Effective Cross-cultural Communication

- Prabodh Gupta

Effective Cross-Cultural Communication is imperative for all the companies due to the growth of global business & diversified workforce. The world is shrinking and leaders from different cultures are finding that they need to work together. This type of communication involves an understanding of how people from different countries & cultures speak, communicate, and perceive the world around them.


I truly realized the importance of Cross Cultural Communication when I joined IBM. First project which I was leading had DB2 resource from China, Middleware Resource from Brazil, Application Team from Europe, Customer from US & me & few resources from India. It was a tough call for me to make sure that everyone remains on the same page with no scope of any misunderstanding.


To be a good leader, not only person should have good Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and Emotional Intelligence (EQ) but should have good Cultural Intelligence or Cultural Quotient (CQ) also. Cultural Intelligence can be understood as the capability to relate and work effectively across culture.


One critical element that Cultural Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence do share is “to think before acting”. Even we are using the same language, words and phrases can mean different things from one culture to another. For eg, if an American use the phrase “As soon as possible”, it usually means “Now. While in other culture, same phrase mean “As soon as you clear your other priorities”. These two people from different cultures might hear the same phrase but interpret in different way as per their culture.

For effective Cross Cultural Communication, we should understand following aspects of the Culture –

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High Context vs Low Context Culture

This relates to how any individual feels, thinks, opine and upbringing affect how they act within a given culture. US & most parts of Europe are generally low context culture while Asia, Africa & Middle east are generally high context culture. In a high context culture, communication involves more of the information in the physical context; the internal meaning is usually embedded in the information, so meaning is not explicitly stated in written or spoken words. Whereas, a low context culture is characterized by communication that is direct, precise, open and based on feelings.

Avoid Unconscious Bias

When people from different cultures come together, they tend to assume certain things (unaware of difference in the communication styles and cultural values) and don't understand the value system of the other culture. This leads to a situation where the listener not only loses part of the message but also develops an incorrect perspective about the delivered information. Also, unawareness from the language or accent also leads to ambiguity.

Tolerance for ambiguity in a fast changing, multi-cultural & complex world is critical. Whenever we see any ambiguous situations as uncomfortable or threatening ones, we tend to adopt more rigid or stereotype thinking. Rather than,we should treat these ambiguities as an opportunity to improvise when solutions are unknown & try to think in a neutral & open way.

Non-Verbal Communication

Gestures and eye contact are two areas of non-verbal communication that are utilized differently across cultures. For example, American workers tend to wave their hand and use a finger to point when giving non-verbal direction while in Japan, we should never use a finger to point towards another person because that gesture is considered rude in Japan. Instead, we might gesture with an open hand, with our palm facing up, toward the person.

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Another form of non-verbal communication is eye contact. In the U.S., eye contact is a good thing and is a reflection of honesty and straightforwardness. However, in some Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, prolonged eye contact be rude or aggressive in many situations. When an American has a face to face meeting with any Japanese, American can think that his Japanese counterpart is not listening to his talking points because he was not looking American in the eyes. However, Japanese did not want American to think he was rude, so he avoided looking directly into his American counterpart's eyes during his speech.

Approach to Successful Cross Cultural Communication:

1. Understanding the Cultural Differences – Differences in culture can be classified at two levels – Surface (noticeable differences) and Deep (out of conscious awareness). To understand the deep differences, we have to put some efforts as those are not obvious.

2. Understanding the Cultural Values - Each country has her own cultural value & dynamics of society including politics, family, religion, beliefs etc. Understanding the host country’s cultural values on the scale of these dimensions helps a manager to understand the cultural chasm that he must recognize and make conscious effort to bridge the gap.


2. Reduce Ethnocentrism - Ethnocentrism is judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one's own culture Ethnocentric individuals believe that they are better than other individuals for reasons based solely on their heritage. Since ethnocentrism is often an unconscious behavior, it is understandably difficult to prevent in advance. Such a behavior is also characterized by selective listening and value judgment, severely impacting the quality of the communication.


Understanding such aspects of the host culture helps business leaders achieve successful cross cultural communication.