Cross-Cultural Communication

The word “culture” nowadays is used in so many peripheral contexts that its original meaning has been submerged. For example, we have a “popular culture”, by which is meant the collective human intellectual achievements. There is a “consumerist culture”, which is taken by some as a determinant of the status of a person along with his educational success and/or financial strength.

Culture is the basis for how we tell the world who we are and what we believe. People build their identities through cultural overlays to their primary culture. Peoples’ cultural moorings dictate the choices they make in matters of education, career, place of employment and life partner.

Each of these choices brings with it a set of rules, manners, ceremonies, beliefs, language, and values. They add to one’s total cultural outlook, and they represent major expressions of a person’s self-identity. Culture combines the visible and invisible. To outsiders, the way we act – those things that we do in daily life and work – are the most visible parts of our culture.

Cross-cultural Communication Process

The term communication describes the process of sharing meaning by transmitting messages through media such as words, behaviour, or material artifacts. Managers communicate to coordinate activities, disseminate information, motivate people, and negotiate future plans. It is of vital importance, then, that the receiver interprets the meaning of a particular communication in the way the sender intended.

Unfortunately, the communication process involves stages during which the meaning can be distorted. Anything that serves to undermine the communication of the intended meaning is typically referred to as noise.

The communication process is rapidly changing, however, as a result of technological developments, therefore propelling global business forward at a phenomenal growth rate.

Cultural Noise in the Communication Process

Because our focus here is on effective cross-cultural communication, we need to understand what cultural variables cause noise in the communication process. This knowledge of cultural noise will enable us to take steps to minimize that noise and so improve communication.

When a member of one culture sends a message to a member of another culture, intercultural communication takes place. The message contains the meaning intended by the encoder. When it reaches the receiver, however, it undergoes a transformation in which the influence of the decoder’s culture becomes part of the meaning. In intercultural communication, it is not uncommon to find instances where the meaning got all mixed up. In such cases, the attribution of behavior differs for each participant.


Attribution is the process in which people look for an explanation of another person’s behavior. When they realize that they do not understand another, they tend, say, Hall and Hall, to blame their confusion on the other’s “stupidity, deceit, or craziness. An understanding of the local culture and business environment can give managers an advantage in competitive industries; foreign companies – no matter how big – can ignore those aspects to their peril.

Such differences in culture and the way of life in other countries necessitate that managers develop international expertise to manage on a contingency basis according to the host-country environment. Powerful, interdependent factors in that environment – political, economic, legal, technological, and cultural—influence management strategy, functions, and processes.

Cultural Variables In The Communication Process

On a different level, it is also useful to be aware of cultural variables that can affect the communication process by influencing a person’s perceptions; some of these variables have been identified by Samovar and Porter (1981) and discussed by Harris and Moran, Ronen, and others (1991).

These variables are as follows: attitudes, social organization, thought patterns, roles, language (spoken or written), non-verbal communication (including kinesics behavior, Proxemics, paralanguage, and object language), and time.

A major differentiating factor that is a primary cause of noise in the communication process is that of context – which, as you will see, actually incorporates many of the variables just discussed. The context in which the communication takes place affects the meaning and interpretation of the interaction.


it’s a concept developed by cultural anthropologist Edward t. Hall. In his model, context refers to the stimuli, environment, or ambiance surrounding an event. Communicators in low-context cultures (such as those in North America, Scandinavia, Switzerland, and Germany) depend little on the context of a situation to convey their meaning. They assume that listeners know very little and must be told practically everything.

In high-context cultures (such as those in India, japan, china, south Korea and arab countries, Africa, and the Mediterranean countries), the listener is already “contexted” and does not need to be given much background information.

Low-context cultures tend to be logical, analytical, and action-oriented. Business communicators stress clearly articulated messages that they consider to be objective, professional, and efficient.

High-context cultures pay attention to more than the words were spoken. They emphasize interpersonal relationships, non-verbal expression, physical setting, and social setting. They are more aware of the communicator’s history, status, and position. Communication cues are transmitted by posture, voice inflection, gestures, and facial expression. Establishing relationships is an important part of communicating and interacting.

In cross-cultural communication between high-and low-context people, a lack of understanding may preclude reaching a solution, and conflict may arise. Germans, for example, will expect considerable detailed information before making a business decision, whereas Arabs will base their decision more on knowledge of the people involved – the information is still there, but it is implicit.

People in high-context cultures expect others to understand unarticulated moods, subtle gestures, and environmental clues that people from low-context cultures simply do not process. Misinterpretation and misunderstanding often result.

Communication Style

According to Guffey (2000), people in low-and high-context cultures tend to communicate differently with words. To Americans and Germans, words are very important, especially in contracts and negotiations. People in high-context cultures, on the other hand, place some emphasis on the surrounding context than on the words describing a negotiation.

A Greek sees a contract as a formal statement announcing the intention to build a business for the future. The Japanese treat contracts as statements of intention, and they assume changes will be made as a project develops. Mexicans treat contracts as artistic exercises of what might be accomplished in an ideal world.

They do not expect contracts to apply consistently in the real world. An Arab may be insulted by merely mentioning a contract; a man’s word is more binding.

Thought Patterns

The logical progression of reasoning varies widely around the world and greatly affects the communication process. Managers cannot assume that others use the same reasoning processes, as illustrated by the experience of a Canadian expatriate in Thailand:

While in Thailand a Canadian expatriate’s car was hit by a Thai motorist who had crossed over the double line while passing another vehicle. After failing to establish that the fault lay with the Thai driver, the Canadian flagged down a policeman.

After several minutes of seemingly futile discussion, the Canadian pointed out the double line in the middle of the road and asked the policeman directly. “What do these lines signify?” The policeman replied, “They indicate the center of the road and are there so I can establish just how far the accident is from that point.” The Canadian was silent. It had never occurred to him that the double line might not mean “no passing allowed (Harris and Moran, 1991).


Spoken or written language, of course, is a frequent cause of miscommunication, stemming from a person’s inability to speak the local language, a poor or too-literal translation, a speaker’s failure to explain idioms, or a person missing the meaning conveyed through body language or certain symbols.

Even among countries that share the same language, there can be problems in the subtleties and nuances inherent in the use of the language, as noted by George Bernard Shaw: “Britain and America are two nations separated by a common language.” This problem can exist even within the same country among subcultures or subgroups (Adler, 1991).

Oral Messages

Although it’s best to speak a foreign language fluently, many of us lack that skill. Fortunately, global business transactions are often conducted in English, though the level of proficiency may be limited among those for whom it is a second language. Managers from English-speaking countries make a big mistake in thinking that people who use English as a second language always understand what is being said.

Comprehension can be fairly superficial. The following suggestions are helpful for situations in which one or both communications may be using English as a second language (Guffey, 2000).

  • Learn foreign phrases: In conversations, even when English is used, foreign nationals appreciate it when you learn greetings and a few phrases in their language. Practice the phrases phonetically so that you will be understood.

  • Use simple English: Speak in short sentences (under 15 words), and try to stick to the 3,000 to 4,000 most common English words. For example, use old rather than obsolete and rich rather than luxurious or sumptuous. Eliminate puns, sports and military references, slang, and jargon (special business terms). Be especially alert to idiomatic expressions that can’t be translated, such as burning the midnight oil and under the weather.

  • Speak slowly and enunciate clearly: Avoid fast speech, but don’t raise your voice. Over-punctuate with pauses and full stops. Always write numbers for all to see.

  • Observe eye messages: Be alert to a glazed expression or wandering eyes – these tell you that the listener is lost.

  • Encourage accurate feedback: Ask probing questions, and encourage the listener to paraphrase what you say. Don’t assume that a yes, a nod, or a smile indicates comprehension.

  • Check frequently for comprehension: Avoid waiting until you finish a long explanation to request feedback. Instead, make one point at a time, pausing to check for comprehension. Don’t proceed to B until A has been grasped.

  • Accept blame: If a misunderstanding results, graciously accept the blame for not making your meaning clear.

  • Listen without interrupting: Curb your desire to finish sentences or to fill out ideas for the speaker. Keep in mind that abroad you may be often accused of listening too little and talking too much.

  • Remember to smile! Roger Axtell, the international behavior expert, calls the smile the single most understood and most useful form of communication in either personal or business transactions.

  • Follow up in writing: After conversations or oral negotiations, confirm the results and agreements with follow-up letters. For proposals and contracts, engage a translator to prepare copies in the local language.

Written Messages

In sending letters and other documents to businesspeople in other cultures, try to adapt your writing style and tone appropriately. For example, in cultures where formality and tradition are important, be scrupulously polite. Don’t even think of sharing the latest joke. Humour translates very poorly and can cause misunderstanding and negative reactions.

Familiarize yourself with accented channels of communication. Are letters, e-mails, and faxes common? Would a direct or indirect organizational pattern be more effective? The following suggestions can help you prepare successfully written messages for multicultural audiences (Guffey, 2000).

  • Adopt local formats: Learn how documents are formatted and addressed in the intended reader’s country. Use local formats and styles.

  • Use short sentences and short paragraphs: Sentences with fewer than 15 words and paragraphs with fewer than 7 lines are most readable.

  • Avoid ambiguous expressions: Include relative pronouns (that, which, who) for clarity in introducing clauses. Stay away from contractions (especially ones like here’s the problem). Avoid idioms (once in a blue moon), slang (my presentation really bombed), acronyms (ASAP for as soon as possible), abbreviations (DBA for doing business as) jargon (input, bottom line), and sports references (play ball, slam dunk, ballpark figure). Use action-specific verbs (purchase a printer rather than get a printer).

  • Strive for clarity: Avoid words that have many meanings (the word light has 18 different meanings!). If necessary, clarify words that may be confusing. Replace two-word verbs with clear single words (return instead of bringing back; delay instead of putting off; maintain instead of keeping up).

  • Use correct grammar: Be careful of misplaced modifiers, dangling participles, and sentence fragments. Use conventional punctuation.

  • Cite numbers carefully: For international trade, it’s a good idea to learn and use the metric system. In citing numbers use figures (15) instead of spelling them out (fifteen). Always convert dollar figures into local currency. Avoid using figures to express the month of the year.

  • Accommodate the reader in organization, tone, and style: Organize your message to appeal to the reader. If flowery tone, formal salutations, indirectness, references to family and the seasons, or unconditional apologies are expected, strive to accommodate.

Non-verbal Communication

Behavior that communicates without words (although it often is accompanied by words) is called non-verbal communication. People will usually believe what they see over what they hear hence the expression, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Studies show that these subtle messages account for between 65 and 93 percent of interpreted communication (Daft, 1989).

Even minor variations in body language, speech rhythms, and punctuality, for example, often cause mistrust and misperception of the situation among cross-national parties (Li et al, 1999).

The media for such non-verbal communication can be categorized into four types:

  • Kinesics behavior
  • Proxemics
  • Paralanguage
  • Object language

Cross-cultural Communication Effectiveness

The management of cross-cultural communication depends largely on a manager’s personal abilities and behavior. Those behaviors that researchers indicate to be most important to intercultural communication effectiveness are listed here, as reviewed by Ruben (1985):

  • Respect (conveyed through eye contact, body posture, voice tone, and pitch)

  • Interaction posture (the ability to respond to others in a descriptive, non-evaluative, and non-judgemental way)

  • Orientation to knowledge (recognizing that one’s knowledge, perception, and beliefs are valid only for oneself and not for everyone else)

  • Empathy

  • Interaction management

  • Tolerance for ambiguity

  • Other-oriented role behavior (one’s capacity to be flexible and to adopt different roles for the sake of greater group cohesion and group communication)

Checklist for Improving Multicultural Sensitivity and Communication

  • Study your own Culture: Learn about your customs, biases, and views and how they differ from those in other societies. This knowledge can help you better understand, appreciate, and accept the values and behavior of other cultures.

  • Learn about other Cultures: Education can help you alter cultural misconceptions, reduce fears, and minimize misunderstandings. Knowledge of other cultures opens your eyes and teaches you to expect differences. Such knowledge also enriches your life.

  • Curb Ethnocentrism: Avoid judging others by your personal views. Get over the view that the other cultures are incorrect, defective, or primitive. Try to develop an open mindset.

  • Avoid Judgmentalism: Strive to accept other behavior as different, rather than as right or wrong. Try not to be defensive in justifying your culture. Strive for objectivity.

  • Look beyond Stereotypes: Remember that individuals are often unlike their cultural stereotype, so forget preconceptions and probe beneath the surface.

  • Seek Common Ground: When cultures clash, look for solutions that respect both cultures. Be flexible in developing compromises.

  • Observe Non-verbal cues in your Culture: Become more alert to the meanings of eye contact, facial expression, posture, gestures, and the use of time, space, and territory. How do they differ in other cultures?

  • Use Plain English: Speak and write in short sentences using simple words and simple English. Eliminate puns, slang, jargon, acronym, abbreviations, and any words that cannot be translated easily.

  • Encourage Accurate Feedback: In conversations ask probing questions and listen attentively without interrupting. Don’t assume that a yes or a smile indicates assent or comprehension.

  • Adapt to Local Preferences: Shape your writing to reflect the reader’s document styles, if appropriate. Express currency in local figures. Write out the months of the year for clarity.

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