20.06.2019 in Exploratory
Misunderstandings in Intercultural Communication


In the field of diplomacy, intercultural competence ensures effective communication and helps achieve positive results and cooperation in international relations. Intercultural communication is a situated verbal or written exchange between representatives of different cultural origins. Demonstrating cross-cultural competence and awareness of the other country’s customs and etiquette during negotiations and meetings is not just a sign of courtesy but an indicator of professionalism and respect for partners in a diplomatic process. Current paper investigates three instances of intercultural misunderstandings that took place in 1969 during a meeting of Richard Nixon, the US President, and Eisaku Sato, Prime Minister of Japan; in 2009, when Michelle Obama gave a brief hug to Queen Elizabeth; and in 2012, when a new Swedish ambassador, Peter Tejler, was appointed to work in Iran during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Analyzed intercultural mishaps offer similar lessons by demonstrating that intercultural competence in diplomatic context is a must-have quality for diplomats in order to maintain effective international relations, avoid intercultural misunderstandings, and demonstrate necessary flexibility towards and understanding of international partners. 

Intercultural Misunderstandings

Manifesting intercultural competence in diplomacy is a sigh of respecting dignity, national traditions, and historical heritage of another culture. As a result, culturally questionable or incompetent acts committed by representatives of one country in relation to the other may be considered highly offensive, lead to misunderstanding and strained relations, and demand official apologies. Following analysis of three intercultural misunderstandings shows that a high level of intercultural competence is a vital characteristic of a successful diplomatic work. Current paper examines all three seemingly different incidents that involve Nixon, Obama, and Tejler for a reason. The first one is to demonstrate that instances of intercultural misunderstandings are not rare and may involve state authorities of the highest rank. The second is to reinforce the point that intercultural misunderstandings may pose a threat to international partnership. The third lesson is that hegemony of a single approach across diverse cultural environments is counterproductive.    


Meeting of Richard Nixon and Eisaku Sato, 1969

An intercultural misunderstanding that took place in 1969 involved Richard Nixon, the US President, and Eisaku Sato, Prime Minister of Japan. At that time, Japan was exporting to the US vast volumes of Japanese products but imported insignificant amount of American goods. As a result, relations between the USA and Japan were strained due to unequal commercial relations. In response to Nixon’s request to institute policies that increase the US imports and reduce Japanese exports, Sato replied in Japanese, “I will do my best” (Tenembaum, 2014). Weeks of waiting for policies and measures (that Nixon believed Japanese Prime Minister committed to implementing) brought no results. 

However, if Nixon was more competent in Japanese culture or if his advisors were more competent, he would know that Japanese consider a direct negative reply or saying “no” to be rude (Asante et al., 2013; Bukh, 2014). Therefore, they may give evasive replies as a polite way of avoiding making a commitment. Consequently, verbal messages that a Japanese person might give should be interpreted not only from the perspective of what the person said but also from the perspective of what he or she meant or had not said, since Japanese prefer not to say “no” directly even when they intend to communicate a negative reply or deny a request (Inoue, 2007; Bukh, 2014). Therefore, described incident demonstrates three things. First, although one may be a good politician, he or she may not be a good diplomat. Second, the lack of basic awareness of another nation’s cultural characteristics and traditions in communication might lead to intercultural misunderstandings.

Asante, Miike, and Yin’s (2013) may be helpful for analyzing described Nixon-Sato situation since authors identified several aspects of intercultural communication that a diplomat must be aware of to act in a culturally competent manner and establish effective communication. First, effective intercultural communication involves awareness of history, institutions, culture, ways of life, and the ability to recognize their influence on communication and behavior. Second, competent intercultural communication implies understanding of the relationship between a language use, the context of communication, and culture. Third, professional intercultural communication is sensitive to values, beliefs, and cultural stereotypes of an interlocutor, as well as of obstacles to effective communication between representatives of a native and foreign culture (Asante et al., 2013). Asante et al. (2013) point out that the ability to maintain effective verbal and written exchange with people from different cultures requires a capacity to speak foreign language, manage intercultural context by incorporating knowledge of culture and its values, adapt behavior in accordance with demands of a foreign culture, critically analyze cultural context of communications, and reflect on cultural factors that impact behavior.

Thus, in the light of Asante’s at al. (2013) description of characteristics of successful intercultural communication, it is apparent that Richard Nixon failed to adhere to several requirements of successful communication. First, he was not able to recognize the impact of a language use on Sato’s communication and connect language use and context of communication to derive the meaning of Sato’s promise “to do his best.”  Second, Nixon applied familiar stereotypes to communicating with a person from a different culture. Finally, he failed to critically analyze cultural context of communications and reflect on cultural factors that influence behavior.

Michelle Obama and Queen Elizabeth, 2009

One of the recent examples of an intercultural misunderstanding was an incident when Michelle Obama put her arm on a Queen Elizabeth’s back. According to the official protocol of meeting and interacting with a Queen of England, one should never touch the Queen. Attempts to hug or kiss the Queen are not allowed (Rovzar, 2009). Among other things, one is not allowed to touch food before the Queen does or extend a hand for greeting before the Queen extends hers. The incident caused a stir in British media, since Obama’s gesture was interpreted as highly inappropriate, impolite, and blatant violation of the protocol (Rovzar, 2009). Many found Obama’s half-hug offensive and interpreted it as a sign of lack of respect not just towards the Queen but for Great Britain, its traditions, political institutions, and national pride and dignity. 

In a described situation, the essence of intercultural misunderstanding was in a different interpretation of a light, short embrace. While it may be acceptable for Americans to touch their president, touching the Queen is completely against protocol unless a monarch touches someone first. Notably, the incident was soon forgotten by media but the history of diplomatic relations is likely to refer to such case for years to represent a classic example of intercultural misunderstanding. The fact that the above situation resulted in such a furious reaction in media corroborates Fitzpatrick’s et al. (2013) claim that intercultural competence is an important factor in building international public diplomacy and public relations. Notably, the interest to incident was relatively short-lived. There were opinions that a repeatedly demonstrated respectful attitude of President Obama towards Great Britain was a key to helping British public to forgive protocol violation. This incident demonstrates that although intercultural misunderstandings may happen spontaneously and unintentionally, they may pose a threat to diplomatic relations.

Intercultural competence in diplomacy may be viewed both a concept that implies awareness of diverse cultural backgrounds and beliefs and the ability to apply knowledge of a different culture to build rapport with international partners (Aneas & Sandin, 2009). Fitzpatrick, Fullerton, and Kendrick (2013) argued that in public diplomacy and public relations, the process by which governments pursue political objectives via building relationships and communicating with foreign public requires intercultural knowledge and skills (abilities) to engage competently in interactive exchanges with foreign representatives. Apparently, in a described example, Michelle Obama’s mistake is an example of a protocol violation that negatively affected public diplomacy and may have served as an obstacle for the US in building effective relations with British public. 

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a Swedish Ambassador, 2012

Yoav Tenembaum (2014) described an incident of non-verbal intercultural misunderstanding that took place in 2012 and led to a mini crisis between Iran and Sweden when a new Swedish ambassador, Peter Tejler, was appointed to work in Iran. In the course of the introductory conversation with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, newly appointed ambassador presented his credentials. Ahmadinejad invited him to sit down for a more detailed conversation. As they talked, Tejler repositioned his legs in a way that exposed his shoe soles to his interlocutor and made them visible to Ahmadinejad. All the present and the President himself were shocked as it was considered highly offensive and rude to show one’s shoe soles to the other person. In response, the Iranian President also crossed his legs and showed the sole of his shoe to Peter Tejler (Tenembaum, 2014). Although the resulted crisis was soon resolved, such real life example is another demonstration of how a lack of intercultural competence led to misunderstanding that had negative implications and became a reason of strained relations between Sweden and Iran. 

Intercultural communication in diplomacy may be defined as a situated verbal or written exchange between groups or individuals of different cultural origins (Slavik et al., 2004). Therefore, intercultural communication may be understood simply as the process of communicating with members of diverse cultures. Asante et al. (2013) draws attention to the need of paying particular attention to non-verbal communications in Islamic culture, since being aware of non-verbal issues enhances diplomat’s understanding of hierarchies, ranks, signs of respect, and communicative dynamics that may influence communication. Additionally, Semati (2011) claims that in Islamic societies, culturally competent communication should consider political, cultural, religious, and societal aspects of oral exchange. Cited sources and a described example highlight the need for intercultural training among diplomats and demonstrate that intercultural competence is highly relevant and in demand in international diplomacy.

As examples with Michelle Obama-Queen Elizabeth and Tejler-Ahmadinejad demonstrated, cultural individualism of different societies in connection with governmental efforts to establish diplomatic and economic relations with other states creates a demand for respecting cultural characteristics of state representatives, other societies, and political entities. As governments strive to broaden opportunities for cooperation in a multicultural word, awareness of cultural and social practices gains a new relevance for participants of intercultural and intergovernmental collaboration. However, it should be noted that the context in which intercultural competence may be applied in politics is broad and may take various forms. For example, verbal misunderstanding between Nixon and Sato happened during official negotiations; Michelle Obama hugged Queen Elizabeth during a reception in Buckingham Palace (non-verbal violation of a protocol); offensive incident between Swedish ambassador and Iranian President took place during the official presentation of credentials and showed that Tejler lacked basic knowledge of accepted non-verbal communication.

The analysis of the there described instances of intercultural misunderstandings corroborates Shuter’s (2011) claim that international diplomacy is a field where culturally sensitive and competent communication and rhetoric contribute positively to productive intercultural communication, consensus-finding, and maximizing social and psychological dynamics instrumental to positive cross-cultural exchanges, negotiations, and establishing relationships. Therefore, an effective interplay between intercultural communication and diplomacy is achieved when asymmetry of cultural styles is minimized and relevant foreign cultural policies are established and followed by diplomats.


The analysis of intercultural communication in diplomacy as well reviewing instances of intercultural misunderstandings (Nixon and Sato misunderstanding, Obama’s protocol violation, and a Swedish ambassador’s poor awareness of culturally acceptable non-verbal communication) demonstrate that intercultural competence may influence international and diplomatic relations significantly, both positively and negatively. Thus, culturally competent diplomatic work is an important factor that fosters international political and economic cooperation, facilitates negotiations and helps to avoid intercultural misunderstandings and diffuse potential conflicts. In practice, intercultural competence is a tool that diplomats can use to demonstrate respect for traditions, culture, and mentality of other nations and avoid intercultural misunderstandings, offensive incidents, and conflicts. Examined instances of intercultural misunderstandings in world politics and international diplomacy showed that maintaining a high level of intercultural competence is a must for diplomats, government officials, and politicians.

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