What is an Interculturalist?

"I want to be an astronaut!" "Me a ballerina!"

"I'm gonna be a ... [teacher, doctor, firefighter, cowboy, police officer...] when I grow up!"

Children fill in the blank with many high-visibility occupations.

As students graduate from school, they take on more nuanced and varied career goals: accounting, nursing, paralegal, sales, human resources, marketing, research, management, engineering.

Still, none of these youngsters grows up wanting to work in cross-cultural communication.  By definition, you have to go beyond your comfort zone, outside your realm of experience, and into places strange and unfamiliar in order to catch the intercultural bug.

Interculturalists: Finding your home among the world's nomads

Interculturalists: Finding your home among the world's nomads

So, how does one answer the ubiquitous cocktail-party question, "What is it that you do?"

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My colleague Christian Höferle came up with this wonderful, illustrated way of talking about the work of interculturalists.

The questions interculturalists often hear:

Q: Do you have to speak dozens of languages to work with international companies?

A: No, but it helps to have learned one or two foreign languages in your lifetime. It makes you more empathetic to border-crossing businesspeople who are trading in tongues not their own.  It also makes you more flexible in how you approach problems and explain nuances.

Q: Do you have to have lived overseas to work in this field?

A: No, but the more experience you have abroad, the better equipped you are to emphasize with the frustrations of dealing with behaviors that weren't the norm in one's childhood. Life and travel overseas gives you great stories to share with your clients. Everyone relates to stories, and if you can tell a few on yourself, you will have more respect. And more humility.

Q: Do you have to memorize the etiquette and rules of all the world's cultures?

A: No, this would be impossible. However, the more cultures you have contact with, the more variations you will be aware of, the less rigid you will be, and the more open you will be to seeking out alternative solutions.

What have you learned working across cultures? Please share your stories so that others can benefit from your hard-earned learning.


Interculturalist Christian Höferle is a German native who lives and works in Cleveland, Tennessee (USA). He helps German and American businesspeople work together with less friction and more profitability. His intercultural blog is called Southeast Schnitzel.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.