01.04.1998   ©1998 - Patrick Boylan – patrickboylan.it

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In: Donal Lynch & Adrian Pilbeam (Eds.), Heritage and Progress. From the past to the future in intercultural understanding.,
Bath: LTS, 2000, pp.106-116.   (Proceedings of the 8th Annual SIETAR Europa Congress, April 1 - 5, 1998, University of Bath)

To be or not to be: success or failure in intercultural communication

Patrick Boylan

Department of Linguistics, University of Rome III (Italy)






Intercultural communicative competence requires more than an ability to use a foreign language correctly and appropriately, to accept tolerantly the other party's "cultural peculiarities", and to grasp the dynamics of conversational exchanges between people with different mother tongues and backgrounds. Often, to be truly effective, one must accept to be a novice member of the other culture and, in that position, learn how to act from one's interlocutors. This principle, which we call "cultural assimilation," might usefully be implemented in the language training programs of international agencies and global companies.



The thesis


This paper takes as its premises Malinowski’s (1923) vision of language as merely the musical accompaniment to a communicative event — the event itself being existential in nature — and his definition of authentic intercultural understanding as seeing (and saying) things "from the native’s point of view".


In the domain of language teaching and intercultural training, the implications of Malinowski’s view of human communicative behaviour are enormous. If communicating is establishing a relationship, not transmitting data (see also Watzlawick et al. 1967), then it is not enough to get one’s students to use a second language (henceforth, L2) "correctly" from the standpoint of grammar and lexis and "appropriately" from the standpoint of pragmatics and sociolinguistics. If, to sound genuine in an L2, speakers must truly share the values expressed by the language they are using (see also Dacheux 1994), then it is not enough to get one’s students to imitate mechanically foreign ways of talking and behaving. In the long run, playacting gets detected and may cause amusement, irritation or even distrust (Janicki 1986).


Instead, the task of language teachers and intercultural trainers — given our premises — is to get students to place themselves in the existential perspective of their interlocutors (Boylan & Mari, forthcoming). That perspective is not simply cognitive, but also emotional and volitional. Simulation games which simply aim at getting students to understand the other party’s value system are therefore not enough. Internalisation activities are required, ones that lead students to adopt and even prefer (for a certain length of time) their interlocutors’ value system (id.). In a word, this paper advances the thesis that learning to communicate across cultures means, in the final analysis, learning to acculturate, i.e. learning to become one with the other culture.


This thesis does not imply that, in order to acculturate, one must abandon the personal agenda one has set for oneself in one’s native culture. But it does imply that one must go about carrying out that agenda in a different manner. For example, a European Union negotiator sent to Albania to curb clandestine emigration to the EU might indeed feel inside her, if she had successfully "acculturated" to Albanian mores before undertaking her mission, the population’s fatalistic frustration with their current lot and their rebellious sense of injustice over the immense disparity of wealth separating them from neighbouring EU countries. This would not lead her, however, to disregard her mandate. She would by no means, out of sympathy, lend a hand to the clandestine emigration movement. Her acculturation would, instead, translate into a more effective style of negotiation with the Albanian leaders and a deeper, more constructive rapport with them; it would also quite probably translate into a greater capacity to devise imaginative solutions to keep the population from wanting to leave Albania in the first place. For the EU it would be like having recruited a negotiator who had spent part of her childhood and university years in Albania and who, even while using English or French or Italian to defend the point of view of the European Union, was able to make Albanians feel she was speaking their language.


We may define "learning to acculturate", then, as "acquiring the capacity to assume, albeit temporarily, a sensibility and a mind-set (or Weltanschauung, [world-outlook]) consonant with the society whose language one wishes to assimilate" (Boylan 1998). Neither the mind-set (world-outlook) nor the sensibility are totally definable in terms of one's native cultural matrix and even less so in terms of a diluted, transcultural matrix — i.e., the "cultural universals" commonly found in cross-cultural studies.





The definition just given is, clearly, a "hard line" view of intercultural communication. There are obviously less radical conceptions, specifically the ones that global companies have implemented in their in-house language training programs and internal/external relations policies.


To show how the various conceptions relate one to another, we must first clarify how the communication needs of global companies have changed with the progressive changes in their organisational structure. This will also enable us to decide which approach to teaching language and intercultural communication skills is appropriate for a given in-house training program.


We may conveniently classify company organisational structure on the basis of where its products are made and sold and therefore, as a consequence, the kind of contact with foreigners that its production/distribution system presupposes. A company’s operations may in fact be national, international, multinational or transnational. On the basis of this classification, we may then distinguish the kind of L2 skills which staff must have for each organisational structure: these are, respectively, grammar/translation skills, communicative skills, cultural-communicative skills or intercultural skills. The following table presents our classification in detail.



Profile of Changing Language Needs in a Changing Corporate World 


CONTACT with foreigners

L2 SKILLS needed



 1. National

Production and sales are handled in the home country. Contact with foreigners is generally limited to correspondence (sales, purchases). Phone calls, rare, are factual.

Grammar/translation. Skill in reading/translating restricted code: standard grammar, business register, letter style. Factual phone calls can also be handled, albeit minimally, using this restricted code (and much repetition).

As exports increase, the company may open foreign Sales Offices: it thus becomes

 2. International

Production remains national but sales operations are dislocated abroad and run by local agents. If agents are not bilingual, supervisors from the parent company need to know the L2 for transactions (otherwise just for travel).

Head office: Grammar/translation. Foreign Sales Supervisors: Communicative (at Threshold Level).  Service encounter phraseology and gambits for small-talk. Even if the L2 is used to do business, only basic conversational/negotiation skills are needed (money does most of the talking).

If sales are high in a given country, a subsidiary may be created locally: the company becomes


Both production and sales are dislocated in the target countries (the home industry is duplicated). The parent company sends both managers and technicians who must grasp local work habits, mentalities, lingo...

Head office: Communicative (at Proficiency Level). Transactional and interpersonal oral/written skills; fluency; accuracy (for the firm’s image). Expatriate staff: Cultural/Communicative (at Proficiency Level). Above skills plus a high degree of cultural awareness and capacity to assimilate.

To augment efficiency, single tasks may be divided up among different nations: the firm becomes


Production and sales are "distributed". Components, designed in countries A & B, are produced in C & D, assembled in E & F and sold regionally/globally. Management teams are intercultural; relocations are frequent.

All staff: Intercultural/Communicative (at Proficiency Level). Above skills plus an ad hoc "norm reconstruction/assimilation capability" (e.g. knowing how to adapt a vehicular L2 to different non-native speakers of that language, even simultaneously, as in a meeting or teleconference).



The kind of linguistic and cultural competence described in the first part of this paper is clearly geared to the third Profile given above —specifically, that of the expatriate staff of a multinational. But it also covers the competence required by the entire staff of a transnational. Indeed, knowing how to "espouse" the values of one’s interlocutor may be considered a universal principle of effective communication. One tends to apply it even when speaking with compatriots in one’s native language.


In fact, once we begin thinking about it, effective communication through cultural assimilation does not seem like such a radical principle after all. It is, for example, what we do spontaneously when we speak to a small child, espousing momentarily her/his mentality, or to a venerable cleric using language a bit more proper and respectful of religion than the way we normally talk. While speaking to them we are both ourselves and yet somehow part of their world. (We sound false only if we are in fact hypocritical in pretending to share their values.) For the same reason, should we find ourselves in Minneapolis or Montreal, we try to adjust our BBC English or Parisian French so as not to seem to the people there to be "putting on airs". If our linguistic adjustments truly derive from sharing our hosts’ sensitivity, we will not appear to be (nor will we in fact be) affected.


Not many companies — whether national, international, multinational or transnational — would agree, however, with this philosophy. Or rather, they might very well agree in theory, but not in practice — at least judging by their language-training and communication policies. Hoecklin (1993) distinguishes three trends:





The Siemens credo, as expressed by the company’s Language and Intercultural Training Department, appears decidedly tolerant (Hoecklin 1991:43):


This philosophy clearly takes what we have called a "soft-line" on intercultural divergences. We label it "soft" because getting employees to become tolerant of divergent behaviour and blending their different cultural values into a uniform code is much less radical than getting them to (momentarily) adopt their foreign interlocutor’s divergent behaviour and to prefer their foreign interlocutor’s values to their own.


For example, the German head of Siemens/Italy might, by constantly repeating to herself the three rules just listed, manage to tolerate her staff’s tardiness Thursday mornings after a mid-week football match. She might even learn to compensate for it by automatically planning meetings no earlier than 10 a.m. on Thursdays. But this does not mean that she has learned to feel that she, too, should be watching mid-week matches with pleasure (or at least with enough involvement to be able to grasp what is happening and thus be able to fathom people’s moods on the following day). Nor does it mean that she now feels free to adjust her own morning arrival time creatively, according to circumstances. In other words, she has learned to be tolerant of Italian culture without actually seeing things from the standpoint of that culture. As for her linguistic needs, she can get by perfectly well with a Level 2 competence in Italian, since she needs only to communicate facts and orders and has no intention of creating a rapport with her subordinates.


ICI Pharmaceuticals, on the other hand, seems to be heading — rightly so, according to the thesis defended in this paper — toward a "hard-line" policy on intercultural communication. An example will make the point clearer.


ICI management had long known that, when working on joint projects, employees from their Italian subsidiary often clashed with the British liaison team, felt to be "obsessed with rules and procedures, inflexible, overly formal, and incapable of revealing emotions" (Hoecklin 1991:10). The Italians, on the other hand, were described by the British team as "undisciplined, emotional, incapable of meeting a deadline, and aversive to planning" (id., p.11). A consultant was finally called in to organise a joint cultural awareness workshop for both groups at the Italian subsidiary. Through realistic simulations of specific joint projects, the two groups learned to "share best practices", i.e. imitate each other. To do so, it was necessary for each group to internalise the other group’s value system, at least enough to be able to act effectively (and genuinely) according to that group’s style.


Thus, the Italians learned that with a given kind of project in a given (Northern European) context, careful planning can be used creatively to produce unexpectedly better results than they could have hoped for otherwise. The British managers learned that, with other kinds of projects and in typically Mediterranean contexts, improvisation has a logic of its own that can produce unexpectedly better results (if practised creatively). Note that the two groups of managers did not arrive at a single, uniform, compromise behaviour. Rather, they took stock of where and with whom they were operating, case by case, and adapted their cultural style accordingly. The British managers, on certain occasions, became a bit Italian — not out of condescension but to maximise their creative potential — and vice versa.


Most important, the two groups acquired the capacity to learn from each other. Each one, thrown into a new and different cultural context by means of the simulations, had to seek help and clarification from the "natives", i.e. from members of the other culture. This is precisely what Agar (1980) says ethnographers should do. In order to assimilate a host country’s culture, ethnographers should "act dumb" and accept to be taught by the natives — an easy thing to do since they in fact are dumb (in the unfamiliar culture) and depend entirely on the natives to learn what "counts" and what "doesn’t count" there. This approach is also the basis of the method this paper will propose for acquiring Level 3 skills (i.e., Cultural-Communicative skills) in an L2. Unfortunately, the brief ICI Pharmaceuticals workshop did not allow for such language training — a pity since anchoring a newly-acquired cultural orientation to specific linguistic forms (intonation, euphemisms, ways of interrupting, etc.) guarantees that every time one speaks the L2 one will shift one’s mental perspective. Otherwise what one learns experientially at a cultural awareness workshop risks becoming just a memory, i.e. a series of concepts one finds increasingly difficult to apply as time goes by and one is once again conditioned by one’s native language.



Taking the existential plunge


This paper does not claim that "introjecting the other party’s value system" is necessarily the best way to prepare for intercultural communication in all circumstances. We have in fact seen that the "zero-degree approach" works adequately for Emerson Electronics, perhaps because the firm has effectively reduced its interaction with foreign subsidiaries to pure accountancy. We have also seen that the "negative approach" adopted by Ikea seems to win favour with employees and the public world-wide (evidently, even Nordic "exotism" can prove attractive). As for the "positive approaches" to intercultural communication, Siemens’ soft-line may indeed be ideal for German managers, if they are generally reluctant to practice full immersion into a host culture. We might even raise doubts about the lasting value of the hard-line approach this paper advocates: true, the ICI Pharmaceuticals training program worked (participants did change their behaviour); but this may have simply been due to the fact that the Italians were (predictably) natural born actors and that the British managers, swayed by all the sun and wine at hand, momentarily let themselves go. What, one might ask, was the Italians’ behaviour in the months following the workshop, with the spotlights no longer upon them? Did the British managers’ behavioural changes really take root, once back in foggy England? The Hoecklin report does not say.


But even assuming that the results obtained during the workshop did in fact last over time, one could still argue that "soft-line" intercultural training would have been enough. Instead of learning to "be" Italian while in certain contexts, the British team could simply have learned to understand and tolerate the ways Italians do things, when working together with them. After all, the foreign staff of multinationals do not normally expect head-office supervisors to meet them "more than half-way" culturally. (In the case of Ikea staff, they do not even expect to be met half-way.) Anything taught over and above that is not strictly necessary, it might be claimed, since it goes beyond what one’s future interlocutors can reasonably demand.


That may be so. It would seem however indisputable that, at least on some occasions, the Swedish, American, German, British and Italian staff of the firms we just described, might need to meet a foreign interlocutor more than half-way, i.e., on her or his cultural grounds. Their job might one day depend on successfully closing a deal or, caught in an upheaval, their personal safety might be at stake. In cases like these it could be imperative for them to know how to grasp and internalise their interlocutor’s Weltanschauung, in order to make their case as strongly and convincingly as possible. We therefore submit that, whatever the bulk of a training program might be, the "hard-line" approach to intercultural communication ought to be taught as a required complementary competence — one to hold in reserve for times in which it may be vital.


And why hold it in reserve? Knowing how to meet one’s interlocutors more than half-way culturally could be useful in almost any situation! Admittedly, by adopting the other party’s language and value system, one may feel shackled verbally and in a situation of psychological inferiority. But, with proper training, one can transform this apparent handicap into a real negotiating advantage (Boylan, forthcoming). This is because acceptance of the other party’s language and cultural references actually allows one to control the flow of information. In addition it allows one to grasp the other party’s position more genuinely (id.). Of course, if trainees feel uncomfortable with practising cultural assimilation, one has no choice but to use a soft-line approach with them. In training there is no "best way"; there are only ways that are "optimal given the circumstances".


The question becomes, then, how do teachers or trainers get students to accept to take the existential plunge into a culture perceived initially as alien? How do students learn to "be" a bona fide member of the target culture, in order to communicate successfully as one? The present paper cannot give a full answer since its purpose is mainly to raise the question of what goals to set in intercultural training. But to give the reader an idea of possible techniques, we shall list the five stages of a program currently conducted by the author at the University of Perugia (Italy). For each stage we indicate the activity, the change that it is intended to produce in the students, and the tools used by the teacher or trainer:




Linguistics treats language as a means of representing things; pragmatics, as a means of doing things (including creating the "verbal representations" that linguists study). This paper argues for treating language as a means of being. It proposes studying speech as the manifestation of existential values (culturally determined to a large extent) collocated in a scene (the enactment of an unfolding intent): speaking is the holistic construing of existential states. This is how ethnologists proceed in assigning meaning to the words they encounter in participant observation (coming to know a community by living in it as a member and sharing its values for a certain time). This is also the rationale behind the five-step learning process described above.


What are the advantages of learning languages in this perspective, i.e., as cultural assimilation? From a purely linguistic standpoint, it improves our ability to converse: we follow our interlocutors more easily and give to what we say a more authentic ring. From a cultural standpoint, awareness of how speech is "taking a stance" verbally allows us to detect the existential values implicit in the way our foreign interlocutors use their language (values which are much more subtle and important than those we detect by observing their attire, sense of punctuality, or eating customs). This awareness helps us to grasp — beyond what our interlocutors say — what they are getting at. It allows us to express ourselves in a way that facilitates their understanding and acceptance of what we are getting at. In a word, it augments our intercultural communicative competence.











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