Author Profile Picture

Michelle Raymond

The People's Partner

HR Consultant & Visibility Strategist

Read more about Michelle Raymond

How to improve cross-cultural communications in the workplace

Read our list of top tips to help you and your employees converse successfully with people from diverse backgrounds.

The way we communicate with other cultures is a significant part of inclusion within DE&I. It’s very easy to mess up, ignore, patronise and worse still offend staff members, customers and clients when we fail to understand the nuances of cross-cultural communication. 

We know that communication styles are patterns that people learn from the range of cultures in which they have membership. It is equally true to say that every culture has a ‘communication style norm’ that is used by a majority of people in that culture.

The key to success is understanding and accepting the differences of a multicultural team.

However, there are cultures within cultures so it is important, as practitioners, to understand that there are different levels of communication at play all of the time.

The key to success is understanding and accepting the differences of a multicultural team, and then using them to enhance the way the team analyses situations and makes decisions.

Below are 10 strategies that will help you leverage greater communication amongst diverse teams and promote inclusivity, based on my recent experiences.

These strategies are vitally important in the quest for cross cultural harmony.

Being chair of a number of grievances and disciplinaries in recent weeks, I have seen first-hand that miscommunication, a lack of understanding of other people’s cultures and misaligned assumptions has exasperated the situations and has made finding a solution considerably difficult, if not, impossible.

These strategies are vitally important in the quest for cross-cultural harmony. However, I have found that numbers 2, 4, 7 and 8 have had a profound impact on the way I approach diversity. 

1. Do your research

Before you meet your new member of staff, research the target culture. Many cultures expect a degree of formality at the beginning of communication between individuals. Every culture has its own specific way of indicating this formality and as a leader or practitioner in the HR field, appropriate etiquette goes a long way in respecting other people’s culture.

2. Preconceptions and stereotypes

Preconceived notions and stereotyping occur when oversimplified characteristics are used to judge a group of people or an individual associated with a group. Reducing the default behaviour of seeing things as ‘good’ or bad’ without really understanding the intent.

3. Avoid slang

Non-native English speakers may understand the individual words you use, but not the context or the meaning of slang words, idioms or sayings. Even when speaking the same language and using the same words, individuals can interpret the strength of a word very differently. As a result, you could end up confusing them or even offending them.

4. Be aware of nonverbal misinterpretations 

We send and receive non-verbal messages through our body language, facial expressions, and eye contact. Even clothing and furniture style can communicate an intended or unintended message. 

5. Speak slowly

Even if English is the common language in a cross-cultural situation it’s not a good idea to speak at your normal conversational speed. Modulating your pace will help, as will speaking clearly and pronouncing your words properly. This does not mean that you speak at a snail’s pace which can be seen as both annoying and patronising.

6. Keep it simple

In a cross-cultural conversation, there’s no need to make it harder for both of you by using big words. Choose simplicity over complexity in cross-cultural communication – check for an understanding of meanings.

7. Assumption of similarities

The invisible aspects of our culture lead us to assume our communication style and way of behaving is how everyone communicates and behaves. When they act like us we think they are right, or we don’t give it much thought. When someone acts differently, we may judge them negatively. Appreciate the differences, embrace the diversity.

8. Practice active listening

Restate or summarise what the other person has said, to ensure that you have understood them correctly, and ask frequent questions. This helps build rapport and ensures that important information doesn’t get missed or misunderstood.

9. Avoid closed questions

Don’t phrase a question that needs requires a yes or no answer. In many cultures it is difficult or embarrassing to answer in the negative, so you will always get a ‘yes’ even if the real answer is ‘no’. Ask open-ended questions that require information as a response.

10. Be careful with humour

Many cultures take business very seriously and believe in behaving professionally and following protocol at all times. If you do decide to use humour make sure it will be understood and appreciated in the other culture and not cause offence.

DE&I leaders, executives, managers and HR have a responsibility to understand that culturally learned behavioural differences affect communication behaviours.

Getting this right will reduce cultural conflicts in the workplace and improve and diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Interested in this topic? Read Diversity, equality and inclusion: Taking a data-driven approach that addresses intersectionality

Author Profile Picture
Michelle Raymond

HR Consultant & Visibility Strategist

Read more from Michelle Raymond

Get the latest from HRZone

Subscribe to expert insights on how to create a better workplace for both your business and its people.


Thank you.

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.
Subscribe to HRZone's newsletter