Cross Cultural Communication

Knowing multiple languages doesn’t mean you successfully collaborate across borders. Cross-cultural communication requires mutual respect and cultural awareness.

January 9, 2015

Monica P. Hawkins

In order to work effectively with people from different cultures, a good global leader must possess strong cross-cultural communication skills.Like any leader, a global leader can succeed through culturally aware leadership, effective cross-cultural communication and mutual respect.

Awareness of diverse cultural backgrounds and how their communication styles differ is important. Global leaders should have good negotiating skills in order to be influential in business, a diverse perspective and ways of receiving open and honest feedback. The strength of your team and your organization depends on your ability to listen effectively and process the information from the person who is speaking.

With cross-cultural communication, one must be even more aware of nonverbal communication where a nod of the head doesn’t always mean no, a yes doesn’t mean there is understanding and the urge to save face in some cultures is valued above all. Below are a few tips to improve cross-cultural communication.

  1. Change your mindset. Change the way you think and feel about other cultures. At first, this may seem like something difficult to do on your own, but it is imperative that you strive to develop cross-cultural understanding and allow yourself to adjust to the newculture. The old adage is true: “What one thinks in his heart, he will be.” If your organization has made a decision to go into a new territory or there’s a new hire on the team, chances are some mindsets will have to shift to make those relationships work. The more experience a person has making cross-cultural adjustments, the more successful they are with future circumstances. For those who will be embedded into a new culture, a more formal approach may be necessary. One recommendation to begin interacting cross-culturally is to start to learn the language, colloquialism and even music of the new culture. With the combined study of a language and culture, one begins to understand the social rules and logic of a people and how one must interact to be received well.
  2. Demand tolerance.It is not enough for the leader alone to be tolerant. A good leader demands tolerance from others on the team. Modeling tolerance and flexibility is especially important when members of the global team are virtual. As Ana Maria Reyes said in her article 2009 International Journal of Coaching in Organizationsarticle, “In multicultural and virtual work settings, communication processes are likely to be bumpy with miscommunications and misinterpretations punctuating the uncertain path to understanding.” Tolerance includes compromising on times for meetings to respect all time zones and being respectful of religious differences, sexual orientation, racial differences and different ways of working and thinking.
  3. Communicate clear and concise messages. Even though English is considered the international language of business, it is a mistake to assume that every businessperson speaks good English. In fact, only half of the more than 800 million people who speak English learned it as a first language, and the language of culture is different. Consider what Yolanda Conyers, president of global human resources at Lenovo, discovered with the meeting-request dilemmawhen a simple gesture of asking for one’s time unknowingly introduced cultural dynamics in her workplace. This misunderstanding lead to the creation of a course where cultural issues could be addressed. When you consider all of these factors, cross-cultural communication requires work. Make particular efforts to keep your communication clear, simple and unambiguous. Likewise, use humor sparingly. Humor is culture specific, and while a message or delivery may be funny in one culture, it may be offensive in another.
  4. Work to develop trust. Open and honest communication breeds trust. Cindy King issued a trust in cross-cultural communication challengeon her blog, Inspiring Professionals to Go International. She issued 30 tips to improve cross-cultural communication and mind-set. As leaders work to develop trust, it is most important to genuinely embrace differences and avoid making assumptions, exude confidence, deliver what you commit to, be honest, respectful and polite. Many times miscommunication develops from unclear expectations and perceived inconsistencies by the team. Global leaders should work to minimize actions that erode trust and show respect for cultural differences. Leaders should also not underestimate the role of a close work associate or someone with whom employees can relate.

Becoming cross-cultural is not everyone’s goal, but it is becoming increasingly more important in business. Most global businesses provide cross-cultural training for employees who will be expatriates overseas because to be an effective globally minded leader, you must be proactive. It is vital for an effective globally minded leader to be proactive in setting common expectations for more effective cross cultural communication.

Are you modeling this important behavior for your team? It is imperative for growing your business in a global economy.

Monica P. Hawkins is CEO of PPDG and is an adviser to Fortune 1000 C-suite executives across the globe, focusing on alignment of business objectives with talent management systems and learning agendas. She can be reached at

Monica Poulard Hawkins
Founder & CEO I Truth Teller l Thought Leadership l Creator
Monica Poulard Hawkins is Founder, CEO and Connector of Professional Pipeline Development Group (PPDG), a boutique management consulting firm that houses world-class thought leaders, strategists, and business executives in serving its client base of Fortune & Global 1000 Corporations, Heads of State, and Non-Profits. We work to help them reimagine their organizations for the future ad build capacity for impact in new ways.


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