Why Is Intercultural Communication Important in the Workplace?

by Rachel Levy Sarfin; Updated September 26, 2017

Intercultural communication refers to messages transmitted between members of two or more different societies. The increasingly international business world must cope with cultural differences in order to succeed and prosper. To that end, intercultural communication gains enormous importance as individuals from all over the world start to work in the same office. Effective intercultural communication helps firms avoid conflict, prevent misunderstandings, and foster respect.

Avoiding Conflict

The workplace grows more diverse every day. People from all over the world, of every possible background, creed and nationality create a highly heterogeneous workforce. Managers can not assume that what they find inoffensive, their subordinates will also. A lack of sensitivity can lead to claims of discrimination or harassment, which costs firms big money. Intercultural communication involves exercising sensitivity and tact to avoid such conflicts.

The Inexactitude of Language

Humans develop language to communicate ideas to one another. Still, language represents an imperfect form of communication. Sometimes, words can not accurately convey an idea, because the information might be highly complex. Also, a concept that exists in one culture or language might not be a part of another. The biggest problem of all in language is that a number has an exact value; a word does not. Effective intercultural communication tries to bridge language gaps as best as possible so that everyone at the workplace finds themselves on the same page.

Preventing Misunderstandings

Given the inexactitude of language, misunderstandings can frequently arise between people from different cultures when they exchange information. Idioms often become lost in translation. For example, the English expression “to shoulder responsibility” translates into Swedish as “be a man for your hat.” Intercultural communication does not rely on expressions native to a particular language that could lead to confusion; rather, it relies on clear messages that all parties understand.

Fostering Respect

Communication happens differently in various cultures. What one society finds acceptable may be anathema to another. When co-workers from different cultures do not take these differences into account, not only does communication suffer but conflicts come to the fore. If respect can not find a foothold in the workplace, resentment will reign, and it will thwart progress and success. Effective intercultural communication does not try to ignore societal differences; rather, it respects the variations among the human race and enables people to transmit information clearly.

About the Author

Rachel Levy Sarfin has been writing professionally since 1998. She has written for the "Yardley News" and the Healthwise Lifewise blog, and served as the Jerusalem correspondent for the Omanoot website. Sarfin completed her Master of Arts in Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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