How to listen with intercultural ears and see with intercultural eyes

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How to listen with intercultural ears and see with intercultural eyes

People rarely ask themselves whether they have interpreted properly during intercultural communication, and people often assume that they communicate well. However your interpretation might be inappropriate and you might not even notice as you are missing opportunities and delaying success.

When communicating, you should not only absorb the meaning of the words, you should essentially decode the tone of voice and read body language. No matter in which language you communicate, you will most likely interpret the whole content based on your own cultural point of view as you might have been culturally conditioned to do so.

Unfortunately, using your own cultural point of view could lead to negative outcomes of your intercultural relationships. Within an intercultural context, communications must be unambiguous. Let’s explore two ways bring cultures together.



  1. Listen with intercultural ears

On June 26, 1963, John F. Kennedy said “Ich bin ein Berliner” in West Berlin. Intended to mean “I am a Berliner [a person in Berlin]”, the structure of the sentence would grammatically mean “I am a Berliner [jelly donut]”.


Your uttered words do not carry the fully meaning of the conversation as your tone and energy of voice can bring a new perspective to the direction of the conversation, depending of the audience’s culture. As inferred, Kennedy’s political speech brought a sentiment of pride and drivenness due to the assertiveness and energy in his voice, but also, because these are elements that are similar in the German culture.

The cultural background of the listener plays an important role in determining the unsaid, which composes more than half of elements in a conversation. Kennedy’s use of this one German sentence charmed the German audience, created a trust relationship and saw a lot of support.


  1. See with intercultural eyes

In 2013, Microsoft’s Bill Gates visited the South Korean President Park Geun-Hye. His visit made headlines, not because of the nature of the event, but rather, because of Gates’ posture while shaking hands.

This demonstrates that each culture has its own preconceived meanings of facial expressions and body languages. Bill Gates’ handshake can be read as confidence and openness, however the South Korean media saw the same action as disrespectful and a message of superiority due to one hand hiding in a pocket. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has learned from Gates’ mistake and charmed the Korean media by delivering an appropriate South Korean handshake: weak and with a little bow to express age respect.


In the end, how we interpret tone and body language influences the degree we are willing to consider the other person’s opinion or respond to his or her request or offer. Therefore, go beyond cultural preconceptions to charm your interlocutor to grasp all the best opportunities and catalyze success.


Do you want to become a better highly effective intercultural communicator? Contact one of Orchimedia’s experts.




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