How to avoid misunderstandings in intercultural communication

5 Jul 2023

What we need to know to make intercultural interaction work: An interview with communication expert Aleksandra Radosavljević

German studies graduate Aleksandra Radosavljević specializes in intercultural communication at PROFiL, an LMU institute devoted to honing the didactic skills of teaching staff. As part of the Together@lmu diversity initiative, the communication expert is holding a workshop that is open to any interested members of staff at LMU.

In personal interactions, we communicate on three levels: verbally, nonverbally and paraverbally.

© Jan Greune

What do you need to know to make intercultural communication work?

Aleksandra Radosavljević: The first step is thinking about your own culture. The most important thing is not necessarily to know the precise background of the person in front of you and to understand their culture. In many cases, this is not possible with adequate depth and differentiation. It is much more important to reflect on your own mindset and outlook and realize that what you take for granted might be completely new to another person.

Punctuality is often an issue, for example. There are countries with flexible time cultures where arranged times are interpreted more loosely. It is useful to know that so that you don’t take the late arrival of a guest personally, for instance. Another thing is to think about how you deal with the situation. For example, how do you point out to a colleague or student who always comes too late that this annoys you, that you expect them to be on time?

Where are misunderstandings most common in intercultural communication, and how can they be avoided?

First, it is important to be aware that we are all different and don’t accept the same things as normal. Take the example of a student who is supposed to give a presentation. If you put yourself in the lecturer’s shoes, it is useful to begin by stating exactly what you expect of a presentation. Even the demands placed on students vary from place to place – sometimes even within one and the same department. Second, there is the issue of providing feedback.

The way in which people give and receive feedback is presumably a frequent source of misunderstandings?

How direct or indirect criticism is to be made, be it in front of others or in private, varies all over the world – and not just from country to country, but often within a given society. In our own culture, too, not all of us share the same ability to distinguish between reasoned criticism of the content of a talk, for example, and criticism of the person delivering the talk. I come from Serbia, and I too found it strange to begin with: I would deliver a presentation, and then my presentation was discussed. I first had to understand that the debate was not criticism, but that the topic had simply aroused the interest of my listeners. It was therefore a positive sign if a lively discussion ensued.

In teaching situations, but also in meetings or staff appraisals, for example, it is helpful to all concerned to state clearly and in advance what style of communication you adopt, how you provide feedback – and how you yourself would like any valid criticism to be expressed. What we in Germany understand as critical thinking – questioning hypotheses, engaging in creative discussions and working together to achieve deeper insights – does not exist in this form in many cultures. That has to do with different ways of dealing with authority and hierarchies. If these differences are transparent and are clearly communicated, many misunderstandings can be avoided altogether.

As an expert in intercultural communication, do you perceive that people in today’s globalized society have become more sensitive to cultural differences?

What strikes me is that a lot of things have changed, specifically over the past twelve years and even more so because of the pandemic. The rise of the smartphone and the spread of digital communication have given us so many more ways than in the past to engage in dialogue with people from other cultures. And even when we have finished our studies, there are now many ways to explore the international arena.

At the same time, I see the need – particularly in the digital space – for people to express themselves more precisely in order to avoid misunderstandings. In our personal dealings we communicate on three levels: the verbal level, i.e. what we say; the non-verbal level, i.e. our body language, facial expressions and gestures; and the paraverbal level, i.e. our voice.

In digital meetings, the non-verbal level in particular – the body language – is lacking. How do we greet each other? How close together do we stand? What gestures do we make? What looks are exchanged around the room? What subtext do we convey? Closeness to others has been lost through digital communication, which often leads to uncertainties. But it helps if we practice transparent communication.

Aleksandra Radosavljević is an expert in intercultural communication | © Nicole Zausinger Fotografie

Workshop: Nurturing confidence in intercultural dealings

On 13-14 July 2023, Aleksandra Radosavljević will hold a workshop for LMU staff. Its primary goal is to teach the participants methods to help them deal confidently with linguistic and cultural differences, and to enable them to apply these methods in everyday life at the university. The workshop will involve brief keynote addresses, group work and work on individual case studies to raise awareness of both the challenges but also the opportunities afforded by intercultural dialogue.

What are you looking for?