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Getting started with Chinese business culture essentials
Getting started with Chinese business culture essentials

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3 Intercultural competence

In the BBC television series China on Four Wheels, produced in collaboration with The Open University, the BBC reporter Anita Rani was invited by her hosts to sample some traditional food.

In Activity 3 you will watch a clip from the series, but first familiarise yourself with the concept of ‘intercultural communicative competence’ proposed by Professor Michael Byram (1997) with the five key elements:

  • attitudes
  • knowledge
  • skills of interpreting and relating
  • skills of discovery and interaction
  • critical cultural awareness.

In terms of ‘attitudes’, Byram refers to a person’s attitudes of curiosity and openness, and the ability to suspend judgement. Regarding knowledge, it is about trying to learn about the cultural backgrounds of the people you work with so that you are aware of the different kinds of experiences and expectations they may have, and you can reflect on your own culture and its approaches to how things are done.

As for the skills of interpreting and relating and the skills of discovery and interaction, they will be developed alongside a curiosity for knowledge and an open-minded attitude. The final element is also linked with the other four elements: critical cultural awareness, one’s ability to critically evaluate oneself and others (Byram, 1997).

Activity 3

Watch the video clip of Anita Rani in China on four wheels from 02:05 and reflect on the following questions. Write your thoughts in the box below.

(Open the video in a new tab or window by holding down Ctrl (or Cmd on a Mac) when you click on the link.)

Video link: China on four wheels [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

  1. Was there anything in Anita’s behaviour that was inappropriate? If yes, what was it and why in your view was it inappropriate?
  2. If it was you, how would you have handled the situation?
  3. In terms of intercultural competence, which aspect(s) does Anita need to improve on?
  4. When working with people from different cultures, what knowledge do you need to acquire?
  5. What skills do you think Anita Rani needs to develop? What attitudes do you think she needs to cultivate?
  6. Consider how you can develop your own intercultural competency in terms of knowledge, skills and attitudes.
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In the BBC clip, Anita knew about sea cucumber being a delicacy in Chinese culture, but her understanding stopped at that stage and she allowed her own standards on food texture and taste to influence her reaction and behaviour. She was not sensitive enough to the feelings of her host and, if it was a business dinner, this behaviour might cause the host to feel offended and could have a negative impact on the business relationship.

This example demonstrates that just having cultural knowledge is not enough. You need to internalise cultural knowledge and reflect on the new information, comparing it with similar aspects of practices in one’s own culture. For example, there are many types of food in the western diet, such as cheese, that people in China might find odd.

You could further develop your intercultural competency by knowing how to contrast cultural differences and predict misunderstandings (and adapt your behaviour accordingly). In a given situation you can suspend judgement by buying some time, stopping talking, and observing and listening. Putting yourself in the other person’s context can help you to adapt your behaviour.