15 Pages, Grade: 1
The author of this essay is well aware of the complexities raised by both the issue of culture and the process of communication. He acknowledges holistic approaches such as the one of Fons Trompenaars to analysing intercultural communication (Trompenaars). However, for the sake of brevity the following essay will base its argumentation mainly upon practical examples of worked intercultural communication and offer no more than a brief introduction into the theoretical considerations that lie at the very heart of today’s intercultural research.
“The barbarian merchants of your country, if they wish to do business for a prolonged period, are required to obey our statutes respectfully and to cut off permanently the source of opium…” (Carr 15)
Thus were the words capable of triggering war. The words of Lin Zexu, commissioner of the Chinese Empire against the British opium trade, who warned the British queen Victoria of the consequences of continued British opium smuggle in 1839. Only weeks later, the infamous First Opium War had started.
How is the above episode relevant to the topic of this essay?
A self-evidence to the Chinese rulers, the demands of Lin Zexu appeared an unacceptable impertinence to the representatives of the militarily superior British Empire. Both the British and Chinese established, in fact, the very model of how international business should not be conducted.
The British East India Merchant Company, which was chiefly responsible for the Opium smuggle at the time, held the single-most successful trade monopoly in Great Britain’s Southeast Asian colonies. It was backed by the strongest Imperialist power in the world, had access to any resources it required and controlled a highly organized infrastructure. With its own contingent of 24.000 men and excessive sovereign rights granted by the English crown, it was the most powerful company in the East Indies (“Ostindische Kompanie”).
Ideal prerequisites for international success, one might assume.
However the Opium Wars demonstrated otherwise. Even though the British East India Company finally managed to force its conditions upon the Chinese market, it failed only some decades later due to the upheaval of another of its subjects. The Indian uprisings of 1857/58 irrevocably set an end to its 250 years of unconditional rule in East Asia (“Ostindische Kompanie”).
So what did the British East India Merchant Company lack?
The answer is simple: It lacked the ‘ability to communicate across cultures’. For decades, the company did not have, as a case in point, a single interpreter for Chinese. The first British subject to be an acknowledged interpreter was James Flint, no earlier than 1736; 136 years after the East India Company had been founded. Even though Flint became a competent Chinese speaker, he never acquainted himself with the Chinese culture. He was bound to fail.
In 1753 he did, when he signed a petition that went against Chinese protocol so much so that Flint was eventually expelled from the country. After Flint’s faux pas, no one was willing to take his place. Thus, “for a generation, the East India Company operated without cultural intermediaries in China” (Golden). One of the first representatives of the company to actually recognise the benefits of “being able to communicate directly with Chinese officials in Chinese” (Golden), was Lord MacCartney, who led several diplomatic missions after 1792. He even set up a school for Chinese. This sole impulse however was, of course, not enough to prevent the company from collapsing at last in the foreign (and, this should be added, hostile) environment.
Today the ‘ability to communicate across cultures’ is commonly referred to as “intercultural competence” and considered one of the key factors determining the measure of international success of any business venture.
As Hinner and Rülke note, “The global economy is a fact” (2). Already ten years ago, The Economist reported a number of 37,000 transnational corporations with 207,000 foreign affiliates (qtd. in Harris and Moran 18). Certainly the number is much greater today, after the EU expansion and the further development of the Internet in the past decade.
Any small or medium-size company today is offered the promising prospect of extending its target market with hardly any extra cost. With the plane any place on Earth can be reached within a day or less, and the existing world-wide infrastructure maintained by delivery services like DHL, UPS and TNT relieves businesses from creating their own infrastructure at high expense. The Internet allows for quick, easy and cheap communication with any customer outside the regional market and the development of e-commerce drives the economic globalisation further. Cell phones and microtechnology account for the proverbial ‘mobile generation’. “Such communication and transportation opportunities have never existed before in human history” (Hinner and Rülke 2).
However, as national boundaries vanish, anxiety in the face of globalisation grows also: “People are afraid of losing their identity in global uniformity. […] As the world appears to shrink, people seem to cling more to their ethnic identity as an anchor in times of change” (Hinner and Rülke 3). This is where intercultural competence proves valuable.
Intercultural competence is widely understood as the relative quality of someone’s communicative performance in a different cultural environment (Knapp 9). Hence assessing ‘the importance of language learning, understanding of other peoples, and cultural awareness’ is indeed roughly tantamount to evaluating the significance of intercultural competence.
In effect, the intercultural competence of a business is a descriptor for its ability to successfully communicate across national and cultural borders. That does not merely include very basic requirements such as translating its advertisements into the language of the respective market. Instead, according to Hinner and Rülke, there are three basic steps in the process of introducing a product (or a service) into a new market: adaptation, engineering and marketing (4-6). That is, the company (and its management) has to adapt any product to the needs of its prospective consumers, engineer it for the market the company wishes to enter and communicate the product’s benefits to the potential end users. In all of these processes, intercultural competence is a vital requirement without which the company is likely to fail in its new environment.
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