Deciphering cultural codes

Intercultural communication is, as the word says, communication between people from different cultures. There are various theories about intercultural communication. Typically, it is agreed that the elements of an intercultural communication situation include the sender of a message, the message conveyed and the receiver of the message.

What is central is that the sender “sends” the message coded with his or her cultural codes, while the receiver decodes the message with his or her own cultural codes. In other words, the sender communicates as people do in his or her home culture while the receiver interprets the message the way messages are interpreted in his or her own culture.

Intercultural Communication Model

This means that the message the sender wants to get across is not necessarily the message the receiver gets. To be successful when communicating with someone from another culture, it is important to have knowledge about the other’s culture and an understanding of how he or she might code their messages and decode yours.

Since you are both the sender and receiver of a message when you communicate, you are constantly coding and decoding messages, at least until you get a natural feel for how people communicate in your host culture.

The intercultural communication model gives you a basic understanding of what you should consider when communicating with someone from another culture. However, remember that you are meeting people first and their culture second and that there might not be any differences to overcome.

Also, remember that your colleagues or friends might be attempting to adapt slightly to your culture, while you are adapting to theirs, which could either cause confusion or facilitate communication.

Guidelines for successful intercultural communication

  • Be aware of your own cultural assumptions and values and accept your cultural conditioning.
  • Accept the cultural conditioning of others.
  • Remember that what you say may not be what is understood, and what you hear may not be what is meant.
  • Speak slowly without patronizing and avoid language which presumes cultural understanding.
  • Learn local phrases – it is a good conversation starter and shows effort and interest.
  • Be careful when using humour, it doesn’t always translate well.

How to learn more about communication in your host culture

  • Watch movies set in your host culture and observe how people communicate – take note of what is said and not said, and how it is said.
  • Talk to people who have lived or worked in your host culture.
  • Learn more about  intercultural communication styles in a business setting here.


  • How do you instinctively code and decode messages?
  • How do you think you should code and decode messages in your host culture?