THIS COLUMN was inspired by two research panels on intercultural business communication (IBC), one at the 2001 ABC Annual Convention in San Diego and one on IBC and language during the 2002 ABC European Convention in Aarhus, Denmark. Several of the contributors participated in both events, together with many other researchers from around the world, too numerous for us to mention here. After the 2002 symposium five of us continued our conversation on e-mail. IBC as a field is diverse and complex, both in what is considered worthy of study and in the methodologies used and related disciplines referred to. This column presents our views on the most pressing concerns in the field. Interestingly enough, four of us are permanently resident outside our native countries and all five of us regularly work in a language other than our first language. As researchers and teachers/trainers, we, therefore, drew on our own personal as well as professional experience as we formulated and discussed several key questions. The summary of that discussion follows.
How do you view intercultural communication in business contexts from your own national or disciplinary standpoint?
Francesca: The low profile of IBC in English-speaking countries (such as the UK) is a result of the more or less tacitly held assumption that "we do not need to worry, everybody speaks English anyway." The notion that factors other than competence in English need to be identified and analysed in intercultural interaction where English is the lingua franca would have been met with incredulity in some linguistic quarters only twenty years ago. My own research in an Anglo-Italian joint venture in the 1990s uncovered the same attitude among British managers. And to be fair, the Italian managers I interviewed also tended to place unwarranted hopes for improved communication with their counterparts in their long-term efforts to master English (Bargiela-Chiappini & Harris, 1997a).
The fallacy of an exclusive reliance on competence in a lingua franca, or for that matter, in the language(s) of other parties, has meant that the concept of the business deal continues to survive within a very narrow understanding of the intercultural encounter. Recently, however, research on IBC from regions as far apart as Scandinavia and Australia has begun to incorporate the insights and challenges of the discursive approach applied to business and management settings (Bargiela-Chiappini & Harris, 1997b). As far as I am aware in the UK, there has not been a high level of engagement with this new field of study, and it is perhaps significant that initiatives to promote IBC have tended to be organised by foreign scholars based at British universities in collaboration with colleagues from other European institutions. For example, the first formal UK event on IBC was a colloquium held in 2001 at the University of West England and convened by Helmut Daller (UWE) and Marinel Gerritsen (Nijmegen) (www.uwe.ac.uk/bbs/trr/Issue3/helm.htm). The only UK Master's degree course in Intercultural Communication was devised and led until recently by Helen Spencer-Oatey at Luton University.
Although UK-based research in IBC seems to remain confined to a small number of institutions and individuals, I believe that interest will grow from these modest beginnings. For example, the launch in 2000 of the Journal of Language and Intercultural Communication, with its strong UK-based editorial board, is a new space where scholars in intercultural business communication with a specific interest in the role of language can meet to discuss their current work and their expectations for the future of the field (www.cf.ac.uk/encap/langcom/ialic/journal.html).
Gina: In investigating intercultural business communication, I've been especially interested in the linguistic and interactional features of intercultural encounters in business. I think it's important for researchers to observe and study actual communication behavior in intercultural business settings. With people from a range of cultures now coming into contact more frequently to conduct business, multicultural groups are becoming more common, making it necessary to take into consideration the different degrees of international experience participants bring to the setting.
Like a number of researchers, I consider it important to take into account certain aspects of the business context and not just the national cultural backgrounds of interactants in intercultural business settings. An individual conducting business cannot be assumed to represent a homogenous national culture. Moreover, it is also necessary to exercise caution in interpreting certain research results. Asante and Gudykunst (1989) observe, for example, that it can be problematic when researchers use cultural categories to differentiate groups without measuring the individual participants on the relative cultural variable. For instance, if individualistic and collectivistic cultures are chosen, participants' individualism/collectivism would have to be assessed, since individualism describes a cultural tendency and not the individual, and a cultural tendency does not predict the individual's behavior.
It seems to me that cultural values may be less useful when actual interaction is of interest, especially when individuals from a range of cultures are involved. Furthermore, it may be possible that parties in intercultural settings adapt to each other such that convergence or communication accommodation become possible. Indeed, my own research on multicultural business meetings suggests that attributing difficulties, miscommunications, or communication behavior solely to linguistic and cultural differences, or to an interactant's membership in a national culture, overlooks social and organisational roles as well as other important situational factors, especially those related to business issues.
Yunxia: Intercultural communication is absolutely essential in New Zealand society as a whole as it is becoming more and more multicultural with its open immigration policies and increasingly globalised economy. This imperative is also reflected in business organisations. On the one hand, many organisations are international and have overseas business partners and clients. On the other hand, many organisations are either bicultural or multicultural in New Zealand and are composed of employees of various ethnic groups such as the Maoris, Chinese, Indians, and people from the Pacific Islands. However, intercultural communication hasn't really become a part of industry training or consultancy activities so far, and organisations mainly focus their attention on business missions and objectives.
The main reason for this can be related to the lack of practical feasibility in applying intercultural theories, together with the fact that research results are often derived from other countries such as the US and Japan. People in New Zealand businesses usually find it hard to relate these findings to their situation. Besides this, intercultural theories are characterised by the use of culture-dependent categories and lack the breadth and depth we need for problem solution in the business context. We, therefore, need to incorporate theoretical dimensions from other disciplines in order to make intercultural theories more relevant to us.
Anne Marie: Intercultural business communication in this fairly homogenous country (Denmark) is thought of as "international." This generally means consciousness-raising for Danes to perform well abroad, but there is also a smaller body of work into communication around mergers and acquisitions, when the new owners try to communicate a corporate culture to the locals, very largely in English. Viewed from the discipline of negotiation studies, with which I have most been involved as a …