al., this is the only way to ensure growth and sustainability in international business. Recent studies examined by Washington et al. have traced the failure of some international business ventures to three significant factors: lack of intercultural skills and competence, inability to communicate effectively at a global level, and failure to practice acceptable etiquette in business negotiations. Therefore, businesses from different countries need to appreciate the importance of understanding the cultures and values of their counterparts as well as develop intercultural communication sensitivity and decorum (Washington et al., 2012).

Diversity in the workforce encompasses many cultural groups with a wide range of abilities, experience, knowledge and strengths due to its heterogeneity in national culture, ethnicity, age and gender. Diverse work environments demand an employee who is able to bridge cultural divides and knowledge gaps in a local and global organization. They possess a high level of cultural intelligence, a measure of one’s ability to work with and adapt to members of another culture. They are able to transfer this knowledge between groups both locally and globally and can build interpersonal connections and processes in a cross-cultural workforce. The development of cross-cultural skills is best developed through research and experiential learning. Applying this cultural awareness and adapting to cultural contexts will greatly reduce misunderstanding and poor communication while improving diverse work relationship.

Experiential Learning

At a recent business lunch meeting with a new potential client in Madrid, Spain, I arrived twenty minutes early to reserve a private table. This was a standard practice I employed in the United States. The scheduled time arrived but the client did not. I checked my phone for communication of the client’s pending arrival. I anxiously pondered if I’d noted the correct date, location and time. Tempted to call my late acquaintance, I took a deep breath and ordered another drink. Ten minutes later the potential client casually walked through the door, greeted me warmly and sat down to begin soft negotiations without mention of their tardiness. Mindful that Spain was a new country to me and there were gaps in my understanding of the culture, I said nothing of their late arrival. Instead of discussing business, we mostly talked of our families.  Following lunch, I called corporate headquarters back in the States to speak with our global advisor. It was then I was told, in Spain arriving ten minutes after an arranged meeting time is not considered late. Now understanding the cultural context of the interaction I felt more confident moving forward with presenting financial contract terms at the formal business meeting the following day. We closed the deal the following month. Interestingly, our now long-standing client was ten minutes late (according to US standards) for that meeting as well.

[Professional testimony]

Edward T. Hall, an American Anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher is cited as a pioneer in the field of intercultural communication (Chen, G. and Starosta, W., 2000). Born in 1914, Hall spent much of his early adulthood in the multicultural setting of the American Southwest, where Native Americans, Spanish-speakers, and descendants of pioneers came together from diverse cultural perspectives. By focusing on interactions rather than cultures as separate from individuals, he asked us to evaluate the many cultures we ourselves belong to or are influenced by as well as those with whom we interact. While his view makes the study of intercultural communication far more complex, it also brings a healthy dose of reality to the discussion. Hall is generally credited with eight contributions to our study of intercultural communication (Chen, G. and Starosta, W., 2000; Leeds-Hurwitz, W., 1990; McLean, S., 2005):

  • Compare cultures. Focus on the interactions versus general observations of culture.
  • Shift to local perspective. Local level versus global perspective.
  • You don’t have to know everything to know something. Time, space, gestures, and gender roles can be studied, even if we lack a larger understanding of the entire culture.
  • There are rules we can learn. People create rules for themselves in each community that we can learn from, compare, and contrast.
  • Experience counts. Personal experience has value in addition to more comprehensive studies of interaction and culture.
  • Perspectives can differ. Descriptive linguistics serves as a model to understand cultures, and the U.S. Foreign Service adopted it as a base for training.
  • Intercultural communication can be applied to international business. U.S. Foreign Service training yielded applications for trade and commerce and became a point of study for business majors.
  • It integrates the disciplines. Culture and communication are intertwined and bring together many academic disciplines.

Key Takeaway

Cross-cultural business requires skillful communication, and assumptions and misunderstandings about language and behavior can be barriers to success. (Carte, Fox & Canning, 2004)


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

Carté, P., Fox, C. J., & Canning (Firm). (2004). Bridging the culture gap: A practical guide to business communication. Sterling, VA;London;: Kogan Page

Chen, G., & Starosta, W. (2000). Foundations of intercultural communication. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Hall, E. (1966). The hidden dimension. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Leeds-Hurwitz, W. (1990). Notes in the history of intercultural communication: The foreign service institute and the mandate for intercultral training. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 76, 268–281.

McLean, S. (2005). The basics of interpersonal communication. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Rogers, E., & Steinfatt, T. (1999). Intercultural communication. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Washington, M. C., Okoro, E. A., & Thomas, O. (2012). Intercultural communication in global business: An analysis of benefits and challenges. The International Business & Economics Research Journal (Online), 11(2), 217.


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