Why does a corporation like IBM have 420,000 employees representing 184 languages and 96 nationalities in markets worldwide? Today, businesses operate across borders and social and political boundaries. People are increasingly connected throughout the world through the internet, communication technologies and the ease of airline travel. Competitive, sustainable businesses can continually open new markets and build their presences and brands with professionals who can interact successfully with anyone, anywhere.

Organizations from the largest Fortune 500 multinational corporations to the smallest entrepreneurial start-ups must be effective at transcending the differences of geography and culture. They must employ professionals who are trained in communicating across boundaries and working with people from different backgrounds.

What Is Intercultural Communication in Business?

Intercultural communication is sharing information across boundaries, including geographic, cultural, social, ethnic, religious and educational backgrounds. Intercultural communication must occur among individuals within organizations, company representatives and external business partners and constituents.

Professionals who learn this valuable discipline in post-graduate programs like the University of Wisconsin-Parkside (WP) Master of Arts in Professional Communication online understand differences in how people with various backgrounds are impacted by their cultures, belief systems, social norms, perceptions and mentalities. Students will study all types of communication, including variances in systems of power, customs, communication standards and even things like mannerisms and hand gestures.

Because cultural features have implications on how business is conducted, a lack of cultural awareness and sensitivity can alienate coworkers, partners and clients and have a profoundly negative impact on a business’s bottom line. This makes investing in an interculturally fluent workforce imperative for businesses with serious global aspirations. As impressive as IBM’s investments in a diverse and global workforce are, they are the norm, not an outlier.

English as the ‘Lingua Franca’

English has long been the shared language of business matters and a leading way people communicate across international cultures. Beyond the language itself, English offers a knowledge ecosystem of business concepts that professionals can exchange within an organization or with external constituents or business partners.

Outside of the United States and Great Britain, most developed nations begin teaching English early on in school so that as students progress, they learn more of the language’s nuances. Many students also learn about the United States in particular and our social norms that govern communication. Since English-speakers have a home field language advantage going into globalized work environments, it is a sign of cross-cultural respect for English-speaking Americans to reciprocate the educational investment by training professionals in intercultural fluency.

The Importance of Cultural Fluency Training in a Global Economy

The United States is, in many ways, playing catch-up to other countries in cultural fluency training. Organizations are investing in efforts to teach their own leaders concepts of self-awareness and intercultural collaboration, taking steps to improve interactions that will drive their marketability worldwide. Most are also aggressively hiring new employees with university training in intercultural communications.

Here are just a few of the ways training enhances individual performance in a global organization:

  • Clear communications: Cultural fluency training teaches professionals to communicate clearly with a clear purpose, enunciation, diction and proper grammar (which is typically practiced more effectively by non-native speakers). Avoiding unnecessary jargon and complex sentence structures also helps to reduce confusion and misunderstanding.
  • Engendering respect and trust: Many cultures have more complex sets of social rules for establishing mutual respect and trust, particularly cultures in which honor is a primary value. For example, some cultures may be put off by direct approaches and perceive them as confrontational. Knowing what it takes to strike the right chord with your audience enables communicators to establish rapport and common ground for mutual understanding.
  • Productive negotiations: There are different sets of beliefs that must be accounted for, varying group dynamics from one culture to another, different negotiation processes and subtle differences in language and the meanings of terms. A cross-cultural framework enables individuals to sidestep the oversights that can cause friction or misunderstanding between parties, often before substantive discussions occur.
  • Enjoyment and less stress: A lack of knowledge about cultural differences causes unexpected friction between people. This can taint the work experience and make collaboration a chore when it should be a joy to interact with different people. Knowledge reduces gaps in understanding so that people can enjoy the process of working together toward common goals.

To improve your own marketability in a hypercompetitive global environment, it is essential to master the intricacies of cultural differences and navigate different communication styles and world views. It is just as important to have intercultural knowledge to position yourself as a competent communicator ready to hit the ground running.

Learn more about the UWP Master of Arts in Professional Communication online program.


Association for Talent Development: The Importance of Intercultural Communication Training to the Global Workforce

Harvard Business School: Why Businesses Need a Language Strategy

Medium: Business English as a ‘Lingua Franca’ (BELF)

Polyglot: 5 Secrets to Meaningful Intercultural Communication