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Fit for foreign cultures

Eberhard Hohl

"Hidden Signals" is the title of a series of publications on intercultural communication studies. Different communication styles within individual countries lead again and again to misunderstandings in business and private life. Even though we use a foreign language, misunderstandings occur because we are often unaware of the intercultural aspects. The guiding maxim is: "It's not the intention that counts, but the effect!”

The seminar "Intercultural Management" is designed to address this problem and familiarize students with different cultural characteristics, visible, known, and - much more complicated - hidden, unknown facts. In the seminar, intercultural competence is built up and strengthened to act successfully in everyday life during studies and later in the workplace (for example, in presentations, project meetings, negotiations). The students are actively involved in this "journey through cultures" through teamwork, case studies, and role-plays. They learn the theoretical references of intercultural characteristics and dimensions and the practical tools for communication and cooperation.

Culture - a complex entity - is always and above all, related to communication. "Culture is the software of the mind" (Geert Hofstede). The invisible, often hidden signals play a decisive role in this. The "intercultural iceberg" shows that values, attitudes, and emotions (the larger part of the iceberg) control human beings' visible behavior. We should be sensitized and know how to "decipher" these culture-specific (often non-verbal) phenomena and use them professionally in everyday life.

Differences in dealing with time can be seen in the attitude towards punctuality. Punctuality is essential in our part of the world; in Latin America, Southern Europe, or the Middle East, timeliness is an exception rather than a rule. You also need to know to lead time, timing, and other peculiarities to succeed in business. Every culture has its language and its language of time! Some of these peculiarities will be explained in an exemplary and country-specific way concerning communication and cooperation. These are culturally oriented, necessary attitudes taken into account in the relevant literature (for example, in the studies by Hofstede, Trompenaars, and Hall).

"Intercultural Management" deals with the culturally determined differences in the working behavior of people and the organization of productive (communication) relationships between employees, customers, and business partners from different cultural circles. The course, therefore, has two main focuses: On the one hand, it is about country-specific observation (for example, Scandinavia, China, Singapore, Thailand, India), and on the other hand, it is about the strengthening of intercultural competence, the facets of which can be experienced together with the students in an assessment center. The teaching program is complemented by references to "applying worldwide in English" and "intercultural consulting."

Intercultural competence

What components of intercultural competence must be distinctive to be able to move successfully in foreign cultures?

  • Cognitive dimension: intercultural knowledge - knowledge about similarities and differences between cultures
  • Affective dimension: intercultural sensitivity - openness, empathy, tolerance, and patience
  • Behavioural dimension: action competence - abilities and skills on the communication and interaction level (dialogue, presentation, negotiation, meeting)

Both cross-cultural learning and the development of intercultural competence consider that knowledge of culture can be acquired, and that people are capable of learning and adapting to foreign cultures. The willingness to adapt must, of course, be present. There are various approaches to classify cultures according to dimensions or behavioral patterns (question: What is typical?). In conclusion, here are some examples of the cultural dimension "communication context."

In countries with a lower communication context (Germany, Sweden, Australia, USA), a direct, clear communication style is cultivated on the factual level. One gets straight to the point ("highway communication"). In countries with a high communication context (Italy, Spain, Great Britain, Japan), communication is rather vague, indirect, and informal ("Country Lane Communication"). It is essential to understand the context, which is often expressed implicitly in non-verbal communication (facial expressions, gestures, posture). Relationship aspects, "personal networks," and "saving face" must be considered.

These differences are also expressed in the presentation and meeting styles of different countries. The whole thing becomes even more complicated when cultural dimensions are included. An "exciting journey through the cultures, case studies and role-plays, enrich the experience" as the previous seminar participants report. The developed solution strategies sharpen consciousness and extend the past behavior repertoire. The seminar lays a strong foundation for avoiding a "culture shock" during future activities abroad (e.g., internship semester, university stay, working abroad).

Text: Prof. Dr. Eberhard Hohl and Sriharsha Vege


* The International Academy of the Faculty Technology and Management at RWU focuses on aspects of Management and doing business in an international context. This program is led by Prof. Dr. Barbara Niersbach who is the study dean of MBA Program International Business Management and Director of International Affairs.

- The participants of this program are international students from our partner universities and German students from the faculty. In the future, professors from the partner universities are also integrated into the program.

- From the following term an integrated workshop and a kick-off team event “Cross-Cultural Teamwork” would enhance the existing program with an interpersonal aspect.

Prof. Eberhardt Hohl; Sriharsha Vege