In the blog series “Coffee Machine Talk,” Bijlers share their thoughts on social developments and the profession, inspired by the spontaneous conversations that arise at the coffee machine. These discussions can sometimes be quite thought-provoking. In this blog, Tiffany and Helen discuss the importance of intercultural communication. Tiffany, an American and British dual citizen who works as the Head of Education at the UK PR and public affairs agency PLMR, spent two weeks at our Rotterdam office and experienced intercultural communication firsthand. Previously, Helen spent two weeks in Berlin in 2022 with our partner agency navos as part of the same Global Communication Alliance (GCA) exchange program.

This program is made possible by our membership in the GCA, a global network of like-minded, independent agencies with years of experience in communication, PR, and public affairs. Thanks to this network, we regularly collaborate with international agencies such as British agency Allison + Partners. What have Helen and Tiffany learned from this international adventure, and how can we apply these lessons in our field?

Tiffany, you’ve experienced cross cultural communication first-hand the past two weeks. What were the most surprising things you learnt about our Dutchies style of communication?

One of my best friends is Dutch, she used to be my neighbour in London. She always had a very direct way of speaking, but for the longest time I thought it was just a personality thing – I eventually learned it was more of a cultural thing, but I didn’t really appreciate how engrained it is until living and working here for two weeks. Here it is very straightforward, people say what they’re thinking and it is done very honestly and out of genuine interest and curiosity about people, I think. Even though it’s so direct, that nice openness about it can be disarming – I find myself being much more forthcoming and open with people as a result. I also like the Dutch humour. Sharp, witty and fast, very different from American humour and probably more similar to the British sense of humour.

And Helen, what about you the other way round?

Helen: ”In general I think I am always extra sensitive to cultural differences and not wanting to step on someone else’s toes. That must come from being raised by British parents. When we have visitors from abroad like yourself, I become very aware of how Dutch I can sometimes be nowadays. But it also is a moment to reevaluate the good parts of Dutch ánd British culture. For example I think the work life balance is very important to Dutch people. Is that something that you have experienced in the past couple of weeks too?”

Tiffany: ”Absolutely! A great example of that for me is the lunches that you have together on a daily basis. I remember on my first day asking if this was especially for me as it seemed so extraordinary. But taking the time out of your busy days to collectively have lunch together, get away from your computer for just that half an hour makes a huge difference in how productive you can be the rest of the day.”

How would you describe the role of intercultural communication within the communications field?

Tiffany: ”I think this experience has been a brilliant reminder of the importance of being mindful about who your audience is in any communications – probably very often your messages will be aimed at a diverse range of people with different cultures, backgrounds and experiences and you need to take that all into account when crafting your messaging, don’t just assume people think and feel about things the way that you do.”

Helen: ”I think the importance of it cannot be underestimated. Just within the Netherlands alone almost a quarter of the population has non-Dutch roots. When we are asked to create a campaign that reaches the Dutch public it is important to keep that in mind. And that goes further than just a ‘simple’ question like in which language to communicate in. It’s about understanding who your target audience is and what makes them tick, but also just as important is the question what could upset them. It’s about verbal communication: what words do you choose and in what language, but also what images you use, what colours and symbols. I think our field would benefit from taking more time to consider that more often when creating communication. A former intern of ours wrote a handbook (Bijl inclusion guide) on this which is now a valuable resource in our daily work.”

Why is it essential to consider all aspects of communication, including non-verbal and cultural elements?

Helen: ”Because you want to reach people with your messaging and reach your goal, whatever that is. If you do not take any cultural aspects into account people will not feel that your message is meant for them or there is a risk that they will not take any notice of it. And it is important to take into account non-verbal communication as 80% of our communication is non-verbal communication, far more than most people even realise.”

Tiffany shares an example that struck her during her stay in the Netherlands: ”I’ve noticed certain mannerisms, signs or sounds that Dutch people make that I haven’t heard anywhere else before. I don’t think anyone is aware of what they are doing and it is very subtle, but I did notice it and shows the power of non-verbal communication. For example, and it’s difficult to describe, but I’ve noticed a number of people will be speaking about something and then suddenly kind of purse their lips and blow out air – it’s a signal that what they’re talking about is something they find kind of ridiculous – I found myself doing it as well!”

Can you give specific examples of situations in which intercultural communication played an important role? How have you dealt with this in your professional experience?

Helen: ”In my previous job I dealt with cultural differences and intercultural communication on a daily basis. I once had a meeting in China during which the person opposite me spent the whole time on his mobile phone. It came across as extremely rude to me, but once I came back and was talking to a Chinese friend she explained that in the Chinese culture it’s essential to be always available for your boss and be responsive. That was the reason that this person was on the phone. If I had lost my temper and stopped talking for example, that would have been a big cultural mistake and would have spoilt our work relationship forever. It shows how essential it is to understand where your counterpart is coming from and what cultural differences are important to take into account.”

What are some challenges you have experienced navigating cross-cultural communication, and how have you dealt with them?

Tiffany: ”I think if you have the time and opportunity, ‘people-watching’ and observation is really important, you get a sense of how people interact and you can mirror that. Obviously there’s a bit of a language barrier, because I don’t speak any Dutch – but while everyone apologises for their English not being good, it makes me laugh because everyone I’ve met speaks excellent English – even though it’s harder for them to think and brainstorm etc and translate it on the fly into English, it still works. I’ve really appreciated everyone translating for me and switching to English at different times – even a client switched to English for me.”

Helen agrees with Tiffany: ”It is so important to read up on culture you are going to interact with, no matter in which situation. If you make the effort to try and understand who the other person is, it creates a sense of trust and confidence in you that you can then build a relationship on. That will help you in the further communication with that person or audience.”

You have both gained experience abroad during an exchange at a partner agency. What lessons have you learned from this and how does this influence your view on intercultural communication?

Helen: ”My biggest take way is that no matter how close some countries are to each other from a geographical point of view, there will always be cultural differences in communication that you will notice. Whether they are big or small, it is important to take them into account when communicating with your audience. For me, it illustrates even more how important intercultural communication is. We collaborate with agencies from other countries and are often used by international companies as their local Dutch agency. To serve Benelux-wide clients, we entered into a joint venture with Belgian agency Wyngs. By using their local knowledge of the market, we can communicate more effectively and adapt to the cultural nuances and preferences of the Belgian audience.”

Tiffany sees similarities between Bijl PR and PLMR: ”I think our agencies are very much aligned in many ways in terms of approach, culture, friendliness. It’s been the chance to see it from a slightly different way, through different clients, different perspectives, that’s inspired me to lean on creativity a lot more. I also think I need to be more direct in a Dutch way more often, and need to focus more on my own work / life balance which is a big cultural factor here. And I need to find a way to bring all the cheeses I now love back with me!”