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Uncovering the secret to intercultural communication success in business

You can’t learn everything about a business or customer just by looking at its on-paper stats. True understanding of our business partners and customers come from 3 aspects of Cultural Knowledge: the “know-what”, the “know-how”, and the “know-why”. To achieve this goal, we must develop better listening skills and management skills that are so essential to building relationships.

If your agenda today includes a meeting with a manager in a business you don’t know much about, chances are you will quickly tap their name into your keyboard, bring up their website and have a quick read.

Armed with what you gleaned, you leave for the meeting with a high level of confidence. After all, you know what they are about.

The exercise you have just completed is the way our “know-what” culture operates. With the world at the flick of a key, we truly believe that we can find out about everything.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s change that proposed meeting from the boardroom to a riding stable. Your new business contact wants to talk over a horseback ride.

You have never been on a horse in your life.

You go back to the keyboard. You need to know what you are getting into. You learn the names of the body parts of the horse. You learn the names and purpose of things like the saddle and the bridle. You learn the words to steer a horse to the right or left. You learn the names of the different horse gaits, such as walk, trot or canter.

You may be slightly less confident, but you still feel you have it aced.

You arrive at the meeting and are struck by the uneasiness that you have walked into a whole new culture. And when you finally get up on that horse, the world looks a great deal different from what you had discovered when you researched what you could know about the horse.

In that moment, you have absorbed the difference between know-what cultural knowledge and know-how cultural knowledge.

Unlike what you could discover by research, you are now sitting on that horse, feeling it beneath you and you feel very insecure about what it is going to do and whether it will actually oblige you by paying attention to your commands.

You discover as you move out of the stable yard that the first big challenge is simply being able to keep your balance and move forward.

To really be able to ride that horse, you will need to absorb know-how cultural knowledge. You will have to experience all the sensations of riding a horse and learn to adjust your expectations and your body to staying balanced with it and to move forward.

We have watched many businesses flounder because they believe the know-what culture is all they need to know.

Content with what is easily accessed on the Internet and willingly shared with others, all of us can learn basic essential information about the businesses and customers we seek to do business with. Too often, we assume that effective cross cultural communication will occur if we know about their “know-what” culture.

It is only when we sit across the table in their environments that we suddenly realize there is a cultural iceberg lurking beneath the surface. There is a whole world that they couldn’t easily describe and put on their website; there is a whole culture that they chose not to share.

The only way you can figure out what is really going on is to engage with the person and try to figure it out. You have to explore their “know-how” culture. You have to read their body language, listen for clues to make connections and pay attention to the interactions of the staff. This is the art of truly impactful intercultural communication.

Just like getting up on the horse and urgently seeking your balance and the way to move forward, you must immerse yourself in the culture you observe and quickly try to find your place in it and the means to move ahead.

For today’s businesses to heal and be stronger, they must focus more on the know-how culture and protocols of each business. Each business is in essence a cultural community and it is unique and must be approached as such. To achieve this goal, we must develop better listening skills and management skills that are so essential to building relationships.

No matter how similar another business looks to you on the surface, when you get into it, you will discover that it is quite different.

That is why you need to consider a third aspect of cultural research, and that is the “know-why” culture.

We have to unlearn the “time is money” mantra of modern day business and understand that in fact, time is an investment. When we take the time to understand the meaning and significance of the new business, we will be better able to appreciate what we see and respect it.

Then we can move forward and really get somewhere.

 The Bridging Principles, a blog about doing business and life differently to create better results. Click here to subscribe for free. To pre-order a copy of the book “The Bridging Principles: Building Bridges for Business,” coming out soon, click here. To arrange for training in The Bridging Principles for your company, email

About the Author
Leah Taylor Best is the CEO and Lead Master Facilitator of The Bridging Principles™. Leah teaches cultural anthropology at Augusta University, Augusta, Georgia.
Leah has a Masters Degree in Globalization Studies from McMaster University, with an undergraduate degree in International Development Studies. Leah comments, “Learning about the Principles has transformed my life. Since I have incorporated these Principles into daily practices, I have increased my capacity for building effective partnerships, problem solving, and resolving conflicts in a manner that leaves both sides satisfied with the outcome. The Bridging Principles™ are an essential tool that people in our globalizing world need more today than ever before.”

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