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Tips for Effective and Empathetic Communication Across Cultures

By Shanna Sandy 09.06.22
Reading time: 5 minutes

When Indiana Jones needs to travel, his films cut to the image of a map with a red line marking his path he hops to locations around the globe.

If you were to travel by map to visit all the Silverliners, you’d end up with a map full of red lines. In addition to our headquarters in New York City, Silverline has offices in Omaha, Toronto, San Salvador, and Bangalore. The vast majority of our staff works remotely from India to Iowa and everywhere in between. 

Add in our partners and clients, and it’s no surprise that most of our interactions are virtual. And while working with all these diverse cultures enriches our company and makes for an interesting work environment, it also brings with it many challenges – it’s not as easy as in the movies to travel by map!

Communicating virtually across cultures is part of our everyday job responsibilities. We’ve learned some tips and tricks along the way that may help you be more effective, productive, and empathetic in communicating with your global teams. 

What is cross-cultural communication?

Cross-cultural communication is a dialogue or any kind of interaction, both verbal and non-verbal, between people of different cultures. When this concept is applied to a business-oriented context, it usually refers to colleagues from diverse backgrounds communicating with each other about a company project, such as preparing for a sales meeting or discussing how to reach a sales goal. This communication could be virtual, such as via Zoom or Slack, or in person. 

Solid cross-cultural communication is essential because it enables a positive work environment and brings out the best in all team members. It helps to bridge the gaps due to differences in language, cultural norms, geographic location/time zone, and work culture. Some other benefits of cross-cultural communication for companies are:

  • Fosters a collaborative culture
  • Builds rapport and trust
  • Inspires creativity and drives innovation
  • Maintains an organization’s ability to remain competitive and profitable 
  • Drives productivity and supports a high-performance culture
  • Enables opportunity for employees’ personal and professional growth

But it’s not always smooth sailing when it comes to cross-cultural communication, and companies often face barriers when trying to instill best practices. Many struggle with their employees having an assumption of cross-cultural similarities or believing in cultural stereotypes. There are also conflicting professional etiquette norms and work styles, such as whether a person chooses to be on or off camera during a Zoom call. 

Understanding and engaging with other cultures

When President Richard Nixon visited Brazil in the 1950s, he flashed the crowd with an American hand gesture to signal “OK.” The audience was horrified since, in their culture, that gesture is considered the equivalent of giving the middle finger. Verbal and nonverbal communication, such as the OK gesture, are often misinterpreted across cultures. That is why it is critical to be attuned to the perceptions of the culture you are communicating with.  

Cultures generally fall into two contexts: low and high. In a low-context culture, messages are spelled out, and communication is verbatim. There is usually more talking than silence, and information is over-explained. In business settings for low-context cultures, manuals tend to be long, and agendas are very detailed. Some low-context cultures are Australia, Canada, Germany, Sweden, and the United States. 

In a high-context culture, the messages are not explicit, and meanings must be inferred. Unlike low-context, you often have to be able to read between the lines by looking at gestures, facial expressions, and body language. People in a high-context culture use a lot of metaphors and reference history in the past. In high-context cultures such as the southern Mediterranean, South American, or Central American countries, meetings tend to start with a casual conversation to build rapport and develop a trusted relationship. 

At Silverline, we find that one of the best ways to build rapport across cultures is to talk about sports such as the Olympics or the World Cup. The sports topic is a way to find common ground with colleagues in another country, such as asking if they watched a recent game. Use open-ended questions to keep the discussion flowing and try to be on-camera to pick up on nonverbal cues, such as a big smile for a winning team.

Adapting to different communication styles

You may be conversing with someone in another country who has a direct communication style. They tend to say what they mean and speak clearly and succinctly. They are open to sharing opinions or feedback. Conversely, an indirect communicator will gather information, ask questions, and offer suggestions. They will avoid confrontation at all costs.  

To successfully communicate across cultures, you must be open to flexing between direct and indirect communication styles depending on your situation. Observe, absorb, and flex accordingly to the communication style. This approach doesn’t mean you have to pretend to be someone you’re not or be afraid to express your opinion. It just means that you should ebb or flow your repertoire of communication skills while still getting your point across. 

Flexing a communication style is especially important for native versus non-native English speakers working at the same company so they can effectively communicate with each other. It is helpful for non-native English speakers to flex by taking notes, asking clarifying questions, and recording meetings to review if something is missed. The native English speaker should be empathetic to the questions asked and not make assumptions about the non-native English speaker. 

Tackling verbal and non-verbal nuances virtually

When you meet someone in person, your interaction involves hundreds of verbal and nonverbal signals, but in a virtual setting, many of those contextual cues become limited to what is seen on the screen or to not seeing the person at all. 

In your next cross-cultural virtual meeting, continue to flex your direct and indirect communication style and also follow these tips for improved verbal communication:  

  • Use inclusive language: If you are unsure how to pronounce a name, ask the person for the correct pronunciation and then try to use their name during the conversation. 
  • Slow down: Native English speakers tend to talk very quickly, which can be difficult for a non-native speaker to follow. 
  • Avoid double negatives: A double negative is a statement that contains two negative words, such as “I didn’t see nothing.” These words can be confusing and are often lost in translation. 

Remember that non-verbal actions such as eye contact, posture, gestures, and facial expressions don’t always translate clearly in a virtual meeting. Consider how your camera frames you — if your hand gestures can be seen or if there’s enough light to view your face. Be mindful of your voice’s volume, tone, inflection, and pausing patterns, as they often become exaggerated in a virtual setting. Try recording yourself to see how your voice comes across and adjust accordingly. 

Silverline’s commitment to communicating across cultures

At Silverline, our remote staff and offices are united by a passion for problem solving and building creative solutions for our clients. Our global teams embody our core values and bring an important perspective to Silverline’s work. Each office is an integral part of our organization, and we’re proud to have established an international presence rooted in cross-cultural communication and collaboration. Join our international team.

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