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10 Simple Ways to Improve
Cross-Cultural Conversations

Cross-cultural conversations can be challenging. That said, there are simple strategies that can help you communicate more effectively and more respectfully.

An interactive version of this checklist is included in our Unconscious Bias Training online course.

When you speak with someone, you do more than just exchange information. You form connections with that person.

In a diverse workplace, effective cross-cultural conversations help individuals feel heard, appreciated and included.

Positive, productive conversations deepen the connections between co-workers and help create a respectful, inclusive workplace culture.

There are many simple things you can do to become a more effective communicator. These strategies are especially important when you are speaking with someone whose first language, or cultural background, differs from your own.

1. Stop talking and start listening

When you are talking, your mind is focused on YOU.  You are mentally occupied with the hunt for the words and gestures to express yourself.

When you are listening, your mind is focused on the other person.  You hear their opinions and you observe their gestures, body language, and actions.

Listening also shows the other person that you respect them and have a genuine interest in their thoughts and insights.

2. Slow down

When you speak too quickly, the other person may not have time to absorb the meaning of what you are saying.  This increases the chance of a misunderstanding.

Speaking too quickly also eliminates pauses in the conversation. And without those pauses, the other person has no opportunity to insert comments or questions.

The faster you talk, the more likely you are to dominate the conversation.

3. Use clear, simple language

Don't use fancy terms or jargon when there are clear, everyday words that mean the same thing.

Even when there is no obvious language barrier, it is still better to use commonplace words. They are less apt to be misunderstood. Simple is always best!

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Are unconscious biases having  a negative impact on workplace communications?

Unconscious beliefs affect our attitudes and our behaviours, including how we talk to each other. Unconscious Bias Training Online increases awareness and provides practical tips to foster respectful, productive workplace communications.

4. Mirror the body language and tone of the other person

Only 7% of the feelings and opinions we exchange during a conversation are the result of talking!  That means that 93% of what we take away from a conversation comes from body language, intonation, tone, sighs, etc.

Just as there are language differences between cultures, there are also differences in non-verbal forms of communication.

Pay attention to the body language and tone of the person you are speaking to.  If they are not “touchy”, respect this and give them enough personal space.  If they speak softly, do not respond in a loud, aggressive tone.

Mirroring the non-verbal style of the other person helps them feel more relaxed and comfortable.

5. Avoid slang and use humour cautiously

A slang word, expression, or gesture may have a clear meaning to you, but may not mean anything to the person you are talking to, or may mean something different to them.  As a result, using slang can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

Humour is also very culturally specific.  Something that seems funny to members of one culture may not be amusing to members of another culture.  And unfortunately, many jokes rely on the use of offensive and demeaning stereotypes.

6. Focus on one topic

When you hop from topic to topic, you increase the possibility that the other person will become confused.  It is best to explore one issue thoroughly before moving on to another.

7. DO NOT assume that you are understood

There are many reasons why someone may not admit they are confused – politeness, embarrassment, and boredom – to name a few. To verify that you are being clearly understood:

  • Write things down, especially complex processes and items that require follow up.
  • Summarize key points at the end of the conversation. And mid-conversation, if you are moving from one topic to another.
  • Ask the person if they understand. If their facial expressions, body language, or comments, lead you to question their understanding, press pause.  Politely ask if they need any clarification.
Respect and Inclusion in the Workplace Training box art

Education plays an important role in fostering respectful communications.

Respect and Inclusion In The Workplace explores both acceptable and unacceptable workplace attitudes and behaviours. Participants gain practical insights into ways to build and support a more inclusive workplace environment where every voice is equally heard and respected.

8. Be willing to admit your own need for clarification

It is not uncommon to have trouble understanding someone who is speaking English as a second language.  It is acceptable to politely ask them to repeat their words.

Even when there is no obvious language barrier, the person may use words, expressions, examples, gestures, etc. that you do not understand.  If this happens, you need to ask the person for clarification.

9. Be respectful

ALL people want to be treated with respect and consideration. You should always be considerate and polite. Show respect for the opinions of others even when those opinions differ from your own.

10. Apologize if necessary

Be willing to apologize if you say something that offends the other person, even if you hurt their feelings unintentionally.  Misunderstandings happen.  When you acknowledge someone's feelings, you take a big step towards making them feel better.

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Quiz: How Respectful Is Your WorkPlace?

Take the respectful workplace quiz and learn more about how well the policies and practices at your workplace support ALL employees. Read it!

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Resource: 5 Reasons Smart Leaders Prioritize Diversity

Smart leaders not only embrace individual differences, but also recognize the competitive advantages of workplace diversity and inclusion. Read it!

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Article written by Kim Scaravelli, Digital Strategist and Instructional Design Specialist

Kim has designed more than 300 online and blended learning programs and she provides digital strategy expertise to corporations and non-profit organizations across Canada.

Kim is a strong voice in supporting diversity and inclusion in the workplace. In 2019, she received the Women Leaders In The Digital Economy Award from Digital Nova Scotia. She is a 4-time nominee for the Canadian Women of Excellence Awards and she served two consecutive terms on the National Advisory Committee of Women’s Business Enterprises (WBE) Canada.

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To learn more about Kim, view her profile on LinkedIn, follow her on Twitter, or visit the Trust Communications website.