7 Tips for Effective Cross-Cultural Communication in the Workplace

With workforces becoming increasingly diverse, cross-cultural differences add an extra dimension of complexity to communication, with each culture bringing its own unique traditions and tendencies to the workplace.

To be successful in business, management and leadership must learn how to communicate effectively with everyone, including people with different backgrounds and cultural norms from their own, making themselves understood and, in turn, making sure that they understand their staff. In this article, we look at seven top tips to help maintain effective cross-cultural communication, instilling a happy, healthy, diverse work culture where all staff feel included and valued.

1.   Never Assume

As humans, we are constantly filling in the blanks, trying to read people and guess their thoughts and feelings. Even when we know someone well, assuming we know what they’re thinking or vice versa can often lead to misunderstandings or conflict.

Never assume that you understood the other person the first time around or that that they understood you. An effective way of reducing the risk of miscommunication is reiterating important points using different words and encouraging others to do the same, ensuring that you are both on the same page. If in doubt, just ask.

2.   Read Body Language

The vast majority of communication between human beings is nonverbal. Even if you do not speak the same language, your gestures and posture can still tell other people an awful lot about you. Similarly, looking out for nonverbal cues can also be a powerful tool in terms of deciphering how the other person is feeling throughout your interaction. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that, in different cultures, a particular gesture could mean two very different things.

Mirroring is a proven method of developing relationships and building rapport. Following your audience’s lead can help you to avoid cultural faux pas. For example, in Eastern and some Caribbean cultures, strong eye contact can be off-putting and is deemed aggressive or rude. It is therefore important to observe your audience’s reactions and modify your behavior accordingly.

3.   Speak Slowly and Clearly

Extrovert character types tend to think as they speak, bouncing from one idea to the next, talking through and solving problems out loud. Energized and excited by interactions, they can flit from one topic to the next, making them difficult to follow, and that’s even before you add cultural differences and language barriers to the equation.

By avoiding the inclination to race ahead and instead speak slowly and clearly, you can present yourself as a confident, thoughtful, and self-possessed individual. Taking a moment to reflect before you speak also helps you to avoid making mistakes and using language you may come to regret later.

4.   Avoid Slang and Profanities

Slang is an informal language between people who share the same cultural identity. It is often exchanged by individuals who know each other well, and it is typically used in verbal rather than written form.

When used in front of people from outside of that social group, slang can be offensive, effectively excluding them from the conversation and potentially insulting and alienating them. In a diverse, inclusive working environment that incorporates people from a variety of different backgrounds, it is important to use language that is understood by everyone.

Swearing is prevalent in society. It is generally used to convey emotion—typically anger. However, many people, irrespective of background, find profanity highly offensive. Importantly, 81 percent of employers agree that swearing in the workplace brings an employee’s professionalism into question.

5.   Actively Listen

It is important to focus on a person’s words without agenda or judgment, being completely present and hearing what the other person is saying rather than what you expect them to say.

Active listening is an effective strategy for successful cross-cultural communication. Restating or summarizing what the other person said and asking pertinent questions not only shows them that they have your attention, but it also ensures that you understand them. This can build rapport and keep important information from being overlooked.

6.   Take Turns to Talk

When conversing with a non-native speaker, it is far more effective to speak with them in short exchanges rather than presenting them with a long monologue that may be difficult to follow. By making your first point and then presenting many opportunities for the other person to respond, the conversation flows much more freely and effectively, creating a level playing field for each side to speak and listen.

7.   Keep It Simple

Using smaller, simpler words with fewer syllables ensures greater clarity, making what you say more impactful and easier for your audience to process. Many people believe that big words make them look clever, but one Princeton University study established the reverse. In terms of keeping a cross-cultural audience onboard, the key is simplicity, not cluttering the conversation with obtuse, flowery language.

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