The Importance Of Intercultural Communication In Today's Workplace

Intercultural communication is integral in intercultural competence, the ability to function effectively across cultures. The accelerated pace of globalization has increasingly exposed individuals to various ethnicities in a vast cultural diversity. Individuals with excellent intercultural communication skills have better personal marketability and greater employability as organizations recognize the need to have employees who can bring in new clients, work within diverse teams and support the brand’s reputation. Adversely, the absence of intercultural communication skills results in unproductive interactions and tendency of misconstrued meanings.

My case study aims to dive into the communication breakdown through a series of incidents and observations I made during a week-long stay with my Japanese friend, Reo Tanaka, in his family home. There was a communication barrier as none of his parents spoke English. Supplementing this will be an analysis of each with theories and concepts learnt.

Non-verbal Communication

The first incident I encountered was when Mrs Tanaka motioned for me to “go away” as I was exiting the home.

Her palm was facing down and fingers out front. She dragged her fingers inwards towards her palm, then flicked them back out straight again. I assumed this was because Japanese valued personal space and privacy, hence I hurried out the door. As I was leaving, Reo called me into the living room and told me that she was calling me over to chat. He explained that the same gesture in Japan has a completely opposite meaning to what is commonly used in Singapore as telling someone to go away.

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As I entered the room, I kept apologizing for my ignorance while Mr and Mrs Tanaka continuously nodded and smiled.

According to Friesen (1972), Japanese tend to suppress their emotions. While this can be interpreted as emotional hypocrisy to some, to Japanese, such behaviour helps achieve the core value of Japanese culture known as “wa”, which translates to social harmony (Szarota 2011).

Japanese culture invokes subtlety in their communication. The two techniques predominantly adopted are Deintensifying, which is defined as a means of minimizing destructive expression of negative emotion (Kennedy-Moore and Watson, 1999) and Masking, which involves a perceived discrepancy between one’s own inner feelings and outward expressions (Gross & John 2003). Eventually, these two facial management techniques are aligned to the Japanese’s culture of being polite and sensitive to the feelings of others (Andersen & Guerrero 1996). In my experience, Mr and Mrs Tanaka were most probably disappointed with my behaviour but continued nodding as a form of acknowledgement, it that does not mean they agree.

Verbal Communication

Japanese are generally very reserved and practise high levels of self-disclosure, which refers to what others feel comfortable talking about in a social environment. Unlike Western cultures, personal questions build rapport but they are considered disrespectful to Japanese. From adolescence, Japanese are conditioned to be hyperaware of what is considered appropriate in any social context. This is mainly attributed to Japan’s large power distance in Hofstede’s (1980) cultural dimensions model. Having a large power distance means having greatest respect for hierarchies and seniority. I realised I made a mistake by asking them about their age and religion when they were very indirect and ambiguous with their replies. Japanese considered these as taboo topics, where the replies may embarrass the responder or cause them to lose face.

Hofstede (1980) also states that Japan has a collectivist culture meaning that people are part of a group hence the importance of maintaining social harmony. They would sacrifice their own interests for collective interests. This was evident in the next incident when I accidentally dropped and broke Mrs Tanaka’s prized teacup, spilling tea all over their mat. I offered to clean but she repeatedly nodded and said “daijoubu” which translates to “it is okay”. The Japanese do not insist on helping hosts if he/she refuses help. It is a mutual understanding to only go as far as offering. Upon my reflection, I realized that Mrs Tanaka did not directly reject my help, instead, she gave hints of hesitation by scratching her eyebrow, and the back of her head.


In the Japanese context, it is essential for one to interpret another’s body language through their facial expression, tone of voice and posture. Through my case study and application of concepts, I learnt the importance of being a “cultural chameleon” who is able to adapt my communication skills to any situation. This can be done by understanding the do’s and don’ts of different cultures but more importantly the underlying reasons behind them. 

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The Importance Of Intercultural Communication In Today's Workplace. (2021, Dec 21). Retrieved from

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