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Cross-Cultural Communication: An Introduction

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By Alexis Fisher

National Intern, Spring 2016

Students with The Cisneros Center’s American Dream Leaders Program met with speaker and community partner Kevin Scherer. Mr. Scherer spent time with the American Dream Leaders to discuss his role in a multi-cultural, cross-cultural work environment. In his session he spoke to the Leaders about the importance of partnerships, and knowing your audience. Such subjects feed into the study of Cross-Cultural Communication, a skill and understanding that is necessary to immigrant integration.

Cross-cultural communication is the study and practice of communication techniques between two or more people from different cultural backgrounds. Cross-cultural communications can include the use of eye contact, personal space, silence, cultural responses to emotions, greetings, signs of respect and any and all forms of nonverbal communication when interacting with another of a different cultural from one’s own.

Cross-cultural communication is utilized in every facet of social interaction whether one is aware or not. As one learns more of another’s background, instantaneous judgements are made as to what might constitute a positive interaction. The judgements are made quickly when both cultures in an interaction are fairly similar, i.e. one person from Cincinnati, Ohio that interacts with another from Madison, Wisconsin. Cultural communication may become increasingly difficult between cultures that are vastly different, i.e. someone from Scranton, Pennsylvania that interacts with another from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

However, distance is not the only variable in cultural disconnect. In a ten block radius, the culture of one born and raised in the upper class can be boundlessly different from one in the middle or lower class. Such a disconnect has been humorously satirized a number of times in media with films like Trading Places or My Fair Lady. However, cross-cultural communication is essential to business, education, and even day to day interactions. Therefore cultural disconnect, while often portrayed humorously, can be terribly impactful and detrimental to a community or society as a whole.

With workplace diversity on the rise, cross cultural communication is establishing itself as a staple in the way business is conducted in the modern world. One of the goals of the Cisneros Center and the American Dream Leaders program is to provide students with the skills needed to thrive in an increasingly diverse workforce.

There are several examples of cultural missteps in business, including Kentucky Fried Chicken’s expansion to the Chinese market, with thousands of signs preaching “Eat Your Fingers Off” rather than the preferred “Finger Lickin’ Good” slogan, and The Dairy Association’s attempt to expand their market into Mexico, only to find that their ever popular “Got Milk?” campaign was, in fact, inquiring whether Mexican consumers were lactating. Humorous as they are, these gaffes were extremely expensive to eradicate and replace as well as a fireable offense. Both mistakes could have easily been avoided had the respective companies hired cross-culturally competent employees as well as made an effort to become more culturally literate in the areas they wished to expand to.

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