How to Communicate Across Cultures


One of the first things we realize when talking to a person of a different ethnic culture is that they communicate differently than you do. Some have major hand gestures, others are more reserved, some seem in your face, and some will reach out for a social touch. The styles vary and may well be personality types and individual demeanor, but there are culture-specific communication styles that are helpful to know. Experience will teach you and maximizing on the opportunities can be done with some important points to follow:

Listen intently and do not interrupt

The best way to pick up on a communication style of a different culture is to listen. Human nature urges us to focus on the self, and we’re focused on the glorious me, than there isn’t room to soak up other culture. Actively note any interesting characteristics of the person’s style, and look for any patterns. Try not to interrupt because you sometimes get the fascinating finds when you let them go off on tangents. They’ll appreciate the extra attention.

Communicate with body-language

I am sure you’ve heard that 70% of communication is non-verbal. Focus on that aspect. Some cultures will put their hands on their heart as they speak to show their words are sincere, while others will show anger if they show jerky movements of limbs away from their bodies. Observe and imitate when you’re alone to see how that movement makes you feel emotionally with different expressions.  It can get confusing. In the Arab culture, a head movement up with eyebrows up means a ‘No’, whereas a person from East Africa would do that to show agreement. It’s a lot of fun!

Speak clearly and repeat carefully if necessary

In order to successfully communicate with someone of a different culture – whether in English or another common language – it’s really important to make sure you speak clearly and spare the colloquial or slang expressions, especially if you are better at that common language. You are more welcoming when you speak carefully. If they don’t understand a word you use. Be patient and try to say it again slowly. Do not just use another word in its place because it’s more efficient for you. If the second time is unsuccessful, then try to explain with simpler words and a welcoming smile on your face. The person clearly wants to understand or else they would have just nodded or changed the subject and pretended to understand – which isn’t hard to do. Give them the time to understand your communication style as you would hope they’d give you that time to understand theirs. It takes some time but it is worth it.

Always follow-up

In addition to following up with the person after a good communication attempt, which is always important to do, follow up with what they’ve taught you about their style. If they teach you how to say their hard-to-pronounce name, repeat after them and try to learn it. Do not give them a nickname. Make an effort, and they will appreciate it. Everyone loves the sound of their name. If they teach you a phrase from their language, or a body gesture that is foreign to you, make sure to repeat it, record it, and share it with them. It is a wonderful way to break down barriers across cultures, and it shows you care to build a relationship with them.

Communication across cultures is a hard skill considering the hundreds of different ethnicities worldwide. With the right mindset and approach, you can build lasting relationships with any culture if you communicate right.

You may also like

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *