What comes to your mind when someone says “intercultural communication”?

For the uninitiated, the first image that comes to mind might be two people shouting at one another in languages the other does not understand. Have you ever seen an American tourist abroad not get what they want and raise their voice as if a higher volume might result in a clearer understanding of their demands despite linguistic obstacles? “WHERE (PAUSE) IS (PAUSE) THE (PAUSE) TRAIN STATION?!” Or perhaps let’s hark back further to the colonization of North America, when the pilgrims, according to a much-disputed legend, may have shared corn and mutual well wishes with the Native Americans in a meal that was later dubbed Thanksgiving. Or, if you are a political science buff, you might remember this special moment in intercultural communications: French President Jacques Chirac publicly telling the newest member states of the European Union to “shut up” when they voiced their support for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Finally, in the business world, there are a plethora of company recruitment advertisements that show people of different ages and ethnicities looking happy to work with one another. These images convey a message: “Hey, we get this intercultural thing. We’re on board!”

Figure 1.1: Did a moment of intercultural communication take place at the “first Thanksgiving”?

The First Thanksgiving (1915), by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

But if you dig deeper, what does intercultural communication mean? And how did it become so important, academically and professionally? The answer to the second question will greatly illuminate the first.