10 Simple Ways to Improve Cross-Cultural Conversations

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

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

When you listen, 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 what they say.

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 those pauses in the conversation in which the other person might insert a question or comment.

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

3. Use clear, simple language

Do not use long, seldom-spoken terms when there are clear, everyday words that mean the same thing.

Even when there is no obvious language barrier, it is still best to use commonplace words that are not open to more than one interpretation.

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

During a conversation, only 7% of the feelings and opinions that are exchanged are the result of talking.  The remaining 93% 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.  Using slang can cause confusion or offense.

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 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 remain with one issue until it has been explored thoroughly.

7. DO NOT assume that you are understood

There are many reasons why someone may not admit that they are confused – politeness, embarrassment, and boredom – to name a few. To ensure that the person understands you, it can be helpful to:

  • Write things down, especially complex processes, and items that require follow up.
  • Summarize key points at the end of the conversation, or when a topic has been exhausted, and
  • Ask the person if they understand. If their facial expressions, body language, or comments, lead you to question their understanding, stop the conversation.  Politely ask if they need any clarification.

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 honest and polite and should show respect for the opinions of others, even when they differ from your own.

10. Apologize if necessary

If you say or do something that offends the other person, you must be prepared to apologize, even if you did not offend them intentionally. Misunderstandings happen.  Most people feel better when their feelings are acknowledged.


Article written by Kim Scaravelli, CEO of Trust Communications Inc. and Managing Partner of the Canadian Diversity Initiative (CDI).

The Canadian Diversity Initiative presents online diversity and inclusion training from respected Canadian non-profits organizations, including LGBT+ Inclusion, Indigenous Culture Training, and courses for specific groups, including volunteers, employees, and students.  To learn more, please contact us. 

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