Communicating Effectively Across Cultures


By Suzanne Schiller

The purpose of communication is to convey your thoughts or ideas clearly to another. In an effective communication transaction both the sender and the receiver perceive the message in the same way. It is particularly important to communicate effectively in a business environment: failure to do so can have costly and potentially disastrous results. Communication skills are thus a key contributor to the success of an organization. When communication does not embody the correct opinions and ideas, it becomes a barrier to achieving the organization's goals. Being aware of the broad-ranging differences in the interaction patterns of a given geography is thus essential for effective communication across cultures.

Cultural Diversity

Each country and region has its own set of cultural and language rules. English spoken by the indigenous population of one country will often be of a different style from that spoken elsewhere. As an example, the English spoken by Canadians is different from that in every day use by Australians. Variances range from the grammatical through to vocabulary and of course idiomatic language use. Equally, there are significant cultural differences. Giving business cards is perceived as a significant event in Japan. Japanese professionals consider their business cards to be a valuable possession and thus proffer them respectfully with an inclined head. This is in sharp contrast with many other locations where the provision of a business card is a commonplace event. Punctuality is usually important for Europeans, although there are variances within Europe itself, but it is less critical in Asian markets.

There are almost endless examples of cultural diversity. Being oblivious to cultural and communication differences may lead to unintentional insult. It is therefore essential that one should respect the style and difference in communication patterns when working with those from other geographies and cultures.

Effective Communication

Communication is effective when it is accurate and concise and is correctly delivered in the cultural context of the recipient. There are many key points to consider for effective communication in a cross cultural environment.

  • -- Know the cultural values and background of the person with whom you are communicating.
  • -- Speak clearly and at a measured pace.
  • Gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, posture and even clothing contribute to effective communication.
  • -- Ensure that you use language and vocabulary accurately.
  • -- If in doubt, keep it simple.
  • -- Give people more time to express themselves.
  • -- Humor is considered offensive in some contexts and cultures so avoid humor until you know the person very well.

If these simple rules for effective communication are followed, you run less of a risk of appearing clownish, insulting others or simply failing to deliver the correct message.

Advantages of Learning Other Cultures

An in-depth understanding of the cultural values, business practices and business etiquette of other countries is vital for effective communication. It will make it easier for you to understand the behavioral patterns of others. Learning about other cultures allows you to read body language; to understand whether you are likely to get a direct answer; to be aware of topics that may be offensive; to understand whether you should avoid avoiding touching and eye contact and a great deal more. Appropriate study will ensure that you become more aware of why people from different cultures think the way they do. You can then use this knowledge to ensure that you communicate accordingly in the most effective way.

The Consequences of Ineffective Communication

The inability to communicate effectively in a working or social environment can have serious consequences:-

  • -- It can prove difficult to compete in the work place.
  • -- It can lead to misinterpretation and unnecessary misunderstandings with potentially costly consequences.
  • -- It can make you feel isolated in a new environment.
  • -- In extreme circumstances it may lead to psychological disorders.

Communication Training Programs

Organizations are recognizing that their future is dependent upon the communication skills of their staff in an increasingly international marketplace. Businesses are thus honing the communication and cross cultural skills of employees by utilizing appropriate inter cultural training programs. These programs improve inter cultural understanding and communication skills for specific target cultures and geographies. They focus upon overcoming both language and behavioral barriers to facilitate confident personal, social and business communication in achieving the desired business results.


Doing business in another geography is not just about language and law. Proper awareness of local culture is vital to personal and professional success. Cultures and customs are highly diverse and communicating across cultures is often far from easy even if communicating in your mother tongue. You need to do your homework. Explore the place in which you are planning to do business; understand its cultural values, customs, business practices and etiquette. In some cases, an appropriate communication training program can develop the practical skills needed in understanding a given country�s markets, employees and clients.

Suzanne Schiller worked as Business Development Management.