The cross-cultural challenge of being understood


The cross-cultural challenge of being understoodCentre to any good workplace is effective communication and this is especially true in a culturally diverse work environment. According to a recent study published in the American Sociological Review, “workplace diversity is among the most important predictors of a business’ sales revenue, customer numbers and profitability.”

Without effective communication guidelines in place though, this opportunity to succeed becomes lost in a mire of misunderstood emails and miscues of body language. Communicating with a workforce of different cultures and varying language barriers presents some challenges for both employees and managers.

Managers today are well aware of the challenges that cultural differences and communication hurdles present when working with cross-cultural teams. In an effort to make sure everybody is speaking the same language, here are four vital cross-cultural communication tips to help overcome language and cultural barriers.

Four Cross-Cultural Communication Tips

1. Follow effective communication guidelines

Make sure employees are trained early and often during the interview and orientation process to help them transition into the new work environment. While it is important for a workforce to be flexible and sensitive to the varying degrees of cultural challenges, it is important to adhere to the policies and procedures of the existing culture.

2. Identify cultural boundaries

The open-door policy is one we hear about a lot, but for many of us from different parts of the world, approaching a manager directly is not a practiced custom. In fact, in about ¾ of the world, an open-door policy does not translate well. In effect, it sets up a barrier. Managers need to lead by example and be the first one to start the conversation.

3. Research cross-cultural customs

Identifying cultural differences can help build inter-office relations and improve the communication process. For instance, some cultures prefer to receive communications from their team leader as opposed to their department head; while other cultures are uncomfortable receiving praise openly and prefer a private setting, away from colleagues.

4. Avoid jargon and slang

Keep emails simple, to the point, and free of jargon, slang and colloquial terms. Deborah Valentine of the Management Communication Department at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School in Atlanta notes that North American business language “is driven by sport and war metaphors because the rules of business tended, for years, to mirror the rules of engagement. Using metaphors may be problematic with people from other cultures, even English-speaking employees, since they don’t necessarily use the same metaphors.”

Cross-cultural communication and diversity in the workplace can create a challenging work environment, but with the right attitudes and policies in place, it can lead to an enriching and productive workforce.

“Ethnic and cultural diversity can…enrich our lives if we are open to the possibilities of reaching out and learning new ways of communicating,” CrossTalk: Communicating in a Multicultural Workplace.

For more tips and resources, visit or call 1 866 833-7690 to speak to a counsellor.


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