The blue pill, or the red one?

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So yesterday I was discussing the degree of usefulness of preparing for your stay abroad with another intercultural communication expert, and he compared intercultural communication to taking vitamin pills. This comparison struck me as particularly apt, so I have to share it with you!

When you take vitamin pills, you do so to prevent health issues in the future. Taking vitamin pills helps you build your defenses which results in a smaller chance of getting sick. In other words, it’s a preventive measure. Intercultural communication works like this as well: you work on your skills and knowledge beforehand, to prevent problems later.

If you did not take your vitamin pills and you get sick, you blame yourself; why did you not take those pills?! Intercultural communication is the same: when a misunderstanding arises, you wish you had taken the time to do some studying beforehand…

But all is not lost. When you get sick, you will take those pills earlier next time. You’ve learnt your lesson. Intercultural communication does not always work like that though. A misunderstanding doesn’t always provide a valuable lesson. There are a lot of people who will say “That’s just their culture” and walk away. Problem solved, case closed. It’s not that simple though. People don’t behave the way they do because their culture tells them so. We aren’t programmed robots that always react the way they are expected to. German people, for instance, are known for their punctuality, but none of my German friends ever arrives on time. True story.

It’s easy to explain differences by blaming culture, but in reality things are way more complicated. You need to master the art of delving deeper. Intercultural communication is more than just learning about differences in culture. It’s equally important to learn about your own culture, about the way your culture influences your perception and style of communication and especially the way you perceive others. On top of this there is also a wide range of intercultural skills you can develop to be able to communicate effectively with people worldwide.

So it is like those vitamin pills after all. When you get sick, it might not be because you didn’t take the pills. It could also be because you’re eating crap, not sleeping enough or are too stressed out. It’s easy to blame the pills, but if you don’t fix the other things that influence your health you will still get sick, pills or no pills. Cultural misunderstandings don’t immediately melt away after following a course on food and eating etiquette (however fun and useful it might be!). It’s more important to give attention to all of the other things that influence communication, and might not even be culturally defined. Just make sure you get all your ducks in a row, just like with your health!

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