C. d) Cross cultural communication                  Next

Cross cultural communication

Cross-cultural communication is complex, but if we analyse contacts, behaviours and situations, four elements are usually present, though one or two may stand out.

1. Verbal behaviour: What we say and how we say it.

This includes accents, tone of voice, volume, rate of speech and slang.

2. Non-verbal behaviour: What we say when we’re not talking.

This includes ‘body language’ such as eye contact and ways of showing respect, ‘object language’ such as dress codes and ornaments and ‘environmental language’ such as house and office design.

3. Communication style: How we prefer to express ourselves.

This includes ways of getting our point across, assumptions about ways of
speaking and interacting with each other.

4. Values, attitudes and prejudices: What we believe is right.

This element is the most complex and includes our deep beliefs and feelings about our own identity, about the world and how we judge other people.

What 's your cultural communication style.

In the following examples, which option, A or B is more true for you?
TICK your choices

Option A

Option B

Choice 1Loudly-spoken person Choice 1Softly-spoken person
Choice 1 Fast talker Choice 1 Slow talker
Choice 1 Touch others a lot in social interactions Choice 1Touch others only a little in social interactions
Choice 1“Yes” means “Yes” Choice 1“Yes” may mean "Maybe" or “No” or "I hear what you say"
Choice 1Silence in conversation is uncomfortable Choice 2Silence in conversation shows thoughtfulness and respect.
Choice 3 Greet a client with a hand-shake Choice 4Greet a client with a kiss


What would be the implications if you were talking with someone whose cultural preference was the opposite to yours? For example:

  • Loudly-spoken people may appear pushy or rude where the majority are quietly-spoken.
  • Would the hand shake seem distant? Or would the kiss seem overly familiar.
  • Would the "yes" mean "yes", "no" or "maybe"? And what if it was misinterpreted?

If you are working with people from an Indigenous community, what are some of their communication styles?





Cross-cultural communication is complex, but if we analyse contacts, behaviours and situations, four elements are usually present, though one or two may stand out.

  • 1. Verbal behaviour: What we say and how we say it.
  • 2. Non-verbal behaviour: What we say when we’re not talking.
  • 3. Communication style: How we prefer to express ourselves.
  • 4. Values, attitudes and prejudices: What we believe is right.
1. Verbal Behaviour

Verbal Behaviour

What we say and how we say it.


“I love your accent!” Why do we tend to like some accents and dislike others?
How much do we judge each other by our accents?

Tone of Voice

“Don’t take that tone of voice with me!” How does tone affect us? Vocal
expression varies greatly in different languages, high or low pitched, fast or
slow, rhythmic or clipped, hard or soft.


“Why do they have to talk so loudly?” Loudness or softness of speech is
culturally influenced. The softly-spoken may appear weak in a high-volume
country. Loudly-spoken people may appear pushy or rude where the majority
are quietly-spoken.

Rates of Speech

“Slow down! You’re not in the city anymore.” Just as country and city people
differ in their rates of speech in most cultures, so do people of different cultures.
Often, we judge people’s intelligence or emotional state by their rates of speech.

Jargon and Slang

“Wait till we get some runs on the board.” Each occupation and sector has its
own jargon such as “downsizing”, “consultative mechanisms” Slang is nonstandard
language such as “You little ripper!”, “ain’t”, “nope”, “bludger” and
many more.

Idioms and Metaphors

“Don’t beat around the bush.” Idioms are expressions peculiar to a language
such as “Keep your fingers crossed” and “Pull your socks up”. Metaphors are
figures of speech such as “a blanket of snow” or “a sea of troubles”.


“Too many cooks spoil the broth” and other popular sayings, long in use, carry a
culture’s core values. “A stitch in time saves nine” is not just about sewing!

2. Non-verbal behaviour

Non-Verbal Behaviour

What we say without talking. What we say with our dress, our objects, our buildings, our gestures, eyes and faces.

  • Body Language
  • Object Language
  • Environment Language

Body Language

Movement Gestures Posture
Distancing Gaze / Eye Contact Touch
Facial Expression Politeness Hygiene

Some Examples:

Distancing: The comfortable distance between people talking varies between
cultures. In different cultures, there are different views and conventions regarding:
Intruding Noise Privacy
Use of space Neighbour relationships Public places

Gaze: The degree to which people give eye contact or look at other people varies.

Gestures: While most human gestures are easily read across cultures, important
variations include ways of pointing, beckoning, shaking hands, kissing or bowing.
Descriptive, praising or insulting gestures such as those for complicated, good,
expensive, crazy or stupid can vary widely.

Touching: The degrees to which people touch each other in social interactions varies
across cultures and levels of relationship.

Touch Cultures: Middle East Italy Greece Spain Portugal Russia
Non-Touch Cultures: Japan United States Canada England Australia Scandinavia
"Middle Ground" France China Ireland India

Object Language

Objects can carry different meanings in different cultures. For example, a sign of wealth
in one culture can be interpreted as a sign of vulgarity in another.

Some examples:

Signs: Symbols, crucifixes, swastikas, signs of power, class, occupation
Artefacts: Religious objects, gifts, utensils, heritage items, tools, technology
Adornments: hair styles, beards, make-up, jewellery, tattoos, shaven heads
Designs: tattoos, designs of signage, language of signage,
Clothing: Ties, suits, “Business casual”, hijab, beards, modesty, fashion
Accessories: Watches, handbags, Akubra hats, uniforms, gold chains,piercings

Environmental language

The look and feel of the social environment in different countries and cultures and within
countries sends a wide range of non-verbal messages. For example, solid barriers of
counters and windows between customers and staff in a government services office
can be seen as appropriate demarcations or as signs of inaccessibility and bureaucratic

Some examples:

Colours: “Institutional green”, “Royal yellow”, khaki, house colours
Architecture: skyscraper, villa, police station, hotel, house design, open or closed frontages, privacy, proximity to other structures.
Natural surrounds: topiary hedges, garden design, parks, tree and landscapes, feng shui
Lighting: spotlights or candlelight, fluoro or natural light, direct or indirect
Use of Space: Office or factory layout, open or closed office doors, privacy, seating arrangements
Direction: Signage, positioning of walls and fences, design of public places, focus of attention

3. Communcation style

Communication Style

How we prefer to communicate and express ourselves.

Different Cultural Assumptions

We have different assumptions about what is appropriate, who takes which role, how much ‘give and take’ is expected in a communication, how much silence is appropriate. When does “Yes” mean “Yes”? What is or isn’t funny?

Different Ways of Making a Point

We have different views of how to sound logical, whether to use direct or indirect language. Discussion moves from the general to the particular, or vice versa. Emotion may be stronger than logic.

Different Ways of Speaking

We speak differently (our verbal behaviour) and have different conventions about such things as turn-taking, politeness formulas, facial expressions and gestures (our non-verbal behaviours). Even when we’re not conscious of the differences between our own and others’ communication styles they can still affect us deeply.

Elements in communication style

There are many elements of style in communication that differ across cultures. Have
you observed any of these in your interactions with different cultures”

Taking turns in conversation

In Anglo-Celtic cultures, two or more speakers will often overlap each other, coming in just before the other person has finished. In Latin cultures, there is often a much higher level of overlap, with seemingly two or three conversations going on at once. In Asian cultures, it is considered polite to let the other person finish and not to speak immediately, but to pause briefly, considering
what has been said and what they will say in reply.

Tolerance of silence

Many Australians dislike silence in conversation - it's uncomfortable. Other cultures value silences as showing thoughtfulness and respect.

Use of humour and irony

Humour often does not 'travel' well. Australian humour tends to rely on forms of criticism, 'stirring' and irony, which can sometimes puzzle or offend newcomers.

Speech rules

Expressing politeness in English relies heavily on formulas such as ‘please’, ‘excuse me’ or ‘would you mind’. Other languages do not use such politeness formulas, instead relying on honorifics or titles showing respect.

Rules of politeness

The rules that say who can speak to whom; who initiates conversation. In Australia, there are few restrictions on who speaks first. In many cultures, particularly older ones, there are firm rules, such as not speaking first to someone older or a superior.

Different meanings of Yes and No

When does Yes mean No, Maybe or Yes? In English convention, we are expected to mean 'yes' or 'no'. In other cultures, 'Yes' may only mean 'I hear what you say' and people may be reluctant to give a direct 'No' for fear of offending.

Structuring information

Direct versus indirect methods of making a point.
Australians generally believe one should 'get to the point' quickly. Some
cultures may believe it is better to lead up to the point. See below.

Rules of stating your case: linear or circular

While Western cultures tend to be linear - going from A to B in a direct line, members of other cultures prefer to circle around and spiral in to the point of stating their case.

Views of what is logical

In stating cases or seeking solutions to problems, people from different cultures may think it is more important to express the emotional side than the factual side.

4. Values and attidudes

Values and attidudes

The values, attitudes and prejudices held by a culture embody the way a group of people sees the world. The comparisons presented in this section are generalisations that are useful in understanding the complex and hidden dimensions of cultures.

Because cultural values cannot readily be seen until they are manifested in particular behaviours, and because they have the greatest influence on people’s attitudes and behaviours, it is critical when managing culturally diverse teams to understand the dimensions of cultural values in order to be able to take them into account when approaching or analysing situations.

It is also important to recognise that these dimensions and values operate on sliding scales between and within cultures, influenced by personality, circumstances and the diversity within cultures. We cannot make 'black and white' distinctions or 'blanket statements' about cultural differences but we can increase our understanding of them.