What is Intercultural Communication?

tools for public speakersSometimes, the most difficult speech is when I’m writing for someone demographically similar to me. With someone different than me, listening and then, writing, is easier because I know what to expect. I go into the conversation acknowledging differences and manage my expectations.

When the person is, at first glance, like me, I might erroneously apply a view of that person, convinced I know who they are. I might not enter that conversation as a listener, but as a fool.

Let’s Explore This Mess

I often write for an international audience. My speaker might speak English, but as a second language to listeners whose second language is likewise English. Multiple countries are at play, with an array of intercultural issues. You may be dealing with related challenges.

Interculturality is never clean. We never get it perfect. We can’t. But we can hone as we learn.

When writing for a black businessman’s association, for their keynote speaker, it isn’t my voice. It is the voice of the speaker. Sometimes, in such cases, the difference is less racial and more economic. The speaker might be racially the same, but extremely wealthy. The language of the wealthy is not the same as the language of the up-and-coming. That’s part of the challenge in front of us.

We use our skills and experience to navigate, albeit imperfectly, these complexities. Do we work in a domestic-only firm, or just with native speakers in that other country? We are still working cross-culturally. No one is born in, and then lives in, a vacuum. We absorb a myriad of influences.

Any two people in conversation is an intercultural communications event.

I’m a Mess

I grew up in a middle-class suburb southwest of Chicago with parents of Irish and Hungarian descent, but neither was an immigrant. My paternal grandparents, especially my grandmother, had accents. They were Irish and Hungarian, with such a range of experiences that a book wouldn’t be long enough to sort it all out.

Among my best friends as a child was Chinese. He was born in Taipei. My high school was 49% white. However, the school, and the communities which fed into it, weren’t well-integrated. But I was on the track team and spent a lot of time with several friends who are black. Then, I went to a large state university south in a city surrounded by cornfields, only to move back to attend a small international graduate school in an affluent Chicago suburb. Now I live near Atlanta.

I could continue but you get the idea. Who am I?

If all you see in me is a middle-aged white guy who grew up in the suburbs, you’ve a limited understanding of me. Or, if you only knew about my life in North Georgia, you might presume I am whatever you think a Southerner is. That is, until you hear the remnants of my Southside of Chicago accent.

Like most people, I only show you the sides of me which are relevant to the relationship. Do you know me professionally? Through the literary community? Through the running community? Did you know me when I taught in a jail? Did we play chess back in the day? Maybe we overlapped in a event on third wave coffee, or have a shared interest in animal behavior.

We like to stereotype and box in people. It makes things easier, but it leads to errors in judgment.

It gets complicated, particularly in this age of easy communication across the globe and relatively inexpensive flights. Who is everyone else is no less convoluted.

One of my clients recently spoke in Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere in the area. As an American-born Chinese woman, she was well-suited, but it wouldn’t be easy. Her audience was pan-Asian. Each person reached success differently and bore different agendas. China is not Japan, nor is it Thailand and so on. And then, the individual within a given country is even more complex.

My client’s speeches had a singular goal but required layers and textures that they needed to feel seamless. We took a base speech and converted it to each audience’s needs.

As we worked together, our commonly was evident, though so was our diversity. Economically, we were extraordinarily different. Our first language was different. Our genders were different. However, we both loved books, our families, and had a shared love of the same fast food.

As such, we need to remember how those who grew up next door, who look like us, whose accents come from the same root, may, in fact, be just as dissimilar communicationally as the person a 15-hour plane flight away. Intercultural communication is part of our lives.

There’s no end to the complexity of human interaction. Intercultural communication is art and science, and inevitably imperfect. You are I are completely different and completely the same. That’s not a paradox, but two coexisting truths. Let’s listen to each other.

Read what I can do for international clients.