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How to deal with intercultural diversity at the workplace

Think about your working environment – be it a school, a company, an institution ... – how many different languages do you and your colleagues speak? How many 'cultures' are represented? You will certainly name more than two. Intercultural diversity is normal at the workplace, but how can one deal with it?

Cultural diversity in the workplace – not only in international companies − is a fact and therefore the norm. That´s why it is important to integrate this idea of diversity (due to migration, but also other processes) in workplace communication, as well as in vocational education. At the same time, it is necessary to familiarize oneself with a new understanding of “multiple cultural belonging” and the concepts of hybrid identities, such as affiliation of a person to different groups within a culture. The close connection between language and cultural norms also plays an important role in culturally diverse teams.

The „Linguistic Awareness of Cultures“ (LAC) in intercultural communication is one of the approaches to improve cultural competencies at a higher language level. This approach – also known as the “method Müller-Jacquier” (2000) – focuses on the importance of reflection, observation and introspection in order to identify intercultural misunderstandings and to be able to communicate in a more culturally sensitive way (cf. also the project Autobiography intercultural encounters)

  • Raise awareness of cultural diversity in the workplace as normal.
  • Get familiar with methods and measures for acting in a more culturally sensitive way.
  • Build up multilingual and integrative environments at the workplace.

For a better understanding of this linguistic awareness of cultures, let´s have a look on at the following examples:

The intercultural calendar

The knowledge about customs (including public holidays) of national and ethnic groups in a team can be one step towards (linguistic) awareness of cultures at the workplace and in vocational education. So have a look at the „intercultural calendar“ presented by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) in Germany.

Try to create a similar calendar for your country (by taking into account neighbour countries and migration)!

Giving an invitation

In every culture, we greet and say goodbye cf. Greetings. Inviting someone is also a universal act that is practiced in all cultures, but the question is how binding an invitation is, for example, or whether it is just a way of politely saying goodbye. That is what you can see in the German phrase for closing a conversation: "Wir müssen uns unbedingt mal wieder treffen!“ („We must definitely meet again!“ – However, the literal English translation cannot convey the modality of non-binding communication). Also in vocational contexts, a direct interpretation of this speech act as an invitation to meet again could cause a cultural misunderstanding.


The fact that certain words are strongly influenced by culture and cultural practices is shown by the intercultural-orientated semantic approach of the so called „Hotwords“ (Heringer 2007). These are words that are nearly untranslatable and even L1-speakers can hardly explain, because they contain many culture-specific components of meaning or connotations. A “hotword” can be based on collective memory (with a deeper meaning of national identification), but it can also refer to everyday social practices that also concern encounters in professional contexts. By using the words in the way how a person has experienced the social meaning in a given culture, the potential for misunderstanding for culturally and semantically explosive (or „hot“) words is predictable (cf. Kühn 2006: p 27 for a list of German hotwords).

A good example for such a culturally shaped „hotword“ is the German „Feierabend“ – often translated by „end of work“, but which also includes the feeling of „after work leisure“. At the same time there is a hidden concept linked to one very specific cultural German standard of interpersonal distance/task orientation that separates personal from professional conversation or relationship. The awareness of different or non-existing concepts for social practices in one´s language is strongly linked to linguistic meaning in cultural contexts.

In German you can find “hotwords” in different fields, e.g. Frühschoppen (everyday language), Gemütlichkeit (manners/mentality and national character) or Mauerfall (historical/political incidents (events) or institutions). Look them up and try to find a similar collection and more examples for your own language/culture. Do these “hotwords” also concern professional contexts, especially in border regions? Please highlight some of these! The following table may help you.
categories of „hotwords“ representation in your language/your culture
everyday language  
sightseeing features  
mentality and national character  
historical/political incidents (events) or institutions  

Awareness of language and culture

As well as these pragmatic approaches to intercultural professional encounters, it is also important to value all the languages and varieties (such as dialects) that your partners or colleagues bring with them, including the languages of migrants in one´s society and thus in the workplace, too. The need to prepare trainees for a multilingual world of work concerns at the same time locals and migrants. The concept of the workplace as a place of language learning is one of the most integrative and collaborative approaches for multilingual vocational education (cf. also the ECML-project Language for Work). 

At which level of language on the CEFR scales do you think it is possible to practice linguistic politeness and respect or to reflect on it? Which language activities should be actively mastered even with little language skills (A1/A2) and why?

Read more

Read more about the cultural standard method (Fink et al. 2005) and find out your own „national standards“ by comparing it to other nations. How about your point of view? Is this approach useful to come to an open understanding of language variety and diversity at the workplace?