Intercultural relations and communication at work. How do cultural differences influence intercultural relations?

Essay, 2020

15 Pages, Grade: 1.7



What is culture?

Intercultural relations




Intercultural communication

Non-verbal communication

Ifversen and Thuno

Respect and Status

Face and Politeness

Kaelin Text Troubled Communication

Cultural relativity of Notions

Time perception




There is no question that we are culturally different to each other because of the way we grew up. We are influenced by politics, media, the education system as well as other external factors such as climate, physical geography and the resources available to us. With increasing globalisation and internationalisation of companies, the coming together of cultures is a very current topic that can lead to both, opportunities and challenges in practice. Therefore, this paper examines how cultural differences influence intercultural relations. This will be discussed based on theories of culture, intercultural communication and illustrated by examples.

Firstly, the concept of culture will be discussed, and different concepts are presented, in order to see the change of the perception of culture in history. Afterwards, ‘intercultural relations’ will be defined and in order to see the traps one risks to fall in when working intercultural, a national perception of culture will be described. Subsequently, the concept of essentialism, othering, ethnocentrism, cultural relativism and stereotyping will be examined, to demonstrate how negative their impact is on intercultural relations. As another big part of intercultural relations, the importance of intercultural communication will be discussed.

The concepts presented are finally illustrated by two examples. Firstly, by the study of Ifversen and Thuno, which analyses the influence of cultural differences and the perception of culture when working intercultural. In particular, the cultural differences of the concepts of face and respect are examined and the results of the study will be presented and interpreted. Secondly, the text of Kalin will be displayed, which highlights intercultural problems in the asylum search. The focus here is on the cultural relativity of concepts and different time perceptions.

What is culture?

The etymological analysis of ‘culture’ is quite uncontroversial, its origin ‘colere’ lies in Latin and means ‘to cultivate’, ‘to tend, ‘to till’ (Hylland Eriksen 2015: 3). But in the field of anthropology the situation is much more complex. Definitions of culture abound, ranging from very complex to very simple, from old to new.

Since the 19th century, the predominant understanding of culture in Europe was that of nationality, with defined, unchanging and identical characteristics, which were seen as superior to other cultures. There was a “set of ideas which equates 'a culture' with 'a people'“ (Wright 1988: 14). This concept has been turned away from, as it does not correspond to the complexity of individuals and their cultures and additionally reflects the superiority spirit of colonialism. Therefore, alternative ways of conceptualising culture were formed (ibid.: 8).

The new concept of culture presents the very opposite of the old one as it recognises the equality of cultures and its mutability. Hylland Eriksen, writes “[o]n the one hand, every human is equally cultural; [...] On the other hand, people have acquired different abilities, notions, etc., and are thereby different because of culture“ (Hylland Eriksen 2015: 4). He defines culture as “those abilities, notions and forms of behaviour persons have acquired as members of society” (ibid.). Culture is hereby seen as a product of the social environment, it “refers to the acquired, cognitive and symbolic aspects of existence” (Hylland Eriksen 2015: 5). Hylland Eriksen also states that culture is always identified in contrast to another culture, only through the differences between cultures their boundaries become clear. At the same time, by meeting other cultures and having an exchange, the cultures are changing (Ibid.).

Also in opposition to the old static concept of culture, theoretical developments in cultural studies say that “cultural identities are not inherent, bounded or static: they are dynamic, fluid and constructed situationally, in particular places and times” (Wright 1988: 9). The new concepts of culture also emphasise its politicisation and idealisation. Holliday describes perceptions of culture as being “ideological and constructed by political interest” (Holliday 2010: 2), cultural ‘truths' are in this view socially constructed.

The discussion of culture is difficult at all times. It is likewise difficult to say what cultural differences are. But before discussing these difficulties, semantic approaches can first be used to analyse what ‘intercultural relations' are.

Intercultural relations

The prefix ‘inter' is defined as ‘between', ‘among', ‘reciprocally' (“inter-, prefix.”). Compounded, ‘intercultural' therefore refers to something, in this case the relationship, between different cultures. Intercultural relationships can be found everywhere, whether at work, at university, in politics or among friends.

When we talk about cultural differences, we often tend to list characteristics that correspond to national cultures, such as “Chinese always eat rice and Italians always eat pasta”. This categorisation of cultures corresponds to the old concept of culture, in which the characteristics of people are based on their nationality. It is still commonly used, mainly because it is easy way to categorise people on a cultural map. These characteristics are used to classify oneself and others. They imply values where one's own values serve as a reference and other cultures are usually considered less valuable (Ifversen & Thuno 2018: 13). The national concept of culture already shows the traps we run the risk of falling into when it comes to working internationally, like essentialism, othering, ethnocentrism, stereotyping, prejudice and bias. Jane Jackson has analysed these obstacles and how they “too often create barriers to successful, equitable intercultural interactions” (Jackson 2014: 158).


We are naturally attracted to people, “who share a similar language, culture and way of being and we may unconsciously or consciously shy away from those who do not belong to our ingroup” (Jackson 2014: 158). As a reaction to things that are different to us, we categorise in order to cope with the big amount of information we are faced with everyday. Based on experienced group patterns, we therefore draw conclusions about the behaviour of individuals, which can easily lead to essentialism.

Essentialism is the position that the attributes and behaviour of socially defined groups can be determined and explained by reference to cultural and/or biological characteristics believed to be inherent to the group. As an ideology, essentialism rests on two assumptions: (1) that groups can be clearly delimited; and (2) that group members are more or less alike. (Bucholtz 2003: 400, from Jackson 2014: 158)

Essentialism presents individual behaviour as fully defined, and as a result of the culture to which one belongs. Since it is mostly national-bound, it does not allow people to leave the culture assigned to them, which leads to feelings of inadequacy and exclusion (Holliday 2010: 4). Nevertheless, the term is still used to define cultures, even in science, for example by Hofstede (2001). He established a model, where characteristics of the ‘notional culture', such as power­distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism/collectivism, masculinity/femininity and long-term/ short-term orientation, are described and compared between countries (ibid.: 29). Even though this model is essentialising, which he himself admits and is highly criticised in academia, the model is still used to educate people about international interaction (Holiday 4).

This is mainly because an essentialising description is much easier than a non essentialising one, since it requires more cultural awareness and competence due to the recognition of the complexity of culture and people (Holliday 2010: 5). An essentialising statement would be, for example “I visited three cultures on holiday. They were Spain, Morocco and Tunisia” (Holliday 2010: 4), while a non essentialising statement would be, for example, “In each of the countries I visited there was something culturally different” (Ibid.). The essentialising statement describes culture as something static and easy to classify, it is explained as identical with borders, while the non essentialising statement is much more cautious and aware of the complexity behind the concept of culture Othering

As already stated, we are naturally attracted to the people who belong to our ‘in-group’ the ‘us’. Through this demarcation, we automatically build an ‘out-group’, which is ‘them’ (Abdallah- Pretceille 2003, from Jackson 2014: 159). This division leads to, or is a consequence of, categorising and essentialising whole groups on the basis of superficial characteristics by “pretending that knowing the other takes place through knowing her culture as a static object” (Abdallah-Pretceille 2003, from Jackson 2014: 159). This is called 'Othering'. The theory was developed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner in 1986 when they studied the theory of social identity of behaviour between groups. However, it does not only remain with the division into in­group and out-group, but also leads to ‘in-group favouritism’, which describes the favouring and improving position of one's ‘own group’. Often, this favouritism additionally leads to the narrative of “an idealised Self and a demonised Other” (Holliday 2010: 3), which will be illustrated in detail in the example of Ifversen and Thuno.

Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

The principle of ‘in-group favouritism’ is closely related to the concept of ethnocentrism (Jackson 2014: 160). Ethnocentrism is “[t]he sentiment of cohesion, internal comradeship, and devotion to the in-group, which carries with it a sense of superiority to any out-group and readiness to defend the interests of the in-group against the out-group” (Sumner 1911:11, from Jackson 2010: 160) . The ethnocentric mindset sees people from other cultures as inferior whereas the own worldview is seen as central and as “the only proper ways to think and behave” (Jackson 2014: 161) . Consequently, as noted by Lustig and Koester (2010:150, from Jackson 2014: 161), “ethnocentrism produces emotional reactions to cultural differences that reduce people’s willingness to understand disparate cultural messages”, mainly because it influences the way we communicate with each other.

Ethnocentrism is opposed to the concept of cultural relativism, which refers to the view that “beliefs, value systems and social practices are culturally relative, that is, no culture is inherently superior to another” (Jackson 2014: 161). Furthermore, this position recognises that individuals cannot be compared and contrasted by an absolute standard. Cultural relativism means ‘“to understand a communication practice from the other person’s cultural frame of reference” (Ibid.). Each of us has ethnocentric tendencies in us, because it is in our nature to categorise and join social groups. The aim is to be aware of this inclination by following the idea of cultural relativism.


A stereotype is a “preconceived idea that attributes certain characteristics (e.g. personality traits, intelligence), intentions and behaviours to all the members of a particular social class or group of people” (Jackson 2014: 161). In most cases, these characteristics are negative and relate to ethnicity, gender and age, and are a consequence of essentialism (Ibid.: 164). Stereotypes are difficult to change because they are unconsciously created by messages from people we respect, by our environment and the media. They often maintain even when they do not fit our actual experience. In order to change stereotypes that have been imprinted on us, we have to reflect our own thought processes and our behaviour and question things that we consider as fact.

Intercultural communication

Intercultural communication is a major component of intercultural relations, as “culture shapes communication (and vice versa)” (Jackson 2014: 88). It is defined by Jackson as “interpersonal communication between individuals or groups who are affiliated with different cultural groups and/or have been socialized in different cultural (and, in most cases, linguistic) environments”, it refers to both, verbal and non-verbal communication (Ibid: 3). If the interlocutors do not have the same background or experience, there is a high probability of misunderstandings, especially if the spoken language is not their mother tongue. There are many different factors which affect communication, the basic elements which form a communication are: sender, encoding, message, channel, noise (interference), receiver, decoding, receiver response, feedback and context (Ibid.: 76).

Decoding plays a major part, as it is the process by which the recipient tries to understand the correct meaning of a received message. The recipient first translates it literally and then tries to interpret it by putting cultural differences into context. Thus, the context is also very important to interpreter a message correctly. Hall defines it as “the information that surrounds an event; it is inextricably bound up with the meaning of that event” (Hall 2002: 166, from Jackson 2014: 84). The context is depending on the co-text, which is the “preceding and following utterances and/or expressions” (Ibid.), the “immediate physical situation”, the wider situation and the knowledge which is presumed shared between the communicators. This will be exemplified later in the examples of Kalin.

Non-verbal communication

Our non-verbal communication accounts for about 93% of the meaning of a message e.g. through facial expressions, voice quality or body movement (Jackson 2014: 101). Therefore, it is seen as the most powerful form of communication (Ibid.). Many non-verbal actions are innate and universal. Therefore, non-verbal communication is an important part of intercultural interaction, because it can be used to express oneself without even speaking the same language. However, not all non-verbal expressions are universal; some can even mean the exact opposite, like e.g., The American A-OK sign has sexual implications in many parts of Europe and is considered an obscene gesture (Jackson 2014: 114).


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Intercultural relations and communication at work. How do cultural differences influence intercultural relations?
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