Sustainable Communication

Intercultural dialogue and communication as a tool for sustainability

Aaand… here comes a purely intellectual post!
I’ve always loved foreign languages and cultures. Just like almost every Italian, I also have family members abroad, New York City to be precise, and I’ve grown up fascinated by migration flows and intercultural relationships. So when at 17 I had the chance of taking part in a cultural exchange in Austria, I immediately asked (“pestered” would actually be the right word) my professor to involve me in the project as well. I spent a whole week surrounded by people from all over Europe, and during that week I lived with an Austrian Muslim family of Turkish descent. And it was amazing.
Since then, I’ve had the great opportunity to bond with many other people scattered all over the planet. What a true gift!
Those relationships are the best examples I use when helping other people understand the impact a genuine intercultural dialogue can have at all levels.
Genuine intercultural dialogue for more sustainable relationships, for more cooperation, for a more sustainable planet.

In spite of a globalised, interconnected world, sometimes there occurs a true communication gap among cultures. An attitude that too easily falls prey to prejudices and shallowness.

And it obviously isn’t something new. The world’s history is also the history of lack of intercultural dialogue. Dialogue at all, okay, but hey, let’s stick to interculturalism here ????

I’m gonna allow my idealism to take the upper hand for a couple of minutes: could you imagine what would happen if people from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds really started to dialogue?

Okay, maybe not a true paradise on Earth, but cooperation at all levels would be so much easier.

It’s not surprising to see why the UN World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development on May 21st puts an emphasis on the essential role of intercultural dialogue and communication for achieving peace and sustainable development. Another tool to promote different dimensions of sustainability. And speaking of intersectional sustainability, for all these reasons I’ve placed intercultural communication (IC) among the tools that can promote sustainability and sustainable communication.

What is intercultural dialogue?

Intercultural dialogue is the process that occurs when members of different cultural groups, who hold conflicting opinions and assumptions, speak to one another, often in acknowledgement of those differences.

It is a co-constructed process, as it requires the cooperation of participants to engage in different ways of interacting.

It can also be regarded as a pure ideal: being most frequently promoted by diplomats, it tends to describe an ideal world rather than current reality. It is indeed considered a process that aims to promote tolerance, mutual respect, and openness. A tool to resolve conflict and increase peace and harmony. This is also the reason why it is used to refer to a world marked by cooperation between nations and/or among cultural groups within national borders.

What is intercultural communication?

Generally speaking, intercultural communication is the discipline that studies communication across different cultures and social groups, how culture affects communication and how people from different cultures and countries perceive and communicate the world around them.

On a more practical note, it can also be defined as the process through which people from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds share implicit and explicit meaning, values, mindset, subtleties, perceptions, mannerisms, culture-bound words and norms of behaviours.

It can occur anywhere, anytime.

Maybe you’re studying abroad, or you love travelling around the world and interact with locals. Or maybe you work in a multicultural team within an international company, and you need to communicate with your teammates or clients. It’s not by chance that intercultural communication is also referred to as the base for international businesses.

In any of the abovementioned cases, and many more, of course, proper intercultural communication helps us establish and nurture good relationships. Sustainable relationships. This is why it can’t be tackled superficially.

Why is intercultural communication important?

We have seen that intercultural communication doesn’t only focus on language but also on social patterns and attributes related to a group’s culture.

For intercultural communication to properly occur, it is therefore important that individuals understand that different cultures encode and decode messages differently. That the way in which we see reality is not the same way in which the other person sees reality. We can’t assume that others’ thoughts and actions are the same as ours. In other words, we need to put any crumb of ethnocentrism aside.

The immediate risk of practising intercultural communication through the lenses of ethnocentrism is cultural misunderstanding and problematic relationships.

You know, lack of communication, walls, silence, offences, wars. Stuff like that.

Instead, when individuals are effective and appropriate in intercultural situations, they implement behaviours that suit:

  • the expectations of a specific culture
  • the characteristics of the situation
  • the level of the relationship between the parties involved in the situation.

This could then culminate with the accomplishment of the desired goals of the interaction, which means that all parties involved should supposedly be satisfied.

Fruitful intercultural communication is also good for single individuals. It helps us enhance our cultural self-awareness as well as intercultural awareness. It allows us to understand how cultures determine feelings, thoughts, and personality. In so doing, we also potentially become more open-minded and non-judgemental, besides hopefully improving our foreign language skills and flexibility.

Why are intercultural communication and sustainability intertwined?

The relationship between sustainability and intercultural communication can first be observed in relation to the world of policies, politics and (scientific) research. IC has certainly become a dominant tool that connects a wide range of disciplines all around the world.

While this is obviously important in order for two or more individuals to interact, it may also facilitate the way in which specific issues are framed and delivered to a given public so that they can be properly digested and implemented. IC therefore allows us to learn how to build resilient relationships, rely on each other and resolve conflicts peacefully.

How is this truly related to sustainability? Well, the challenge of sustainability is glocal. It’s not related to only one community, city or country. It is a global challenge requiring global responses. And it’s also a local challenge requiring local responses. The global solution is an amalgamation of local responses, too. As a result, if we truly want to be able to communicate between these responses, intercultural competence and empathy towards different approaches and circumstances are necessary.

It’s not by chance then that the notion of intercultural sustainability has been analysed in the last decade. By taking into account the three dimensions of sustainability (ecological, economic and social) this concept relates to the insight that such dimensions will be put at risk unless we ensure peaceful management of people’s assumptions about culture and cultural affiliations.

For all these reasons, it can be easily understood why the UN decided to promote intercultural dialogue as a tool to achieve peace and sustainable development. Intercultural communication and sustainability can indeed go hand in hand.

In 2001, UNESCO adopted the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity and the very next year the UN General Assembly declared May 21 to be the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development. Also, in 2015 the Second Committee of the UN General Assembly adopted the resolution on Culture and Sustainable development. In so doing, they affirmed culture’s contribution to the three dimensions of sustainable development and acknowledged the strategic role that cultures and the dialogue among them could play as crucial enablers of sustainable development.

The famous Agenda 2030 also highlights the strategic link between its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and IC, by stressing how they can best be achieved by “drawing upon the creative potential of the world’s diverse cultures, and engaging in continuous dialogue to ensure that all members of society benefit from sustainable development.”


We’ve seen that intercultural dialogue and communication can be used as tools to get out of many bottlenecks, one of them being sustainability and how to implement it worldwide. Dialogue among different cultural communities certainly needs to be promoted in the field of sustainability as a way to confront different values and worldviews of people. A tool that could help us nurture new possibilities of a sustainable future.

One of the problems this relationship faces is however its implementation. Of course, the two main levels in which this can occur are the institutional and the educational ones, something all the above-mentioned declarations mention but which, at the same time, require a lot of effort, too. And we’ve seen how contradictory those two dimensions can act towards sustainability issues.

Sources and food for thought

D. Busch (2016), What Is Intercultural Sustainability? A First Exploration of Linkages Between Culture and Sustainability in Intercultural Research, Journal of Sustainable Development Vol. 9, No. 1.

W. Leeds-Hurwitz (2014), Intercultural dialogue. Key Concepts in Intercultural Dialogue, 1, available at

UN (n.d.), Cultural Diversity Day, available at

UNESCO (n.d.), Cultural Diversity Day, available at

UNESCO (n.d.), Intercultural dialogue and language: the influence of our mother tongues, available at

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