Intercultural Communication and Business [Meeting Recap]

Summary: At our September 7 meeting, linguist, tech communicator and intercultural communication expert Madeleine Adkins presented strategies to help international travelers and business people recognize and deal with cultural issues. Read on for more…


With laid-back charisma, Madeleine Adkins delivered an insightful presentation at the Brass Door on September 7, driving home the importance of learning about cultural differences, whether for work or play, in foreign soil or within divergent US communities. Upping the entertainment value, she illustrated her points with personal stories from her many years of working in Japan and a hilarious video clip. As is usual with “The Friendly Chapter,” dinner meeting attendees chimed in with their own lively examples and stories. The following are a few of the best gems from her presentation:

Why did that happen? Why did he do that? Why are they looking at me that way?

The real question is, “What is culture?” Behaviors are driven by social norms, values and implicit agreement on what’s supposed to happen. They vary, for example, by nationality, region, politics and corporate and religious beliefs. Compare the worldview of a Japanese native with that of an American—a software engineer with a marketing manager—or the startup mentality with the culture within large corporation. The issues that arise are often related to unique perspectives understandable to only one side, or that don’t make sense without context.

The behaviors we see are only the tip of the iceberg

Tip of IcbergThe majority of cultural drivers are hidden—all the more dangerous because they are unseen. Culture that
you can see (e.g., clothing styles, greetings, signage, behaviors) is influenced by social rank, regional
history and attitudes, and more—with no visible indicators. These are the values determining what the
culture believes it should strive to be and do, and how it orients to the world. Based on this, Madeleine then
led discussions on mainstream American values and those of Japanese and other countries, as well as on the
reasons for the development of individualistic cultures (like the USA) with collectivist cultures (like Japan).

Entertaining real-world examples

  • A YouTube excerpt from the movie Mr. Baseball was a hilarious illustration of a clueless American trying to fit in at the Japanese dinner table, who became more offensive with every action.
  • Early in her first job in Japan, being an assertive young woman of 24, Madeleine loudly and publicly disagreed with her Japanese boss’s decision. His response to this unheard-of behavior (in Japan) was to giggle, which mystified her until she became more attuned to the culture.
  • Seeking a room rental with a savvier colleague in Japan, Madeleine was told at the door, “Yes, I have a room available. But it’s very messy right now,” which seemed like a qualified “yes.” She learned later that this was, in fact, an indirect but firm “No.”
  • Trying to get her visa renewed, Madeleine had to temper her frustration at being ignored in the Immigration office. A more experienced British colleague advised her to be patient, keep her eyes down, and wait until she was called on.
  • Driving home the importance of learning from one’s colleagues, Madeleine shared the story of the persistent co-worker who finally got interlopers to vacate their pre-booked conference room by repeating polite variations of, “I thought this was our room…” with head poked in through the doorway.

Dealing with current cultural trends

  • You can’t say “no” in Japan—but everybody there knows this and has workarounds.
  • Understand how legacies of power and privilege play into interactions, behaviors and level of directness in communication style. (Example: India’s culture, in light of its past as a colony of Britain.)
  • Be sensitive to the effects of cultural “appropriation:” borrowing another culture’s word use, costumes, folk clothing, etc. (Example: “The Braves” as a sports team name). This becomes an issue when there is a power imbalance.
  • Be mindful of the diversity of identity in today’s world (e.g., “non-binary” sexual identity), which may affect interactions, language and worldviews.

The D.I.E. tool for understanding an unsettling cultural moment

  • Description: What just happened? What did I see, hear, observe that upset me?
  • Interpretation: What do I think it meant?
  • Evaluation: How did it make me feel? How did I react?

After using the tool, get another person’s perspective by discussing what happened and your D.I.E. assessment with an open mind. Rather than believing you already know the interpretation, try to learn more about this other culture from the experience, and then make choices about your response.

Madeleine closed with advice that works well in the business world and beyond: Continuously make efforts to recognize and learn more about other cultures around you. When encountering a different culture, go in with your eyes open and be observant and flexible enough to adapt and deal with what you find.