The surprising paradox of intercultural communication | Helena Merschdorf | TEDxNelson (2024)


What if English as the global lingua franca is both our greatest asset and biggest downfall in intercultural communication?

While the idea of a global language is appealing – especially in the age of globalisation – it often creates “invisible misunderstandings”. This can lead to harmless awkwardness in the best case or have dire political, economic, and social impacts in the worst case.

In this talk, Helena explores where these misunderstandings come from, and how can we work to avoid them. Helena is a social scientist, GIS analyst, translator, and writer, working at the interface of linguistics and technology. Growing up bilingually and between two cultures, it didn’t take Helena long to recognise the perils of intercultural (mis)communication – and decide to do something about it. She soon made it her mission to understand the complex interplay of language and culture, leading her to obtain master’s degrees in both translation studies and geographic information science. She is currently pursuing her PhD in GIScience, where her research examines how linguistic bias impacts our understanding of global human phenomena. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at


Transcriber:, Cassie, Molina, Reviewer:, Emma, Gon Let me, ask you guys, a question.


You see this gesture.

What does it mean to you? This isn’t a rhetorical question.

To? How many of you does this mean, great, keep going or something positive to that effect? To? How many of you does it mean up yours? To? How many of you does it represent the number one? So, many options.


What then does this gesture really mean?, Well, here's, the thing.

Like Schrödinger’s cat.

It can mean all of those things.

And none of those things at the same time.

It all depends on the world view of the observer.


Our Western society.

The thumbs up gesture, generally means something positive, I like it, great, keep going or something along those lines.

But several other cultures, especially in West Africa.

And the Middle East.

The same gesture has extremely rude.


It’s used the same way.

The middle finger is here.

It basically means up yours., And, Germany, Hungary and several other European countries.

The gesture represents the number one.

While in Japan.

It represents the number five., In, ancient Rome, where the gesture originates.

It was used to decide whether the gladiator in the arena should live or die.


We can say is that even such a seemingly simple and unambiguous hand.

Gesture is highly context.



The same is true for words and phrases which often have vastly different meanings in different languages and cultures.

This is something we need to be acutely aware of as global citizens, because it can lead to serious miscommunication.

Let me, tell you a little story to show you what I mean.

When I was 18 years old, after finishing college here in Nelson, I set off on my OE, [Overseas Experience], like so many of us, do.

I, headed straight to Europe and I traveled around France, Greece, Croatia, Italy, Germany., And.

What struck me was how easy it was to get by with English.

Seemingly, everywhere, I went, people spoke and understood English, even if just a little.

But, it made it so much easier to get by as a clueless teenager in foreign lands and foreign cultures.


So I thought, until one day I had a very awkward encounter, which got me, thinking.

I, just got a job at a restaurant in Germany, after months and months of hunting for work and I desperately wanted to make a good impression on my colleagues.


We sat together over a few drinks after work.

One day, a senior colleague told me that she’d just scored a promotion.

She was visibly excited and I was genuinely happy for her.

I said to her, “Good for you!” But, instead of a smile and a thank you.

She turned away and proceeded to give me the cold shoulder for the next week.

I was so confused! “Why was she sharing joyous news with me, one moment and completely ignored me.

The next? As I vented, my frustration to a German friend of mine.

She laughed.

And she told me that the German translation of ‘Good for You’, ‘Schön für dich’ is a snarky and sarcastic remark, implying jealousy and begrudging of another's success.

Clearly, that’s not what I meant.

But those are the connotations.

My colleague associated with my remark.


What was the problem? Well,? It wasn’t until many years later that I studied geography, linguistics and translation at university that I started to grasp the real issue.

I realized that meaning gets lost in translation because of cultural differences.

This is the surprising paradox of intercultural communication.

We must communicate, even though we may be speaking the same language.


If two people are both speaking English, like my colleague and I at the restaurant, the different cultural backgrounds can lead to severe miscommunication.

Think of it.

This way, language allows us to encode and decode meaning.

But to crack the code.

We need a shared set of pre-existing concepts.


Many of these concepts are passed down to us from our culture and ultimately shape.

Our worldview.


The lack of a shared worldview is what makes intercultural communication.

So difficult.

Let me illustrate what I mean.


We have person A and person B., Their, worldviews have each been shaped by their cultural influences on a broad societal level.

And by their personal lived experiences on an individual level., And together.

These things give them each a distinct lens through which they view life and through which they felt to their communication.


When person A communicates, they encode their message into verbal and nonverbal signals, which are then sent to person B and filtered through the lens of person B where they are recoded to reconstruct the message.

But because of the filtering process, the message that arrives can be highly distorted.

And as this process goes back and forth, the likelihood of invisible misunderstandings, mounts., And, I, call them invisible.

Because in many cases, one or both communication partners are unaware that it’s even happening.

Like in the following example., An American company, selling high-end.

Tech products was looking to break into the Chinese, market.

Talks and negotiations had been going well with a potential buyer, and the Americans considered it a done deal.

To celebrate.

They invited the Chinese delegation out for dinner at a fine local restaurant.

Now, as the Chinese delegation arrived.

The head of the delegation was greeted by a junior member of the US team.

The Chinese delegate asked the American where he should sit, to which he was told, sit where you like.

Now, the next day, the Chinese delegation left, the US without signing.

The contract.

And days, later, the American team received word that the Chinese had felt humiliated and were reconsidering.

The business relationship.

What had happened? Well.

It was another cultural misunderstanding.

You, see, in Chinese.

Culture, hierarchy is really important.

Whereas in American culture, displays of hierarchy, aren’t really culturally comfortable.


When the head of the Chinese delegation was only greeted by a junior member of the US team, rather than the most senior.

He immediately felt a loss of face.

Then, to add insult to injury.

He was told to sit anywhere, when ideally he should have been given a seat at the head of the table next to the most senior member of the US team.

This cultural misunderstanding led to an eight months delay in the signing of the contract and almost cost them the business deal.


How can we prevent these kinds of invisible misunderstandings and intercultural communication? Well.

It all starts with our ability to see the world through different eyes, to shift our perspectives, to overcome our bias, and to recognize that we need a shared basis of understanding to crack the code of meaningful communication., With this in mind, let’s take a look at what person A and person B could do to better communicate.


We can see here is their communication toolbox, and that they each have two main communication, tools, the verbal and the nonverbal.

These are the two ways in which we can encode and decode or send and receive messages and communication.


We can adapt these to suit the needs of our conversation.


These are our controllables.


Communication is our language, It’s.

What we say.

And, it works its magic.

Only to the extent that it is shared by the speaker and the listener.

Have you ever read something highly technical and had no idea what it was on about? Or, try to understand the terms and conditions of a contract? Or had someone tell you a story where you found yourself with a myriad of questions, because you obviously lack some kind of vital background information to make sense of it.

All? That’s.

The power of language.

It can be used to confuse or to connect.


It’s up to each of us to adapt our language to suit the needs of our conversation.



We also need to consider our nonverbal communication.

A lot more falls into this category than first meets, the eye, and the potential for misunderstandings is huge.

Let’S, take body language as an example.


It acceptable to point at someone? What are the implications of bad.

Posture? How, much eye or body contact is appropriate? Do certain gestures mean, the same thing in your culture as in theirs? Or, are you being unintentionally, rude, dismissive, or even suggestive without realizing it? What about personal space? How close.

Should you stand to the other person?, Public, social and personal spaces vary considerably in different cultures.

Well, let’s think again about the different attitudes towards power and hierarchy.

Remember, the story of the Chinese and the American business people and how their different attitudes towards displays of superiority, almost cost them.

A good working relationship., Emphasizing someone's, superiority can be a sign of respect or make them feel deeply uncomfortable.


All depends on their worldview.

The list goes on and on.

Basically, anything that you consider normal behavior is likely to be anything, but normal in a different country or culture.


What makes up a person’s normal boils down to the unique combination of the social norms and values of their society, their personal lived experiences and their entire cultural background., So I, invite you to consider how each of these things differ and how the combination of them differs to each and every person you talk, to., I, encourage you to adapt your language, to suit the context and to suit the needs of your conversation.


This could mean using simpler, language., It could mean, avoiding jargon and steering clear of potentially confusing idioms.

They may not understand.

You could also paraphrase, repeat or tell a story.

After all.

The power of stories is universal.


You can always ask clarifying, questions, too.


If we approach a situation with curiosity and an open mind, we find ourselves blown away by the multifaceted diversity that makes up the human race.

It’s up to each of us to recognize our own often subconscious lens of cultural norms and biases, to realise that we all have them, and to understand how they affect our personal preconceptions.

And our communication.


We all learn to make better use of our communication toolkit.

We can avoid misunderstandings.

We can avoid making people feel left out or even offended by our unintentional ignorance.

That way.

We can all take responsibility for positive.

Change., Ultimately, more effective, communication leads to more productive collaboration and better relationships between countries, organizations and individuals.

And It is not just talking to or at each other.

We can actually end up on the same page.


We can all learn to see the world through each other's eyes.

We will be less likely to discriminate and marginalize, less likely to focus on what sets us apart and more interested in what we can learn from each other.

In, a nutshell, we can be better global citizens., Thank, you..

The surprising paradox of intercultural communication | Helena Merschdorf | TEDxNelson (2024)


What are the four 4 barriers for intercultural communication? ›

Barriers to Intercultural Communication
  • Anxiety. It is not unusual to experience some level of discomfort in communicating with individuals from other cultures or co-cultures. ...
  • Assumption of Similarities. ...
  • Ethnocentrism. ...
  • Stereotypes. ...
  • Prejudice.
Jun 30, 2022

What are the three main issues which are the root of the problem of intercultural miscommunication? ›

There are three main issues which are at the root of the problem of intercultural miscommunication : language as a barrier, cultural diversity and ethnocentrism.

What are the five barriers to intercultural communication? ›

There are certain barriers that come across intercultural communication. Barriers such as prejudice, anxiety, ethnocentrism, language, and assumption of similarity are most significant ones to consider.

What is an example of paradoxical communication? ›

As we can see, we are surrounded by paradoxical communication and double bonds. For example, when we find a sign that says “do not read this,” someone who warns you “be more spontaneous” or “do not be so obedient.” All of them seek contradictory answers in relation to what they advertise.

What is paradox communication? ›

The paradoxical communication

The communication becomes paradoxical when two opposite messages are emitted for the same "bit" of information. It is the "double message" theory.

What are 4 example of intercultural communication? ›

Examples on Intercultural communication

A Christian converses with a Muslim. A woman receives an order from a man. An American and African share their views. A Chinese politician's discussion with an American leader.

What are the 4 characteristics of intercultural communication competence? ›

Some of the skills important to ICC are the ability to empathize, accumulate cultural information, listen, resolve conflict, and manage anxiety (Bennett, 2009).

What are the 6 challenges of intercultural communication? ›

Six key barriers for cross-cultural communications
  • 1- Ethnocentrism. We all have a natural tendency to look at other cultures through our own lenses. ...
  • 2- Stereotyping. ...
  • 3- Psychological barriers. ...
  • 4- Language barriers. ...
  • 5- Geographical distance. ...
  • 6- Conflicting values.
Jul 9, 2018

What is the most common problem in intercultural communication? ›

The three main problems in intercultural communication are language, cultural barriers and ethnocentrism. Language can be a problem when the sender and receiver do not speak or understand a common language.

What are 3 characteristics of intercultural conflict? ›

8.1: Characteristics of Intercultural Conflict
  • Expressed Struggle.
  • Interdependent.
  • Perception.
  • Clashes in Goals, Resources, and Behaviors.
Jul 21, 2020

What is the six intercultural communication? ›

There are at least six dialectics that characterize intercultural communication: cultural–individual, personal–contextual, differences–similarities, static–dynamic, history/past–present/future, and privilege–disadvantage.

What factors affect intercultural communication? ›

Intensity Factors in Cross Cultural Communication and Adjustment
  • Cultural Differences. Cultural differences in values, beliefs, and behaviors represent the most common intensity factors. ...
  • Ethnocentrism. ...
  • Cultural Immersion. ...
  • Cultural Isolation. ...
  • Language. ...
  • Prior Intercultural Experience. ...
  • Expectations. ...
  • Visibility and Invisibility.

What is the cultural paradox? ›

A consumer cultural paradox is characterized by the coexistence of contradictory cultural values, which consumers may at times both embrace and/or reject, because they are unable or unwilling to choose between either pole of the tensions and thus desire them both simultaneously.

What are the main points of intercultural communication? ›

Empathy: Intercultural communication relies heavily on empathizing with others and gaining insight into their experiences. Respect: Even if you don't agree with or appreciate every aspect of another person's or group's culture, you may still respect them by recognizing their right to do so.

What is the main idea of intercultural communication? ›

Intercultural communication is the idea of knowing how to communicate in different parts of the world. Intercultural communication uses theories within groups of people to achieve a sense of cultural diversity. This is in the hopes of people being able to learn new things from different cultures.

What is cultural paradox? ›

Cultural paradoxes arise where there is confusion in interpreting behaviours according to appropriate cultural dimensions: the lesson we draw is the need to exercise caution in etic comparative dimensional interpretations.

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