Cross-Cultural Communication in the Age of Globalization

by Dr. Andreas Eppink
Malaga, Spain

INTRODUCTION Cultural differences can cause substantial communication problems and misunderstanding on various levels. We encounter these cultural differences daily with questions such as: “How can we successfully negotiate this contract with our Chinese friends, considering both our wish for efficiency, and their saving face?” “How can we improve the service and assistance to ethnic minority clients?” “How can immigrants profit more from the given opportunities in this country?” “Is intolerance an inherent feature of Western, Eastern or other cultures?” Questions such as these are abundant. In this article we will not deal specifically with these questions themselves but with a theory on cultural differences and the impact on cross-cultural communication.

CULTURE’S CONTINUITY The universe, nature, cultures, organizations, teams, relations in general, and individuals all possess common characteristics in continuity. Always, this continuity is enhanced by ‘good chemistry’, which means:

- complementing capabilities

- complementing goals

- the ‘right’ conditions.

Fig. 1: The continuity’s triangle of ‘good chemistry’.

The three never stay on their own. An interrelation always exists between:

goals — capabilities — demands (conditions), or
demands — goals — capabilities, or
capabilities — demands — goals.


The term “culture” is used in different ways. Rarely is the emphasis placed on the conditions in which people (with the notable exceptions of the well-known anthropologist Oscar Lewis in his study of “The Culture of Poverty”, which Paolo Freire called “The Culture of Silence”).

Often a major emphasis in placed on capabilities -- even exceptional capabilities -- as are illustrated in a particular culture’s music, art, language, religion, or traditions, customs, habits, etc. Generally, if we speak of “Arab”, Japanese”, or “Chinese culture”, we mean language as our point of reference, while for “Confucian” or “Muslim culture”, the reference point is philosophical or religious. The problem with such generalizations is that invariably the many significant subcultures within these cultures are over-looked. What, by example, should be understood by the terms “American culture” or “European culture”? In “American culture” the American-English language could be the feature, while with “European culture” there is no similar commonality. In both cases we refer to the American or European society, and their history.

In defining what culture is, the reference to (a system of) “values” is more useful; however, concepts such as values, norms, ideology, ethics, symbols, style (e.g. of leadership) are quite abstract.

Some authors consider culture a way to survive, or “the way in which people solve problems” . Although this approach can be given credence, it is proposed here that the impact of goals determines (at least to a significant degree) how people perceive reality and strongly influences their ideas as to how problems can and should be solved. It is at this point that we are back to values. The relation between goals and values is strong, as people will follow goals according to their perceptions of each stated goal’s value and importance, and thus values themselves tend to become goals for many people. Some goals are formulated -- the so-called formal goals -- but most are not, the informal goals. Both formal and informal goals have their origins in basic psychological goals, for which the term Hidden Goals (HG’s) will be used herein (see chart on following page). . Here we will not deal with the “why?” and “how?” of these ten (which have been derived them from the famous classic Hindu scripture, Bhagavad Gita2). (Trompenaars, 1993)1

Cultures and subcultures can be characterized by their accent on a (more or less) unique combination of H G ’s. Because each individual follows all mentioned goals in life, and a group, organization, or culture is formed by individuals, we will find the ten hidden goals in each of them. Though, not to the same degree; the very variance in degree and ranking of the H-goals ‘makes’ a culture. (Sub)cultural differences can be explained by the quite infinite combination possibilities of the HG’s, in relation to the two formerly mentioned other elements of continuity: capabilities and conditions (circumstances in time and space3). One H-goal, or the combination of several, may dominate within a culture (with small changes in time and circumstances). Within a society, cultural expressions and productions --such as art, customs, religion and social life in general --are variations which can defined within a specific combination of HG’s . The ten Hidden Goals and their outcome are here summarized in key words:


If the ranking of any particular HG (or combination of HG’s) changes, then a corresponding culture change occurs as well. Change is inherent in nature (and culture) for three reasons. First, because all HG’s are implicated (i.e. as the HG’s are not all compatible, some degree of struggle occurs between the followers, particularly if obstructing goals are involved). Secondly, change also occurs if new capabilities are developed, thereby presenting a new set of circumstances and demands and the resultant rise or fall of a particular HG’s ranking (in the last century we have seen amazing cultural changes in Western, Japanese and other Asian cultures as the Information HG rose, and as education became increasingly available).

The third reason why cultures inevitably change are external circumstances and influences; these influences cause changes both in HG-ranking and in overall capabilities (however not all changes mean discontinuity; remembering that the primary function of culture is the survival of its participants, we can speak of discontinuity if a culture’s participants suffer distress and harm, and cannot survive).4

Certain goals can be deemed “obstructing” if they can never be reached by effort; a culture’s striving to reach unattainable goals inevitably leads to distortions in reality perception, which in turn causes discontinuity. Recognizing the fact that obstructing HG’s are inherent in life, some discontinuity can never be avoided. In the most extreme cases, if obstructing HG’s rise high in ranking the culture will collapse, (as occurred in the final period of the Roman Empire and the communist cultures of the late 1980’s). Due to a restricted point of view provoked by obstructing goals, most capabilities are developed limitedly or one-sidedly, while others are bluntly restricted. The resultant negative economic impact will be clear.


For the first time in history the United States House of Representatives was shut down to allow health authorities to check for traces of anthrax. House members were widely criticized for leaving while the Senate remained in session. The members of the House even were called “weaklings”. “The unprecedented move underscored the pressure lawmakers are under to demonstrate they can conduct the nation’s legislative business during a time of crisis." So could be read in the Washington papers.5

The judgment of the different behaviors of the House and Senate members will depend upon each particular individual’s point of view: Duty, (safety-) Procedures, or Fear.

The variety of points of view, or frames of reference between and within cultures, is reflected within the various rankings of the various HG’s (or combinations thereof). These differences ultimately cause the difficulties of communication and understanding which this article addresses.

The following points can be useful in understanding cultural differences, cultural discrepancies and (in)compatibility, in terms of cross-cultural communication:

Most cultures, and particularly subcultures, tend to accentuate one point of view originated from one HG (or a combination of a few). Communication is essentially translating content into terms of the HG’s of the cultural audience with which one desires to engage in dialog. “Good communication” essentially signifies an accurate matching of HG’s. If one interprets that words or sentences, as such, mean what they say, one is (only) referring to the HG Information, which often appears to be (but in reality may not be) As a case in point, the newspapers of former communist countries - and still in totalitarian states - one must still read beyond the words in order to hope to grasp some degree of knowledge of what is actually occurring.

The Information HG most commonly appears in combination with -- and is resultantly overruled by --one or more of the other HG’s. Therefore, within cross-cultural communication a simple literal translation will not suffice. The most convenient example is obtained by a look at the various cultural implications of the basic word “yes”. “Yes” can mean: I agree with you; I understand you (but this doesn’t automatically imply I agree with you); I hear you (which doesn’t automatically imply I understand you); and: I agree and accept the consequences, or I agree and will obey you. What the real significance of “yes” is varies with the underlying combination of HG’s.


Generally speaking, within a culture misunderstanding is avoided because of the existence of commonly-shared HG’s. Between participants of different cultures, however, misinterpretation can easily arise.

Such an example of misinterpretation concerns the concept of “saving face”, a primary value in Asian and other cultures. To save face can take various forms, all of which have in common the intent to avoid offending or appearing to be brusque to others. Smiling under all circumstances, even if one does not agree or even if one is hurt, is one form, which by Westerners is interpreted as happiness or agreement. The act of saving face is mainly based upon the HG-combination of Stability and Goodness (particularly the sub-factors Duty and Benevolence); Westerners are able to correct their misinterpretation to the extent that they are familiar with politeness (that being a weaker pronounced expression of the same HG-combination). However, not all Westerners will make this correction; in some Western subcultures the Independence HG (and individual Freedom) predominates; from this point of view, politeness and saving face are considered mere old-fashioned, dishonest, relics of a past culture (while conversely, some Asians, overlooking the Independence HG, will think of Westerners as barbarians).

Much is said about mutual cultural understanding and mutual acceptance. This idea as such can be interpreted from various HG’s, including Independence, Goodness, Information, or Social Contact, and can take corresponding forms. The other HG’s, however, will never allow that tolerance, and thus mutual acceptance of other cultures can never be fully realized (nor can cultural relativity in the concept that “all cultures are equal”). In example, from the point of view of the Control HG -- and to some extent the Independence HG -- expansion, development, (personal) ambition, and even “righteous” wars can be tolerated. Within the frame of reference provoked by other HG’s, particularly Goodness, Stability, and Order, even” righteous” forms of aggression are far less tolerated

Mutual acceptance is quite difficult if dominating HG’s differ between (participants of) cultures; this is especially the case if one or more of the obstructing HG’s take a pronounced place. In example, to save face, as an expression of Stability-Goodness combined with Approbation, will produce an intolerant Honor code that refuses all that is deviant or ‘alien’. (Goodness will be narrowly interpreted, and restricted to what “my people” think is good.). Xenophobia, racism, and an array of other forms of intolerance prevail by the Honor code, which can be encountered in Western, Arab, and Asian cultures, as well as within a number of subcultures.

Blood vengeance; oppression of women, children and other (ethnic or religious) minorities; a significant power distance based on wealth, caste, class or status can all being defended by culture-participants as their inalienable cultural marks. Such cultural attributes are the outcome of dominating obstructing HG’s. If obstructing goals dominate, the view of a culture’s participants is limited, and by consequence the interests (HG’s) of others are disregarded.


* Not all individuals follow the same HG’s.

* Different (combinations of) HG’s cause different points of view, and sub-cultural differences.

* Communicating with others means translating the message in terms of the other’s HG’s.

* Understanding other cultures is to understand their principal HG’s.

* To understand does not necessarily indicate or require acceptance (no one can accept the expressions of other’s HG’s if these are conflicting with one’s own HG’s).

The first characteristic of the current era is the still-growing extension of information exchange. Thus, in all societies the Information HG will rise in ranking and influence, will continue to change cultures, and will continue to make the world more open. With a true cross-cultural understanding, the world’s minority cultures can not only survive, they can find all the information necessary to thrive. In fact, the very characteristic of an enlightened ‘free world’ is the existence and success of de facto minorities.

Andreas Eppink, December 2001.

1 “Culture” is in this case considered a so-called contingency factor, and as a determinant factor as well, also primarily an interaction between conditions and capabilities.

2 Hinduism stated that all things are in continuous transformation by the three Gunas: mass, movement, and harmony, each of which is necessarily subordinated to the relation of both others. Human beings can be characterized by four ‘works’(originally flexible, later fossilized into the four castes). The four ‘works’ in combination with the three Gunas make twelve basic constellations, here called Hidden Goals, and for simplicity sake reduced to ten.

3 Hinduism includes in circumstances of space and time: birth- origin, term of life, and experience.

4 Symptoms of discontinuity are: unrest, internal discord, conflicts or “tribal wars”, crisis, “rot in the top”, financial-economical or other “problems”, undesired take-over, losses, bankruptcy, dissolution; and on the individual level: distress, harm, and hurt. Symptoms of continuity are: survival, cohesion and alliances, well-being, growth, flexibility, innovation and adaptation to new circumstances.

5 Quotation: Washington Post, October 23, 2001.

6 Watzlawick distinguishes between two communication levels: that of the literal meaning (content level) and the relational level e.g. power distance - of those who communicate with each other. Bateson’s remark that a geographical map is only a representation of reality applies to words and sentences too. Bernstein, and Douglas, speak of implicit and explicit communication codes.

BWW Society Member Dr. Andreas Eppink received his Doctorate degree in Social Sciences in 1977 from the University of Amsterdam, went on to study Clinical Psychology, and was officially registered as a Psychotherapist. He has worked as a Management Consultant, especially in the television, advertising, daily press, family business, transport, and public administration sectors, including work with the town of Maastricht. Prior to this, as an Anthropologist specializing in the study of culture, Dr. Eppink was a pioneer in the field of migration study, in particular mental health and occupation. In 1971 he founded the Averroes Foundation for the study of these areas. He headed this institute from 1978 to 1983, as it then became state run. He was an intergovernmental expert of the European Committee for Migration in Geneva, a member of the Board of Advisors to the Dutch Minister of the Interior, and an expert with dif ferent European committees in Strasbourg and Brussels. Dr. Eppink speaks five languages and reads several more.

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