For anyone managing a global team in today’s business environment, understanding and nurturing cross-cultural communication skills in ourselves and our employees is key to success.

For the last ten years, I’ve worked on developing my career in international environments and human resources—it’s where I thrive. I’ve worked in both the private and public sectors, including the European Commission in Brussels, where my colleagues have come from various nationalities and cultures. 

Throughout my studies and my career, I’ve developed several ways to improve my cross-cultural communication skills and lead from a place of empathy and understanding. 

Below are 10 skills that I’ve found most helpful, including a few practical ways to overcome cross-cultural communication obstacles in the workplace. 

But first, let’s look at the benefits of a diverse team and why this topic is so important in the first place.

Benefits of having a diverse and international team

There are many advantages of building a multicultural team within an inclusive work environment, including:

What is cross-cultural communication and why is it important?

At VeraContent, we regularly work with over 200 collaborators spread out across the globe. From our experience, we’ve learned that different cultures see and communicate things differently. 

For example, asking for an assignment by “end of business day” or “by lunchtime” could be interpreted differently depending on where you are in the world. We’ve also seen how a backwards peace sign in the US may be offensive in South Africa and the UK and have had to change our social media posts accordingly.

When we face all these challenges, we’re talking about cross-cultural communication, a field of study that looks into how people from different cultural backgrounds communicate among themselves and across cultures. 

Improving your cross-cultural communication skills involves recognizing the differences and similarities among different cultural groups and adjusting your communication accordingly. 

10 ways to improve your cross-cultural communication skills

Here are 10 cross-cultural communication skills that I’ve found particularly useful in becoming more respectful and welcoming towards cultural differences in the workplace.

1. Be respectful at all times

Being respectful may come as an obvious tip for some, but we may not realize how a grimace, a chuckle or a roll of the eyes can be perceived as tremendously offensive in some cultures. When working with other cultures, be respectful and open-minded at all times. Remember that if something is different from how you know it, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong or strange. 

2. Do your research 

Make an effort to learn more about the cultures of the people you work with. Things that can be considered standard in some cultures can feel incredibly rude or confusing in others. For example, constantly checking your phone, giving a gift, touching another person, or knowing when to say no to a drink.

There is a lot of research on intercultural and cross-cultural communication. Two references on the topic that always remain relevant are Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory—and his many books on culture—and Edward Hall’s cultural factors, including his books Beyond Culture and Understanding Cultural Differences: Germans, French and Americans. These world-renowned authors and their theories will give you a solid knowledge base and understanding of this fascinating and very complex topic. 

You can also encourage a learning culture by organizing activities that let your team share and learn about each other’s backgrounds. At VeraContent, we’ve been hosting weekly trivia sessions where each team member takes a turn to host a trivia session about their home country, state or city. It’s a great way to learn more about another country or culture—and it’s really fun!

3. Pay attention to the power of words

At VeraContent, we’re language obsessed, and for a good reason. Here’s an example of how important paying attention to words is: 

The uses of “tú” vs. “usted” in Spanish is far from being the same as “vous” and “tu” in French. Using “tu” refers to a much closer degree of familiarity than the widespread “tú” in Spanish, where “usted” often feels overly formal, and it’s less used in the modern working culture. “Hola María, ¿Qué tal estás?” have ruled out old formulas like “Estimada María, Espero que usted se encuentre bien”.

See also Content marketing in Spain vs. the US: 9 key differences

In other languages like Chinese, they invert first and family names to show respect, and in Japanese, they use the honorific suffix “san” after the name, which means  “dear” or “honorable.” 

Different cultures also tend to express themselves differently.

“One thing I’ve noticed is in Brazil, when you ask someone ‘how are you doing?’ The answer is always something like ‘marvelous’ or ‘fantastic’. It’s always really big adjectives that are so positive. But when I moved to London, the answer to ‘how are you doing’ is ‘not too bad’. And I was like, wow, that’s completely different. It was just a big cultural difference.” – Gastón Tourn, UK-based chief marketing office at Appear Here

See also What is inclusive language? Key examples from VeraContent’s tone & style guide and Inclusive content: Why it matters and how to get started

4. Watch your body language

A thumbs up for an Iranian is the equivalent of giving the middle finger. Doing the victory or peace sign with the palm facing yourself is part of Korean pop culture and a rude gesture in the UK. And showing the soles of your feet can be perceived as disrespectful in Arab culture. Indians use a head wobble to say “yes” or “thank you,” and Bulgarians shake their head to say “yes.”

In the same way you watch your own body language when talking to someone, don’t make assumptions about others’ gestures.  Body language is so inherent that it’s even more difficult to control than words, but being aware of its importance is the first and essential step to understanding the differences. 

5. Differentiate familiar and intrusive

Many people find it hard to get used to how often Spanish people and other Latino cultures use terms of endearment like cielo and guapa (meaning heaven and beautiful) when speaking with you, even in a work environment. 

The casual use of terms of endearment doesn’t exist in other countries and can often make the other person feel uncomfortable. Similarly with extensive body contact, long handshakes, invading personal space, hugging and kissing. Even if it’s done with the best of intentions, stop and think twice about how socially acceptable that behavior is beyond your own culture.

“Romance-language speaking countries are much more direct. That was a shock for me. In the US, while we’re not so ‘beat around the bush,’ we have to kind of warm up to people for us to collaborate well. Those cultural differences are so small, but really make a big difference, especially if you’re trying to work in those markets.” – Kyler Canastra, account manager at VeraContent.

6. Truly listen

Active listening is one of the most effective tools to improve cross-cultural communication. When we pay close attention to the person who’s talking to us, we automatically become more empathetic. 

We’re often too busy planning our reply or thinking about refuting what the other person is saying. Instead, focus on connecting with the speaker, listen to their words, watch their body language and try to picture what they’re describing. Empathy will immediately flow, and you’ll be able to build rapport, forming meaningful and harmonious relationships. 

See also: How to be a more empathetic leader: 5 tips for content and marketing professionals 

7. Ask questions

There’s nothing wrong with openly asking how things are done in a different country or culture when done respectfully. We all feel a sense of pride when talking about our roots, and you’ll be surprised at how often the other person opens up, draws a smile and excitedly starts telling us about their upbringing and background. Creating some personal connections and getting to know more about each other will certainly benefit your professional relationship.

See also: How to build successful relationships with local community managers 

8. Look out for your own bias

Without realizing it, we tend to judge right or wrong based on our innate standards and expectations (from our own culture). A way to challenge our own biases is by asking questions, this time to ourselves. Why is this done this way? Is it because it is better, more efficient and faster? Or is it just because that is how it is done where I come from? 

Being aware of and challenging our own beliefs is a fantastic and insightful exercise that can lead to improved cross-cultural relations in the workplace.

9. Follow up in writing

Sending a follow-up email with the main outcomes of a phone call, meeting or conversation that just happened and asking for confirmation is a great way to ensure that you’re all aligned.

In high context cultures—where much is taken for granted and non-verbal cues carry most of the meaning—there is often underlying information that we just don’t get. So much so that both parties can draw a completely different conclusion from the same meeting.

Following up in writing is a practice that I recommend implementing after every meeting you have, regardless of the background of the other attendees.

10. Be open to discussing cultural differences

Above everything else, it’s important to make your team members feel comfortable in approaching you about issues related to cultural differences. You aren’t expected to be an expert on everyone’s particular country or background, but you can make your team members feel comfortable to openly talk to you when an issue arises. 

What to do if a cross-cultural issue arises at work

Understanding the importance of working and communicating with others is a key factor in any organization’s success. But how do you manage a conflict that’s already taking place?

Here are a few tips:

  • Acknowledge that cultural differences exist. Identifying cultural misunderstandings and paying attention to them is the first step to successfully fixing any situation that may arise. Accept that cultural differences can be a source of disharmony between people in your team and prepare to act when needed.
  • Give them the importance they deserve. It may be tempting to ignore a small quarrel hoping that time will make everybody forget about it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, and the sooner you address it, the better for all parties involved.
  • Inform yourself and act swiftly. After you’ve identified that the source of the problem is an intercultural clash, make sure that you know where both parties are coming from and intervene to mediate and create empathy for each other.
  • Always keep a cross-cultural mindset. By incorporating the tools and resources you’ve just learned, you’re already cultivating the right mentality. It may seem hard at first, but it’s a skill  you can develop, and something that will help you prevent conflicts from arising in the first place.

Cross-cultural communication starts with empathy 

Knowing how to better manage cross-cultural teams helps create higher staff satisfaction, increase employer engagement and opens your organization to a wider pool of highly skilled workers. It also increases the productivity and innovation of your teams. 

When dealing with cross-cultural situations in the workplace, it’s best to always come from a place of empathy. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, keep an open mind and embrace the differences. 

The world is such a diverse place, and embracing diversity in our workplace teaches us so much about the world and ourselves. Plus, it improves and enriches work dynamics and takes your organization to the next level! 

Keep an open mind, be flexible and constantly challenge your beliefs. That’s the recipe for success when leading a team of people from different cultures and creating a welcoming, safe environment that will allow your employees to thrive and give their very best at work.

For more insights on the value of cross-cultural communication skills:

This article was written by Eva Movilla, former Human Resources Director at VeraContent