Communication and Culture

Information kindly provided by Mackie Chase, past Director for the Center for Intercultural Communication, Continuing Studies, The University of British Columbia.

Workplace Communication Skills

Rapidly changing workplaces require managers and staff to continually adapt to a variety of cultural backgrounds and communication styles. Speakers may hold very different set of rules about how to interact successfully. These different rules may include assumptions about decision making authority and roles and responsibilities of individuals and groups. In cross-talk, miscommunication can lead to impressions of passive, uncooperative, unfriendly, intrusive or aggressive behaviors and may lead to poor working relationships. Pronunciation difficulties and limited vocabulary can compound misunderstandings and lead to distorted views of a colleague’s professional abilities. An example below of business cross-talk demonstrates the way communication problems arise when we are working from different assumptions in a joint venture exchange:

Canadian Manager: Can we go ahead with the next phase?
Japanese Manager: I will talk to Mr. Matsuno … and the group when I return next week.
Canadian Manager: But do we understand that we can go ahead with the next phase of the project? 


Each person is shaped by a unique combination of inheritance and experience. People in the same community or environment share many experiences and learned patterns of behavior which become so familiar that they may be unaware that other groups have very different systems. Culture is often thought of and composed of the products of a civilization: Art, music, dance, literature, architecture, clothes, foods, and festivals. These are the aspects of culture which can be discovered through the senses and are obvious sources of discussions, delight and comparison.

When working on international work terms, it is the hidden aspects of cultural differences that have the greatest impact on daily interaction with members of the local community and with colleagues, managers, or staff. Ways of problem solving, conversing, building relationships, and making requests are all learned from childhood and reinforced and adapted through experience. By observing parent, siblings, and peers as they interact we are not only establishing patterns of behavior but sets of values and beliefs. Workplace groups establish their own set of norms influenced by roles, academic field, status, funding tasks etc. Rules of behavior become so well-established and internalized that we may never be conscious that our own ‘culture’ is not universal. These learned rules, values and beliefs become ‘the software of the mind’ (Hofstede, 1992) or the filter through which we interpret events around us. In the same situation, individuals with different mental software may have totally different reactions. 

On Culture, Communication and Language

When you do not understand what a person is saying do not grasp for every word. Give up your efforts. Become silent inside and listen with your deepest self (Heider, Tao of Leadership).

Communication requires sending and receiving messages, coding and decoding. Language and non-verbal cues can help or hinder this process (tone of voice, facial expressions, behaviors, and physical setting). It is not what we say but how we say it that is important. Canadians value directness although our own understanding of directness may be different from that of other cultures. International managers often complain about Canadians’ indirectness. One group commented, ‘Why don’t they just tell us what they want and expect. We are adults. We can take it. Why are they so polite all the time? Why can’t they say don’t do it that way; do it this way?’ When speaking to international managers and colleagues Canadians tend to be more careful than ever with their use of language and their politeness becomes exaggerated and interferes with the message they intend to send. International managers have commented that Canadians avoid the imperative form and give instructions or feedback using the following forms:

Another approach might be…
Have you considered…
You might want to change/adjust…
The first step works well, but you could look at…

Beware of words. The same word or phase may mean different things and has particular emotional impact on different people. We often forget that words alone are not sufficient to convey meaning across diverse groups.

You’re a real individual
This may be a compliment to some and an insult to others.
Team participation is required.
This may be interpreted as completion of tasks by one and as outspoken criticism by another.
Show responsibility towards the customer.
What does it mean to be responsible and exactly how is it demonstrated?

It is important to demonstrate and model expected behaviors when working across languages and cultures, to use diagrams and visual cues, and to take time to negotiate meaning. 

Strategies for Improving Cross-Cultural Communication

  • Be aware of assumptions/expectations you hold about conversational roles and responsibilities.
  • Make your expectations and reactions clear. Ask about the expectations and reaction of your conversation partner, international counterpart and audience.
  • When a conversation becomes one way with one person doing all the asking and the other doing all the answering, stop and consider alternate approaches.
  • Explore ways to communicate and relate through visual cues (pictures, charts, diagrams) and shared activities.
  • Be aware of differences (i.e. status, age, gender, public vs. private discussions) between you and your conversation partner which may cause misunderstanding.
  • Listen actively: after listening to the other person for a few minutes, be careful of jumping to conclusions about the message being delivered.
  • Repeat, rephrase and illustrate messages and instructions; avoid asking ‘Do you understand?’, Instead, write things down or try to get the person you are speaking with to restate what you have said.
  • Be aware of acronyms: many acronyms change in other languages; the initials MP, OPEC may not make any sense to the listener or worse they may spell something unpleasant; and, it may cause the listener to lose confidence in the speaker.
  • Tell personal stories: telling personal stories is often an effective way to build rapport; humor and jokes often depend on subtle nuances of language and cannot be translated.
  • Request thinking and reviewing time in fast-paced discussions: it may take time for your partner or audience to think of the appropriate words; avoid filling silence with chatter which may distract your partner; and it is often easier for people to write than to say what they mean.
  • Use visual aids: pictures, diagrams, models, and text to improve communication.
  • Use examples and relate them to the listener’s personal experience.

Culture is Neither Right Nor Wrong, Merely Different

To ask: “Which is right” or “Which is better?” misses the point. “Rightness” derives from context, and is always subjective. Equally, culture is not wrong, but it is always partial. i.e.: it is limited in its perspective and is based on only one of many potential interpretations of the world.

  • Withhold judgment. Try to understand rather than judge.
  • Two very different perspectives can both be ‘right’ simultaneously. We need to hold these in balance, not impose our own perspective.
  • Accept that other perspectives may be beyond your understanding, but as valid as your own.
  • On the other hand, be assured that your own cultural perspective is as valid as anyone else’s.
  • Compromising what you do can be very helpful; compromising what you value may be the least helpful of all responses.

Culture Envelopes Us and Its Cloak is Language

Trying to understand culture is like a fish trying to understand the ocean. To a fish, the ocean makes sense only if it can experience that which is not the ocean (the land and sky). In the same way, we recognize what we are only when we confront what we are not. Even all the tools and senses we use to explore and understand culture are themselves culture-bound. This is especially true of language (both verbal and non-verbal), which hides as much as it illuminates. Recognize, therefore, that:

  • It is possible to think and express thoughts in one language that cannot be thought or expressed in another language. Come concepts are literally ‘untranslatable’.
  • To understand a language you need to understand its ‘music’: the tonal nuances hold more meaning that the words themselves.
  • The nonverbal is more important in conveying meaning than the verbal.
  • Even in one language the same word or phase can mean different things to different audiences (or cultures).

Time Invested in Process is Never Wasted

Sometimes the longest distance between two points is a straight line. We get so involved with what we are trying to accomplish, that we forget to pay attention to how we are doing it. Most communication focuses on clarifying and achieving the task, but spending time in advance clarifying the process (our assumptions about one another, the way we communicate; our values, expectations and underlying needs) can accelerate effective communication significantly.

  • Shift gears – comment on and explore process issues.
  • Make your values known.
  • Discuss how you feel about the way you are communicating.
  • Recognize that, as you do so, you are caught in the cultural trap of language!

Communication is Always Risky, But Then So is Life

Communicating in a different milieu, or with someone who holds fundamentally different values is always uncomfortable. In a sense one is forced to shift from automatic to manual, or from a state of ‘unconscious competent’ to one of ‘conscious incompetence’.


  •  Recognize that anxiety is natural. To paraphrase the old saying, “If you feel uncomfortable, you probably understand what is going on”.
  • Forgive yourself if you struggle. Be as tolerant with yourself as you are with other people.
  • Keep your sense of humor: be willing to laugh at yourself.
  • Be willing to risk being changed by others and having your perceptions changed.
  • Understand that communication is a two-way process. You cannot do it all on your own. Ultimately your success depends on the success of others.

Cross Cultural Adjustment

The stages of the Process of Cross-Cultural Adjustment:

[source for diagram – Nancy J Adler. International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior. 2002]

The above diagram is a typical emotional pattern, there are as many variations as there are individuals and everyone will experience the roller-coaster ride.

Just Before and After the Period in Japan:

Emotions are often very positive. Just before leaving for Japan people are usually looking forward to what is going to happen. Immediately after arriving they are also very happy and in the ‘honeymoon’ stage.

Half-way Through the Co-op Terms/Internships:

Emotions can be very negative. High stress levels, dissatisfaction with the change, and some health problems may occur. One day the individual feels great and the next terrible.

Towards the End of the Stay:

Emotions are getting back to normal. The student is staring to feel comfortable with the change and feels they have some understanding of the culture that they have been living in.


Emotions are confusing; constant comparison is made of the two cultures. People get tired of hearing about your experience and you need to discuss and debrief your experience both at work and at home.

Cross Culture Adjustment – Culture Shock Diary:

Pre-Departure and 1–2 Week

3–12 Week

12–24 Week


“I can’t wait”. “It’s not as nice as I thought; I think I want to go home”. “It’s not too bad, I’m doing pretty well. I’ll miss it, but I still want to go home”. “I’ve changed, but everyone around me is the same”.


Packing, planning, partying and working. Language learning, frustration, dealing with traffic congestions, learning to work with colleagues from another culture and country. Establish routines, work is interesting, shopping and packing, planning and partying. Trying to return to established routines, work is challenging, and always comparing between the two cultures.


Anticipation. Confusion and frustration with nearly everything. Anticipation, positive, constructive and some satisfaction. Isolated, both happy and depressed.


Excited, enthusiastic, worried about leaving. Restless, nervous, want friends and familiar foods. Interested in surroundings and work more positive and going out. Happy and depressed and wanting to talk to everyone about the experience.


Tired and using nervous energy. Headaches, flu, diarrhea and tiredness. Normal and stable. Stressed but normal.