Intercultural Competency: Three Guidelines for Two-Way Communication

Intercultural Competency: Three Guidelines for Two-Way Communication

Sarah Smith’s mother and father, German and Irish by origin, U.S. born and raised, will meet her future in-laws for the first time. Steven Hoang, her fiancé, and his family moved to the United States from Vietnam over 20 years ago.

When the Hoangs arrive, the Smith parents stand four feet away as they bow repeatedly in welcome, blare traditional Vietnamese music, and immediately inquire about Tet, Vietnamese New Year. (Yes, Sarah turned bright red, and poor Steven just stood blankly in shock).

Where did the Smiths go wrong?

While they meant well, the Smith parents risked insulting the Hoangs with assumptions, stereotypical questions, and instantly identifying the differences between the two families. They missed the mark of conversational convergence by predetermining their differences.

Luckily for Sarah and Steven, the Hoang parents, though uncomfortable with the Smiths’ exaggerated attempt to connect, responded graciously.

Today, the chance of crossing paths with someone from a significantly different background and lifestyle—at the gym, in the local grocery store, at school—are just about guaranteed. The ever-increasing diversity in society makes intercultural communication a necessary skill. Next time you enter into an intercultural encounter, remember these three conversational guidelines:

  1. Differences Do Not Always Mean Complete Opposites

  Elephants and mice still have a few things in common.

“Intercultural communication occurs when people from different backgrounds interact,” says Intercultural Communication Professor David Dixon. “It differs from other kinds of communication only in that the differences between the partners are broad enough that they warrant special attention to allow effective communication.”  

Pathways to open conversations only happen when communicators maintain open minds and unbiased filters. “One problem is a false dichotomy of thinking that other people are either just like me or so different from me that we have nothing in common,” explains Dixon. “Neither one of these extremes is usually true or helpful. Instead, we need to think in dialectical ways that recognize both differences and similarities and take both into account in our interactions.”

Connections are made on a variety of different levels. If one approach does not work, try another.

  1. You Makeup One-Half of a Two-Way Conversation

Arriving at a new location becomes a lot harder if your GPS is turned off

Effective communication requires both people to learn, understand and adapt in conversation.

“When trying to bridge the gap with someone with whom you have differences—be they cultural, ideological, socio-economic, theological—I think it’s important to first pause and then work together to identify exactly how you differ from one another,” says Director of International Student Programs Kevin Villegas.  “I say this because doing so requires a great deal of critical thinking and it takes being in relationship with each other.”

The ability to meet the other person half-way becomes important when trying to reach mutual understanding. “Once you identify how you differ, you should commit to putting your perspective in check and listen deeply to the other, trying hard to see things through the other’s lived experience and reality,” explains Villegas. 

This conversational process and intentionality often leads to a shift in preconceived bias or assumptions. notes that “effective intercultural communication allows us to dispel myths, break down stereotypes, foster more respect and acceptance, and build more cooperative relationships with one another.”

  1. Your Words and Actions Could Mean More Than Just Your Interpretation

Wii in the United States means something entirely different than wee in England.

During an intercultural encounter, the linguistic and gestural meanings may differ significantly between the communicators. This could include differences in eye contact, speech patterns, physical contact, display of emotion, and levels of privacy. Take time to access the situation and read the other communicator’s body language.

Spanish Linguistics Professor Neryamn Nieves explains that levels of personal space and physical touch change between cultures.  “In Hispanic countries, one kisses, shakes hands, or pats the arm in a greeting. Many U.S. Hispanics keep a variation of the practice in their home country.”  People from countries that emphasize distance might not be accustomed to this type of greeting.

The ability to recognize linguistics and gestural differences becomes especially important in the workplace. Companies with a vastly diverse workforce or strong ties in the global marketplace should invest in diversity training. The ability to intentionally communicate and understand intercultural differences in a work environment will contribute to the success or failure of a business.

Like any other skill, learning to communicate with people from different backgrounds takes time. “Humility is vital. You will make mistakes, but fortunately most people are understanding and gracious,” says Dixon. “Taking the stance of a learner and trusting others goes a long way to building relationships across cultural differences.”

As the night continued, the two families found many differences between their lifestyles, but none required the messy welcome mat rolled out by the Smiths. It turns out, the Hoangs love hugs and enjoy many genres of music… Vietnamese is not one of them. The Smiths did get one thing right though: by the end of the evening they were invited to join the Hoangs for Tet the following weekend. Sarah and Steven lived happily ever after.  


-Lisa Monteiro ‘17