5 Key Skills for Effective Intercultural Communication

Salaam! Bonjour! ¡Hola! Guten Tag! Hello!

Just as there are many ways to say hello, communication is so important, no matter where you are in the world. The term which describes this is intercultural communication –communication between different cultures. Some cultures have a more formal means of communication, whereas other cultures may have a more informal approach. For example, in Japanese culture, there are three levels of politeness depending on the level of respect for the participant of the conversation.

As Anthony Robbins said, “To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way that we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” Communication is based on both speaking and body language. These five tips will help become a pro at communicating with people from all over the world.

1. Learn about different cultures and values.

This is one of the most important things that anyone can do. The internet is an amazing place to learn more about different countries and cultures. There are also travel documentaries available on a wide variety of streaming platforms too.

Maps and books are other sources that are widely available. There are many language and culture books. Even cookbooks can be a great source for learning more about the native food of a country, as well as other culinary-related customs. A book which I have found to be very helpful in nurturing my curiosity of cultures is National Geographic’s People of the World: Cultures and Traditions, Ancestry and Identity by Catherine Herbert Howell and K. David Harrison. The book details the different tribes and subgroups from every part of the world.

2. Join international associations, organizations and clubs.

As an international student at a university, I am a part of the International Students Association, a hub for all the international students. It is an organization in which individuals from all over the world can find common ground whilst living in America and to be able to share their culture with others.

The International Students Association at Kennesaw State University

The International Students Association frequently holds events which showcase different countries. For example, they host a series of events called ‘Cruise the World,’ where two countries are chosen twice a semester, and a whole showcase of the country is assembled. This involves food, music, dancing, and sometimes even a fashion show for the cultural clothes of the respective country! The best part about these events is that it’s open to every student at the university, so it’s a great way to have fun whilst learning more about other cultures! Everyone’s understanding of one another’s background increases, thus making interactions more harmonious.

In addition, there are clubs which focus on the language and culture of an ethnicity. For example, I am the Vice President of my university’s Arabic Language and Culture Club, where we discuss topics relevant to the Arab world, facilitate events relevant to Arab culture, and have language learning workshops for all levels.

The Arabic Language and Culture Club at Kennesaw State University

Every two weeks, the Arabic Language and Culture Club holds fun events for all university students to enjoy. Those events include things related to Arab culture such as food, music, or dance. Past events include a North African day, where we held a party in celebration for all the North African Arab countries. We had tables with artifacts from countries such as Egypt and Libya, and encouraged our Arab members to wear their traditional clothing. Everyone had fun and also learned something new about Arab culture and history.

No matter which country, you will surely find a club or organization for it. At Sacramento State University in California, they have recently started up an association revolved around Afghanistan and its culture.

Interview with Kamil Akbar

I interviewed the President of the Afghan Student Association, Kamil Akbar, to delve deeper into how their organization incorporates the idea of intercultural communication:

How has creating an organization to promote Afghan culture affected the community in terms of cultural awareness?

Creating this organization has definitely helped unite our Afghan community, as well as enhanced our knowledge of our culture. Due to a variety of ethnic groups, Afghanistan holds a lot of unique cultural practices which most people — including Afghans — are not aware of, especially in America. Thankfully, our diverse community is filled with people with different backgrounds which makes it easier for us to learn and acknowledge the hidden beauty of our culture and to have the ability to showcase it to the world.

How do you ensure to tailor your events so that newcomers to the organization understand the basics of Afghan culture?

We try our best to make sure the events are filled with as much Afghan culture as possible. At our last event, we encouraged all of our guests to wear cultural clothes and we had four tables filled with different Afghan cultural items like the tablas (musical instrument), Afghan jewelry, clothes, and a carrom board (a popular Afghan board game).

Afghan Student Association at Kennesaw State University

What has the response been like from the student body, in terms of the formation of this organization?

We have had a lot of positive interactions with the student body. A few other clubs on- and off-campus have come to us about the possibility of having collaborative events in the future, and with us being a relatively new club, the support that the student body has shown has been incredible.

How do you implement the idea of intercultural communication in your events?

We have always loved the idea of sharing our culture with other clubs and having them share their beautiful culture with us. Our first event was a collaboration with the East Arabic club and we loved doing the event with them because it showed us the beauty of working with other cultural organizations. We learned about their culture while they learn about ours and we had fun doing so because everyone was so accepting and excited to meet other Middle Easterners that attend the same school as them.

These are just some examples of cultural associations that universities offer. The best part is, these organizations are open to anyone! This is one of the best ways to meet with people from worldwide backgrounds, and to learn more about their culture in the process.

Extra tip: Don’t be afraid to ask questions! People love talking about themselves, and will likely be glad to answer any cultural-related questions you may have. No question is a bad question. In a paper entitled “The Value of Asking Questions”, Ronald D. Vale states that one must practice asking questions in order to create a habit of it. Asking questions has roots in “Socratic and Buddhist schools of thought,” both of which created the habit out of consistent practicing.

3. Mirror their body language.

Yes, language is an important aspect of being able to communicate with someone, but sometimes, it is not what they say, it is how they say it. It is said that body language allows you to communicate with someone even if you do not speak the same language as them. Knowing this, it creates a common ground between the participants of a conversation.

Fundamentally, the four main components of body language are personal space, physical contact, eye contact, and hand gestures. Are the people of a particular culture enthusiastic and do they use a lot of gestures when they speak, or are they more closed-off? Be sure to adjust your body language accordingly. If you are loud when they are quiet, the chances are that you may offend the person or make the wrong impression of yourself.

4. Learn the language.

This tip is a given, especially if you’re very interested in learning another language. The fun thing about languages is that the more you train your ear to it, the more you’ll notice the diction – everything that revolves around the speech, enunciation, tone, and speed of talking. Listen to the radio or songs in your target language and keep it as background noise. The more you learn, the more you will eventually understand.

In an article for the BBC, freelance medical and marketing translator Cassandra Scott from Edinburgh states that, “Learning two foreign languages also did wonders for my English. It gave me a new perspective on my own language and also gave me extra practice in identifying parts of speech, and later on, analysing literature.” The takeaway from this is that it is definitely worth investing time in learning a language; the opportunities that come with it are endless!

There is also an interesting story about an individual named Linas who learned Portuguese in 5 months, just by living in the country. He would go to the park every so often and strike up conversations with strangers.

“I could not understand much at the beginning but in the end, I think that this has been tremendous help to me not only learning the language but also understanding a lot about the country and the culture and good communication practice.”

Linas’ experience consisted of getting out of his comfort zone by talking to strangers in a language he didn’t know. Over time, he slowly but surely built up his vocabulary. Other things he did was read anything he could get his hands on, listen to anything, and learn all the language rules.

On another note, take your time and pace yourself! Gaining fluency of a language takes years, so pick up on the absolute basics first. Building up your vocab takes time, so don’t give up! Use apps and websites that help you learn languages, and even watch your favourite TV shows in the language. Listen to the radio in your choice of language to train your ear to the cadence of the language.

5. Be open-minded.

Although this may be easier said than done for some people, understanding the worldview of others and learning to appreciate differences is crucial. Not everyone will have the same views as your own, but sometimes listening to what others think and why they think that way will give you a better understanding of them. Any biases or assumptions you may have will need to be put aside. Ask questions on aspects of the culture or language that may confuse you, and listen intently to responses.

Ultimately, have fun with learning and communicating! These are just some tips and tricks to get you started on the journey of effective intercultural communication.

Nia Tanuli is currently a senior enrolled at Kennesaw State University, majoring in English. She is a member of the International Students Association, Muslim Students Association, and a founding member and Vice President of the Arabic Language and Culture Club.

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