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Intercultural communication: Meetings


Imagine you are at an international conference in the interpreters’ booth. The presenter starts speaking and you start interpreting. The speech starts with a joke and you have to think quickly and find a translation that works both linguistically and culturally. Luckily, the audience laughs! Phew! 

Even though the joke might be well accepted, there are a lot of ‘what-ifs’. What-if the joke isn’t funny or relevant and is met with blank stares? Even worse, what-if the joke is misunderstood or, even worse, the audience finds offensive?

 Maybe it’s safer to avoid jokes in intercultural settings. 


Understanding different cultures

Prior to an international meeting, the preparation starts with good planning and understanding different cultures. This is why business language teachers assist their learners in becoming aware and relating to the new culture at some level, whether they need to relocate or just start doing business in a new environment and markets.

The power of cross-cultural knowledge, deriving from ‘scientia potentia est’ by Sir Francis Bacon, equips us with understanding and awareness of cultural differences and diversities. There are two eminent experts in this field, and we are going to take a closer look into their research.

Geert Hofstede, one of the most influential names in this area, defines six cultural dimensions that govern individuals’ value system: Power Distance Index (PDI), Individualism (IDV), Masculinity (MAS), Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI), Long-Term Orientation (LTO) and Indulgence (IND). Hofstede’s data on these dimensions can be found HERE, such as the example for the UK in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Hofstede Insights


According to another prominent theorist in the field, Richard Lewis, cross-cultural awareness ‘helps you do better business through understanding your own and other cultures, developing the skills to bridge the gaps, and getting the best out of diversity.’

Richard Lewis developed The Lewis Model of Culture based on the following three cultural categories: Linear-Active, Multi-Active and Reactive, as shown in Figure 2.


Figure 2. The Lewis Model


Teaching cross-cultural awareness

When it comes to teaching cross-cultural awareness in language training, it means incorporating cultural elements within the lesson. Cross-cultural awareness is a multi-layered understanding of many elements from nationality, corporate, professional and personal identity, education, gender and class. At the same time, there is a fine line between generalisations and stereotypes. Belonging to a culture does not mean that every individual represents the stereotype. Even when there is no language barrier, that does not mean the cross-cultural understanding comes as a default, as people who have the same first language may come from different cultural backgrounds. Hence the necessity for teachers to include the cultural aspect in business language lessons as a crucial and an integral part of language training.


The goal is to make sure learners develop clear, precise, and on-point communication skills in a target language. Maintaining high professional etiquette, among other things, means using correct register: Mr and Mrs or Ms in English, Herr and Frau in German, including the French ‘vous’ or the German ‘Sie’ and ultimately demonstrating best professional etiquette in the local culture. Understanding how not to offend or how to be polite at cross-cultural meetings has become a vital component in mastering the local common practice of running a meeting: who speaks when (turn taking), following hierarchy, showing respect, giving suggestions, accepting or declining an offer politely, dealing with interruptions and excuses. Afterall, just like an iceberg that might have a hidden much larger mass underneath the water, culture too has to be seen and understood properly.


Here is a list of some techniques to bridge differences at cross-cultural meetings:

  • Knowing the local protocol
  • Understanding the local etiquette
  • Showing respect
  • Accepting the differences
  • Speaking slowly
  • Delivering clear messages
  • Being an active listener
  • Taking notes for accuracy
  • Asking for clarification
  • AND avoiding humour


According to the Lewis Model, knowing, for example, that Japanese belong to the reactive group, when doing business, we need to understand that they are indirect, polite and patient. Dutch, being linear-active job-oriented, are polite but direct, whereas Italians as multi-active are emotional and people oriented.

Hofstede's insights, on the other hand, explain that Dutch and Italians have higher Individualism scores than Japanese, whereas Japan and Italy have higher Masculinity scores than the Netherlands.

However, all those groups may overlap or contradict, they are not mutually exclusive. As much as we think we belong to one or another category, there is a large influence on these originating from our character, background, vocation and what we strive to accomplish. These distinctive categories merely elaborate what is dominant in order to better prepare ourselves and help us predict what to expect from others, the way people behave or are likely to behave and how to ensure the smoothest possible transactions when doing business across geographies.



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