Three Ways to Increase Cross-Cultural Communication: The Key is Flexibility

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The following is a guest post written by Dr. Colleen Cherry. Dr. Cherry holds a doctorate in Anthropology from the University of Georgia. Since 2008, she has focused her work on intercultural communication in business, education, and health settings. Dr. Cherry has conducted cultural competence training, quality improvement, health outcomes research, and implementation science with companies, organizations, and governmental offices. She has also published in over a dozen academic journals. Dr. Cherry currently teaches intercultural management, cultural studies, and research methods at the university-level in the United States and in Germany. She is available, both virtually and in-person, to provide Cultural Competence and Cross-cultural Communication training and can be reached at

Congratulations! You have just been promoted as your organization’s new Outreach and Communications Coordinator. Your first assignment is to build key relationships with culturally diverse communities in your region. But, do your regular communication strategies apply? How do you adapt them to meet the needs of the diverse communities that you serve?

Working with multicultural communities can be a rich and rewarding experience. However, there are many challenges when communicating cross-culturally that can lead to unfortunate misunderstandings and frustrations. Cross-cultural communication focuses specifically on looking at communication practices between people of diverse backgrounds. Let’s look at three strategies for improving your communication skills.

1.   Recognize differences in communication styles

Some cultures use language to convey information in a direct and matter-of-fact way. Americans, Germans, and Australians, for the most part, fall into this category. Others, like the Chinese and Mexican cultures, communicate in an indirect way— “beating around the bush” rather than speaking their mind.  Indirect communicators may avoid using language to convey information and may instead use more subtle cues, like simply remaining silent or asking for more time to decide on a course of action.

For example: Debbie is an American program manager and Ray, who is Chinese-American, is at a partner organization.

Ray: Did you receive our report?

Debbie: Yes, but it will need to be rewritten. The text is unclear and there are several errors with the data.

Debbie is using a “direct” way of speaking, typical of many Americans of Anglo descent. It may unfortunately come off as rude or harsh, especially to people from indirect cultures who are not used to saying explicitly what they mean. In this case, Ray may be taken aback by Debbie’s directness and think that the report is terrible, when Debbie may actually think that the report is alright overall, but has a few errors that must be fixed.

Let’s replay the communication again, from the opposite perspective:

Debbie: Did you receive our report?

Ray: Yes, I received the report. We may need to go back and look at some areas for accuracy.

Debbie: What do you mean?

Someone from Ray’s culture, used to “reading between the lines” and finding subtle clues, would know that his statement implies that there are some major problems with the report that will require resolution. Debbie, however, is coming from a direct language culture and feels confused by his statement. Surely, Debbie is thinking, that if there were errors, Ray would just tell her so.

Tips for direct speakers:

  • Soften your statements and approach topics gradually.

  • Learn to "listen and read between the lines." Indirect speakers often communicate important information in a subtle manner, so it’s important to look for clues in their body language, use of silence, or their inability to make an immediate decision. These clues can indicate that there may be a problem they are trying to convey.

  • If you are not sure of the meaning, ask for further clarification.

  • Avoid outright demands such as "Why?", "Why not?", or "When can you have this?" Ask more general questions instead like, "Could you give us a little background on that?”

2.   Adapt your expectations of being on time

Imagine the following scenario: You have made plans to meet Lupe, a new community partner, at a local coffee shop at 9:00am to discuss a project. You arrive at 8:58am, just to make you are on time and prepared for the meeting. As you wait and wait for Lupe to show up, you become anxious (and maybe even angry!) knowing you have scheduled back-to-back meetings this morning. Finally, at 9:30, Lupe strolls into the shop with a wide grin on her face.

Even within our own country or community, people may view time differently. The American culture is primarily “rule-based” and sees time as linear. Being on time, scheduling, and completing one task at a time are characteristics of many Americans. On the other hand, there are many people in the Hispanic, Afro-Caribbean, or Middle Eastern cultures that are “relationship-based” and view time and punctuality as more fluid constructs. They often make last-minute schedule changes or are comfortable with multitasking as the need arises. This can cause miscommunication and frustration over scheduling.

Tips on dealing with different perceptions of time:

  • Do some research on the culture you’ll be working with in advance. This may may help to manage your own expectations and save you a lot of time and frustration in the future.

  • Communicate within the context of the culture. To get people from time-fluid cultures to meet an important deadline, appeal to what they value: relationships. Stress how failure to meet a deadline can damage relationships and result in loss of trust.

  • Don’t assume digital communication like emails, texts, or video calls break through cultural barriers. For example, confirming an appointment time over several emails may still not result in everyone arriving to the meeting on time.

  • Perform the occasional status check. Remember that in time-fluid cultures, situations change all the time, so it’s up to you to take the initiative to check in periodically. Being proactive with plans and relationships will help you adapt to changing scenarios.

3.   Adjust your communication style when trying to build trust

Organizations are ultimately about people, and projects often rely heavily on positive relationships.Therefore, it only makes sense that building trust is essential for successful outcomes. It’s likely that you already know how to gain trust in your own culture; you’ve been working at this for most of your life. For example, in American “rule-based” culture, you gain someone else’s trust by being honest, direct, on time, and professional. In this culture, these are all signs of motivation and success, which are highly regarded American values. By adhering to the American norm of being on time, someone may believe that you are reliable, and therefore trustworthy. In a relationship-based Middle Eastern culture, you may gain trust by spending time with your potential colleagues and sharing personal details of your family life. These actions would show that you are an open and trustworthy person dedicated to building long-term business relationships.

Consider the following scenario: Joe is managing a new community development project and trying to partner with a local mosque. He has sent several emails and even made a phone call to their director, a Middle Eastern man, to discuss the project, but has not received any response. Could Joe be doing something wrong?

Trust is an essential element in any community outreach. Although some relationships begin over email or the phone, this is generally not a great way to get to know someone in any culture. This is especially not effective when working cross-culturally, when the close relationship aspect is highly valued. If your project partners do not trust you, it will be harder to accomplish your goals in a harmonious and productive way.

Joe could try employing some of the following tips as he approaches this new partnership.

Tips on building trust across cultures:

  • A personal face-to-face visit, rather than an impersonal email, may go a long way toward building a lasting relationship.

  • You may gain trust by spending time, sharing details of your family life, and generally getting to know your potential clients before proposing a project. These actions indicate that you are an open and trustworthy person who is ready to invest in building long-term relationships.

  • Be willing to mix business with pleasure over an informal lunch or dinner. In relationship-based cultures, there’s often no strict boundary between work and pleasure. Talking business too soon may be interpreted as rude or only caring about money; it can be seen as a sign of distrust, which could sour the negotiations.

It’s important to note that cultural patterns are based on generalizations, which help us to categorize cultural norms and behaviors that are characteristic of particular cultural groups. As we all know, the world is not so black and white. We can always find exceptions to the cultural patterns, as well find cultures who may be more in the middle of these behaviors.

With multicultural communities so common throughout the United States, cultural awareness, adaptability, listening, and adjusting your behavior are all keys to successful community outreach and partnerships. Today, it pays to be culturally competent and flexible enough to choose which style will work best in various cultural contexts and then decide how to adapt your behavior to get your desired results.


Do you have any personal experiences with a cultural conflict? What did you do, or what could you have done, to help resolve the conflict?