The Secret to Effective Cross-Cultural Communication in the Workplace

December 11, 2018
Updated February 25, 2020

Workplaces are changing. The modern workplace is increasingly multicultural. A proportion of the people you work with are likely to have migrated at some point in their lives. They might have moved from one state or city to another or traveled to a different country to find work.

In addition to traveling to find work, people are opting to work remotely, telecommuting from anywhere in the world. This changing workplace offers many benefits to businesses that can source skills worldwide, but also brings challenges in terms of forming teams.

Working with someone from another culture often involves adapting to new perspectives. For example, where an office worker from the United States might prize individuality, a worker from China will value teamwork.

This guide to cross-cultural communication will explore some of the challenges you may face and how to overcome them. Let’s get started.

Diversity in the workplace

It is certainly easier working with someone from a similar background. There is a shared understanding of culture, humor, and work expectations, amongst many things. While it may be easier working with people with shared cultural values and understanding, there are definite advantages for a business.

Companies that hold back on diversity can suffer a lack of growth. In an interview published on BambooHR with Adam Grant, he says: “… if you track them after they go public, the companies that are really into culture fit grow at slower rates when you track metrics like annual market capitalization. As they look for people who fit the culture, they start to weed out of diversity of culture.”

Does your company form a clique of its own? If you are all from a similar background with the same culture, you are unlikely to question attitudes towards anyone different. When analyzing diversity in the workplace, start by reviewing your personal and corporate attitudes. What perceptions do you carry about your own and other cultures?

It is too easy to stereotype, whether that is generalizing about women, men, Americans, or Germans. The truth is that we are all unique, made up of any number of characteristics that influence our behavior.

Try listing all the characteristics that make you who you are, and you will realize that nationality and culture are not the only types of diversity.

People are different in many ways, and cross-cultural offices need to learn from each other to overcome the differences.

In the same way, as communication is the key to successful teams and businesses, communication is also key to a successful cross-cultural workforce. The following are five cornerstones of effective cross-cultural communication:

  1. Establish communication preferences
  2. Remember that communication is not only verbal
  3. Identify language barriers
  4. Form friendships across cultures
  5. Risk misunderstanding

In a multicultural workplace, it is important to monitor how teams are communicating and operating, not just the results they are achieving. One of the best ways to monitor your workforce is through one-on-one meetings. For example, you can use scheduling software for small businesses to check how things are going. This can help identify issues that could become an issue and provides you the opportunity to find a solution.

Establish communication preferences

Communication allows you to learn more about your colleagues and will help you to understand the similarities and differences in the way you work.

Open communication will also help you identify the skills and strengths that each team member brings to the table.

In three Situations Where Cross-Cultural Communication Breaks Down, Ginka Toegel and Jean-Louis Barsoux say: “…the strength of cross-cultural teams is their diversity of experience, perspective, and insight. However, to capture those riches, colleagues must commit to open communication; they must dare to share.”

One example of a cultural difference could be ‘participation norms.’ One person might see a lively loud session of brainstorming as argumentative, the other as perfectly acceptable. One person might be happy to put themselves forward, and another may be reluctant.

Find out how your colleagues or employees perceive interactions and work towards a ‘team norm’ that fits well with the company culture. Ask colleagues how they prefer to hold meetings and how they prefer to give and receive feedback. Then find the middle ground.

Remember that communication is not only verbal

It can be useful to remember that differences can be non-verbal. Doctor Albert Mehrabian conducted several experiments and found that 55% of communication is non-verbal (e.g., facial expressions, gestures, and posture).

Hurn and Tomalin are authors of a book called “What is Cross-Cultural Communication?” They point out that “Communication can involve spoken and written language, body language and the language of etiquette and protocol.”

An example of where posture affects communication is when you interview someone who is slumped in the chair and looks down while talking or mumbles answers. This behavior is unlikely to result in a hire due to the negative associations with it.

Standing close to a person while speaking to them can be seen as friendly by one person and too familiar by another. Formally greeting people at the beginning of meetings is another example where etiquette can differ across cultures.

We all tend to judge other people, approving, or disapproving of their actions. The source of the conflict could be cultural. After all, in different cultures, business is run in different ways.

You might judge a colleague for working overtime. They could merely be acting in a way that is normal for their culture. Another employee might rebel against the corporate culture of the ‘always on’ nature of taking calls or answering emails out of hours.

Look out for ways that non-verbal behavior is hampering communication across the team.

Identify language barriers

If language is a barrier, learn how to say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ or another simple phrase like ‘thank you’ in the language that your colleague speaks, even if it is not your corporate language. It will demonstrate that you want to get to know them and are willing to make an effort.

If you are talking to someone whose native language is not the one predominantly used in the company, slow your speech down, but not so far as to infer they are stupid! Native speakers can speak a language very fast without thinking.

Avoid using slang, jargon, and culture-specific sayings that don’t translate well.

Whether you share a language or not, it is always good for communication to confirm your understanding at the end of a conversation. Repeat back what you’ve understood and recap on any action points for both parties.

Form friendships across cultures

Finding out about a colleague from another culture can be both interesting and revealing. You may find that you have more in common than you might have anticipated. Making an effort to spend time with workmates can result in long term friendships.

Good working relationships help teams to overcome difficulties and work more efficiently. They build trust up across the organization, which improves collaboration in turn, and, ultimately, can benefit the bottom line.

Stephen M.R. Covey writes in The Speed of Trust: “Simply put, trust means confidence. The opposite of trust – distrust – is suspicion. When you trust people, you have confidence in them – in their integrity and their abilities. When you distrust people, you are suspicious of them – of their integrity, their agenda, their capabilities, or their track record. It’s that simple.”

Trust is critical for teamwork, but it takes time and effort and is not always easy to earn across the cultural divide.

Risk misunderstanding

Forming friendships across cultural barriers is not without its risk.

Talking to your colleagues openly builds awareness and reduces the chances that you are making assumptions about them. Opening up, however, can feel risky.

Employees can feel anxiety about cross-cultural communication, worried that they might cause offense when the intention is to improve relationships.

A Harvard Business Review article ‘Rethinking Political Correctness’ gives examples where the fear of making mistakes prevents someone from taking appropriate steps to address or communicate issues.

The authors Ely, Meyerson, and Davidson, say: “assaults to people’s identities occur daily in most organizations,” and these “Identity abrasions cause people to burrow into their own camps, attend only to information that confirms their positions, and demonize the other side. The overall result is a number of negative dynamics, with costs both to individuals and to organizations.”

Address conflicts in the cross-cultural team early on.

Ely et al. continue: “Short-circuiting these emotional reactions is not easy, but our research suggests that when people replace their need to defend themselves with a desire to learn, the possibilities for constructive cross-cultural interactions increase enormously.”

Establish what normal means for your business. Understanding that no one culture is the superior culture is helpful. The difference doesn’t necessarily mean better or worse; it just means different.

You should also set up a system that enables staff to easily contact their HR if they feel some issues need to be addressed. You can do this relatively easily using a platform like BookingLive, which is one of the advantages of online reservation systems.

Benefits of cross-cultural teams

The advantage of communicating with your cross-cultural team outweighs the risk. Cross-cultural teams often have broader experience and bring diverse skills to a business.

Cross-cultural workplaces provide a rich experience for individuals too. Individuals benefit from learning from different perspectives, and from recognizing the diverse marketplace, they are serving

Cross-cultural companies benefit their bottom line, too. The McKinsey report Why Diversity Matters found that companies with diverse leadership teams outperformed their competition.

“In the United States, there is a linear relationship between racial and ethnic diversity and better financial performance: for every 10 percent increase in racial and ethnic diversity on the senior-executive team, earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) rise 0.8 percent.”

With similar findings, Barbara Mazur, in her 2014 article for the Journal of Intercultural Management, concludes that: “When measured over the last ten years, companies with strong inclusion and diversity initiatives had a 23.5% higher shareholder return than others.”

Effective communication

Communicating effectively across your cross-cultural organization can be beneficial to your business. Using these five secrets to improve your communication skills will build up your team, whatever their background.

Establishing communication preferences, remembering the non-verbal, identifying any language barriers, forming friendships through openness, and risking misunderstanding can keep communication channels open across an organization.

Effective cross-cultural communication takes work and effort, but the results should speak for themselves in terms of team building and improving the bottom line.


Sam Johnston is the CMO of BookingLive, which just happens to be the number one online booking system in the UK. He lives by the motto, that “it doesn’t matter where you work as long as it’s the most productive place for you.”

Guest Blogger