Effective Communication in Multicultural Offices

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Effective Communication in Multicultural Offices


Communication is an important aspect of any area of life and is particularly important in business. Effective communication between employees and between employees and employers can be crucial to the smooth running of a business.

Naturally, everyone has their own, distinctive communication style. This distinctive communication is usually a result of multiple factors which can include a person’s upbringing, life experiences, level of education, the region they grew up in or the culture they are a member of. In our increasingly globalized world it is important to understand the communication styles of other cultures.

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Separated By a Common Language

Effective Communication AmericanPerhaps the most troubling aspect of intercultural communication can be misinterpreting someone who comes from the same culture as you, but has a different dialect or other regional difference. As in every situation involving difficulties in effective communication, empathy and listening are required to resolve any issues that might arise in this situation.

In the United States, there are several regional cultures. However, it is possible for these many cultures to be classified as either southern or northern. Northerners tend to have a more direct communication style than Southerners, many of whom can be euphemistic or use other indirect styles of communication. Southerners tend to misinterpret Northerners directness as rudeness while Northerners see Southerners as frustrating. There are, of course, stereotypes which both groups hold about each other. While generalizations can be made about people from other cultures, stereotypes are never helpful and make things worse during a conflict.

Effective Communication BritishSoutherners and Northerners may have cultural differences, but there are many more cultural differences between Americans and the British. These differences are linguistic as well as cultural. The British use of the metric system while Americans stubbornly cling to our own unique system of weights and measures is only a small example of this. The British refer to cigarettes as “fags” which, in American slang, is an offensive term for a male homosexual. The British may also refer to “trash” as “rubbish”, live in a “flat” rather than an “apartment” or go “on holiday” rather than “vacation.”

The British are also more hierarchical than Americans and tend to be more directed by their supervisors than American workers. The British avoid small talk and prize a “stiff upper lip” while Americans are chattier and tend to smile more. The American custom of smiling at strangers can be disconcerting to the more reserved British or other Europeans. This does not mean the British are unfriendly. The British can be as friendly as anyone else. They simply take more time to get to know someone and put a great deal of emphasis on long lasting personal relationships. As a consequence, they take time forging these relationships.

The Irish, who were once members of the British Empire and some of whom still consider themselves British, share some of the same dialect and cultural traits as the British. I once read an article about an Irish woman working in the United States who was asked what time it was. Her American colleague didn’t understand what she meant by the phrase half-four until she explained that it meant four thirty. The Irish woman also got confused when asking where the rubbish bin was-or as Americans know it, the trash can. There are, of course, also differences between the Irish and British. Drinking at work during lunchtime is acceptable among the British, but shocked an Irish immigrant (despite certain cultural stereotypes which might lead one to believe it would be the reverse). The same immigrant noted that the Irish ignore rules that are stupid while the British are more rule abiding.

Americans fall somewhere in the middle between these two extremes, abiding by rules yet likely to speak out when encountering a rule considered to go against values such as tolerance or fairness that are central to American culture. A British person may be less likely to speak out. Willingness to go against perceived authority or to speak out is an aspect of an individual’s communication style. It should be noted that this can also be a result of personality style apart from culture. However, a person’s culture might reinforce their inborn personality traits.

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Strangers in a Strange Land

When cultural communication styles clash, it is most likely to be between two members of completely separate cultures. Due to a complex history of immigration, there are multiple ethnic groups in the United States. The majority of these immigrants are from Hispanic countries, Mexico in particular, and China. Both of these cultures favor communication styles that are different from the standard American communication style and are liable to cause misunderstandings.

Effective Communication HispanicThe Hispanic communication style has a tendency towards what might be perceived as friendly and warm, which is also what many Europeans say about Americans. One difference that could lead to conflict is the emphasis Hispanic culture put on respectful titles. For example, a teacher once became offended when her Hispanic students would not call her by her first name preferring to refer to her as “teacher.” To the Hispanic students, this was a gesture of respect. The American teacher saw it as unwillingness to accept American cultural norms and possibly a sign of unfriendliness.

Hispanics also have a different nonverbal communication style in that they are more physically affectionate. Like many cultures with Mediterranean roots, Hispanics will stand close to someone when speaking with them. This might make Americans uncomfortable as Americans will stand more at a distance during a conversation. Hispanics will also speak in a more animated and emotional way, another part of their communication style which might make Americans uncomfortable.

From a different perspective, Americans’ tendency to stand at arms length during a conversation and express less emotion is just as likely to make Hispanics uncomfortable. Another difference in body language that could cause friction between Americans and Hispanics is the way in which eye contact is perceived. Hispanics will avoid looking someone in authority in the eyes as this could be seen as disrespectful. Among Americans, eye contact is seen as a sign of trust. When working with Hispanic employees, keep these differences in body language in mind. Body language varies by culture and is just as important as verbal cues.

Effective Communication ChineseChinese culture is very different from both Hispanics and Americans. The Chinese put more emphasis on maintaining harmony within a group, rather than the Western emphasis on the individual. One thing Westerners may find frustrating is the unwillingness in Chinese culture to say no directly. To say no directly in Chinese culture may be considered both insulting and cause a person to lose face. To remedy this, the Chinese may nod along to what someone is saying while using cues to say no. Naturally, these cues would be understood by fellow Chinese individuals or members of other Asian cultures. By no means are Chinese individuals being dishonest by this subtlety. Indeed, honesty is highly valued by the Chinese.

It is when Westerners and the Chinese communicate that misunderstandings deriving from this custom may arise. The Chinese say no indirectly by using vague words like “possibly”, “maybe” or “perhaps.” These words are a sign that the person you are speaking with is trying to say no without coming out with it. The Chinese may also use words that would imply assent to a Westerner such as “sure” or “ok” which imply that the speaker is saying no. Other ways in which the Chinese say no is by putting things off, making excuses or even telling a white lie. The Chinese consider it better to tell a lie than to hurt someone’s feelings by directly refusing someone. By understanding these cultural cues, misunderstandings and hurt feelings can be mitigated or eliminated.

Universal Values

Effective Communication Universal Cultural ValuesDespite the differences between cultures, there are universal values. Anthropologists have determined that the values all cultures share are the search for truth and justice, self-respect balanced with humility and respect for others. These are values that everyone seeks to practice. In addition, people are unique individuals not just results of their culture. Effective communication takes all of this into account.


Certainly culture plays a role in a person’s behavior, but it is only a single facet. Through pursuing listening, empathy and the universal values of respect and kindness, effective communication is possible. With these tips, you can make it work with people from many diverse backgrounds.


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About Charles

Charles Alexander Neal is a graduate of Southern New Hampshire’s creative writing program. He is a novelist, short story writer and locally produced playwright. He also plays the flute and performed with the Cape Fear Community College orchestra.

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