Communicating Across Cultures

When it comes to human interaction, it’s all about communication. Without communication, there can be no international business either. People speak and act out of their cultural backgrounds, and thus shape the global business dynamic.


Communication can be regarded as a process of meaning creation: Person A and B establish a specific field of meaning through their use of verbal and nonverbal symbols. Therefore, communication is much more than the simple exchange of information. Rather, it involves the negotiation of a relationship between two or more people. Each communication episode is unique, and every relationship between people is distinctly formed.

Regardless of where you live or to what part of the world your career takes you, a vital key to success is knowledge of international business and culture.


One of the basic components of communication is, of course, language. Many people think of language in terms of the official tongue spoken in a particular country or by a group of people. However, this understanding of language does very little to account for the cultural nuances and customs that underlie a language.

There are over seven thousand languages spoken in the world. While many of these can be grouped into language families that share similar roots, history or culture, each language has idiosyncrasies based on its cultural background. Language use can vary considerably from one country to another, even within the same original language (e.g. Spanish in Spain, Mexico, Argentina etc.). If we also incorporate the business complexities into communication, it becomes even more complex and sophisticated.


A useful concept in this regard is linguistic relativity: the idea that people who speak different languages see the world differently based on the language they use to describe the world. What this means is that our language helps to shape our reality and our language in turn reflects our reality. Consider idioms, for instance: If you say, “This is a no brainer!” might be misunderstood by non-native speakers.

Idioms and expressions are the result of the cultural influence on a language. An idiom can be defined as an expression established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from the individual words. Apart from its cultural context, it might not make any sense. Certainly, a literal translation into another language will not work in this case.

A holistic approach to language thus considers the cultural meaning tied to communication rather than depending on a series of words detached from their common usage.