REVIEW: Article

A Case for Intercultural Communication Training

It is a heck of a time to be an American diplomat. The work of diplomacy is never boring, but recently it seems like we can barely make it through a cup of coffee before someone calls a meeting to deal with an issue no one has ever faced.  Public Diplomacy officers have it particularly hard as we endeavor to explain the United States’ position on issues and work to strengthen people-to-people relationships with those of other countries. The State Department’s diplomatic training center, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), was created with an understanding of the importance of developing intercultural communication skills. This article advocates for an even greater emphasis on this critical training as FSI examines its curriculum.

Out of all five cones of Foreign Service Officer Generalists, Public Diplomacy (PD) officers are called upon most often to interact with people of another culture. The heart of our work is building cross-cultural relationships. Success requires a high level of in­ter­cultural communication competence (ICC). FSI offers several distance-learning courses on cross-cultural communication, including “Communicating Across Cultures” and “Culture and Its Effect on Communication,” as well as offering training on considera­tion of foreign audiences, which is a component of cultural affairs tradecraft required for Cultural Affairs Officers. If PD officers are going to build relationships with skeptical foreign audiences, they should be armed with the best tools, which should include a dedicated focus on intercultural communication theories.

Intercultural communication has always been a component of modern U.S. Foreign Service training. In 1946, cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall established the disci­pline of Intercultural Communication at FSI.[1]

In conjunction with the Congressional Foreign Service Act, which reorganized the Foreign Service and established the Foreign Service Institute to “provide both initial training and in-service training on a regular basis throughout the careers of Foreign Service Officers,”[2] Hall was able to realize his vision. Hall became a professor and member of the administrative team that would develop the training curriculum. With other anthropolo­gists, he created seminars that emphasized aspects of interaction between people of different cultures. Critical to his lectures was the idea that communication and culture both contain patterns that influence each other. He believed these patterns could be learned and analyzed—and that one could then begin to predict behavior. This mutual influence of culture on communication—and vice versa—is now a key concept in the field of intercultural communication.

Further, Hall’s teachings stressed that we must not assume that people of other cultures necessarily interpret our behavior as we do. Hall established a “frame of reference” that would enable one “to observe better and discover the significant differences in interaction styles.”[3] Hall also streamlined aspects of cultural anthropology to accommo­date his diplomatic audience, by focusing less on theories in favor of relating immediate and practical knowledge.

Despite a heavy focus on intercultural communication at the inception of modern diplomatic training, it has thrived more in academia than in practical diplomatic training.  Several scholars make excellent arguments for its reintroduction into the diplomatic curriculum.

Intercultural communication scholars have highlighted different elements that contribute to successful intercultural communication. For example, William Gudykunst’s anxiety/uncertainty management theory (AUM) explains ICC based on three psychological factors: uncertainty, anxiety and mindfulness.[4] Stella Ting-Toomey, in contrast, focused on an interpretive perspective stressing mindfulness of the interlocutor’s cultural identity as a central factor in intercultural communication competence.[5] In essence, she believes that individuals’ ability to negotiate their identity and their awareness of their cultural values and beliefs reflect their ability to effectively communicate with a representative of another culture.

Effective communication requires an effort by both parties to achieve a common understanding—a process made more challenging when the parties are of different cultures, beliefs and values. Achieving common understanding requires both the interlocu­tor and the listener to remain aware that, even if they are speaking the same language, the meaning and intent may be different. Successful intercultural communicators understand that the interpretation of meaning is rooted in the values, beliefs and identity of the speaker, not the receiver. The goal, then, of intercultural communication, is to achieve common under­standing in communication, which is exactly what public diplomacy officers also strive to achieve in their host countries when they are posted abroad.

At the heart of Foreign Service work is rhetoric—the art of discourse to explain and influence diplomacy. Diplomacy’s intent, after all, is to facilitate international relations and cooperation among countries, with the understanding that diplomats’ foremost concern is to promote their own country’s interests. Gerald A. Hauser, in Introduction to Rhetorical Theory, corroborates this assumption: “Rhetoric, as an area of study, is concerned with how humans use symbols, especially language, to reach agreement that permits coordi­nated effort of some sort…its goal is to influence choices.”[6]

The choice of rhetoric in foreign policy must consider the audience, a topic examined in depth in the field of intercultural communication. Language choices convey different meaning and intent depending on the culture of the audience. I was reminded of this recently when I met with my counterparts from five countries to present a preview of an initiative we were hoping to announce at an upcoming multilateral meeting. This initia­tive was something the other countries had requested, so I expected that the meeting would be a pro forma exercise. Instead, my counterparts stated—with a degree of panic—that their Foreign Ministers would not be able to endorse the initiative at the meeting because it would require them to get approval from their parliament. I quickly realized that the word “endorse” carried a different meaning for me than for them. We quickly changed the verb to “approve,” and the crisis was averted and the initiative, well received.

Rhetorician Robert L. Ivie argues in “Savagery in Democracy’s Empire” that “language is not ideologically neutral, but is subject to rhetorical critique from within.”[7] Sensitivity to how language is perceived and interpreted is one of Foreign Service Officers’ most valuable skills in the field. Understanding how language from Washington will be received in the host country—and framing it accordingly—can make or break a diplomatic mission. ICC courses should be treated like any other essential training and should be refreshed regularly to keep officers’ “muscle memory” of mind­fulness active.

The aims of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs), in outreach or public diplomacy, are to explain and achieve acceptance or support for the foreign policies of the government they serve. To be successful, they must understand the audience whom they are addressing. This requires that they communi­cate and listen in ways that are culturally nuanced; otherwise, they will lose the respect of their audience, rendering them ineffective in their public diplomacy capacity. Intercultural communication skill is a constant adapta­tion, as many cultures will communi­cate differently and sometimes even communicate differently within subcultures. Raymond Cohen states, “By laying special emphasis on the attributes of cross-cultural negotiating competence, diplomats will be well placed to help their societies meet the challenges of globalization in the years ahead.”[8]

Training in intercultural communication competence should be offered at several stag­es in our diplomats’ career development. It should be part of the A-100 introduction to the Foreign Service curriculum when entry-level officers are the most receptive to adapting their perceptions of communication and before they move to the field. More advanced cours­es in intercultural communication should be a requirement for promotion. In advanced courses, the focus would be on advising less experienced officers on how to communicate more effectively and interpret what they are hearing by exercising mindful­ness of the interlocutor’s cultural identity, beliefs and values, as well as managing their own anxiety and desire to jump to a conclusion of meaning that is possibly rooted in their identity versus the speaker’s. The Foreign Service places a premium on successful inter­personal communication as a consideration for job promotion. We should place the same value on intercultural communication.

The need for additional intercultural training is well acknowledged by the State Department and others. In 2007, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) noted that more training in local culture and cross-cultural communication is needed and vital to U.S. diplomacy.[9] The system must find a way, despite budgetary constraints and increasing needs abroad, to enrich intercultural communication training if diplomats are going to be successful in creating and enhancing understanding of our foreign policy and values abroad. The business case for investing in our officers’ intercultural communication development is compelling. If our diplomats are better communicators, we will become better negotiators of agreements, better reporters of situations in the field and better explainers of our foreign policy to foreign audiences. For those who are concerned that better understanding of other cultures could lead diplomats to overly embrace the other side, I would note that any skilled negotiator will counsel that understanding a point of view is not the same as agreeing with it. Furthermore, the more effective our FSOs are at intercultural communication, the more rewarding (and less frustrating) they will find their tours, which will lead to improved morale, less costly curtailments and a better esprit de corps.

Investing in our human capital by focusing on intercultural communication competence would be smart money well spent.


[1] Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz. “Notes in the history of intercultural communication: The Foreign Service Institute and the mandate for intercultural training.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, Volume 76, Issue 3, 1990, 262-281.

[2] Leeds-Hurwitz, 262-281.

[3] Leeds-Hurwitz, 262-281.

[4] William B. Gudykunst, and Young Yun Kim. Communicating with Strangers: An Approach to Intercultural Communication, 3rd Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997, 358-367.

[5] Gudykunst and Kim, 358-367.

[6] Gerald A. Hauser. Introduction to Rhetorical Theory, 2nd Edition. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2002, 3-88.

[7] Robert L. Ivie. “Savagery in democracy’s empire.” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, Issue 1, 2005, 55-65.

[8] Raymond Cohen. Negotiating Across Cultures, 3rd Edition. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 2002, 268.

[9] George, L. Argyros, Marc Grossman, et al. The Embassy of the Future. Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 15, 2007. 

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Kathryn W. Davis Public Diplomacy Fellow, 2016-2017