Effective Cross-Cultural Communication

Effective Cross-Cultural Communication

by Felicity Menzies

Communicating across cultures requires more than language fluency. High Cultural Intelligence involves not only language skill but also an understanding of how language is used differently across cultures.

How a culture uses language is largely tacit (unconscious and habitual) and not easily transferred in classroom settings. Communicative competency can only be achieved only by practising with native speakers.

However, being alert to common errors in foreign language use can be helpful for avoiding mistakes that threaten communication and create a poor first impression. Mastering differences in language use can be empowering as it improves a person’s ability to achieve their goals in diverse settings.

Speech acts

Speech acts are basic units of communication with a social function. There are five categories of speech acts:

  • representatives—expressing a belief or truth (assertions, claims, reports)
  • directives—expressing a wish for the hearer to do something (suggestions, requests, commands)
  • expressives—expressing a variety of psychological states (apologies, complaints, compliments, thanks)
  • com missives—expressing an intention or commitment to future action (promises, threats, offers)
  • declaratives—bringing about change via words (decrees, declaration)

In different social and cultural settings, there are distinct ways of composing speech acts. The greatest difference across cultures in speech acts is directness versus indirectness.

high-context culture is one in which meaning is inferred from the context or setting instead of the words used. The contextual cues relevant to interpreting messages include social status, social relationships, relationship history, setting, and nonverbal behaviours (eye contact, facial expressions, body language, use of silence). High-context cultures typically have Collectivist values. These are cultures (e.g., China and India) in which the needs of the group prevail over individual needs. Group cohesiveness is valued over individual expressiveness.

Indirect speech relates to the concept of ‘face’, which is concern and consideration for another person’s social image. In high-context cultures, ‘white lies’ and hiding your true thoughts are preferable to damaging another’s face or threatening group harmony. In high-context cultures, indirect speech is common, and open verbal conflict is frowned on.

In contrast, a low-context culture is one in which meaning is inferred from actual words used. In low-context cultures, direct speech is common, and speech is clear and exact. The meaning of an utterance in a low-context culture is usually its literal interpretation and does not vary with context. In these cultures, directness, clarity and honesty, and frankness are valued.  A preference for direct speech is reflected in sayings such as ‘Don’t beat about the bush’ and ‘Get to the point’. Examples include the United States and northern Europe.

The use of direct and indirect speech is a significant source of cross-cultural misunderstanding. In high-context cultures, a negative intention may be expressed as ‘maybe’ or ‘yes’. In low-context cultures, a ‘no’ comes out directly as a ‘no’, and a ‘yes’ comes out directly as a ‘yes’.

To members of high-context cultures, speakers from low-context cultures appear verbose, confrontational, insensitive, blunt, rude, and less credible. To members of low-context cultures, speakers from high-context cultures are vague, uncertain, unsociable, deceitful, evasive, or ignorant.


Social distance varies cross-culturally. High Power Distance cultures have well-defined social hierarchies, but low Power Distance cultures are more egalitarian. Power Distance is reflected in the formality of addressing and introductions. In Western cultures, it is more common to use first names despite rank or tenure. In many Asian cultures, however, it is common to use formal titles and last names as a sign of deference and respect.

There are also differences across cultures in pronoun use. English does not distinguish between address forms for intimate and non-intimate relationships. But in French, the pronoun ‘tu’ (you) is reserved for close friends and family, while the more formal ‘vous’ (you) conveys deference and respect in interactions with strangers.

Topic choice

Individuals interacting across cultures need to be sensitive to cross-cultural differences in free versus constrained topics. Questions about income, marriage, and family can invade personal privacy in Western contexts; however, these are acceptable topics of social conversation in other cultures. Sexual and religious taboos differ cross-culturally as well.


Certain cultures feel that questions are too large an imposition because they demand a response. Australian Aborigines rarely ask ‘Why?’, and the Alaskan Athabaskans ask few questions.

Sharing personal information

While personal storytelling is universal, there are cultural differences in the content of personal stories. North Americans recount personal stories from their point of view, looking outward from their own perspective. Asians are more likely to recount their life stories from the perspective of a third person. There are also cross-cultural differences in emotion in personal storytelling.

Humour, irony, and sarcasm

Humour, irony, and sarcasm are heavily laden with cultural values. In some cultures, humour is interpreted as friendly and light-hearted. Other cultures view humour as aggressive. Individualistic cultures are comfortable making fun of themselves and others. But Collectivistic cultures may view this as a threat to social dignity. Also, the content of humour varies cross-culturally: Singaporean jokes have more aggressive content and less sexual content than American jokes.

Conversational etiquette

There are cross-cultural differences in conversational turn-taking, tolerance for simultaneous speech, and topic shifting.


Paralanguage refers to the non-speech sounds that a person can use to modify the meaning of their speech. There are cross-cultural variations in voice quality, vocalisation, and vocal qualifiers. Voice quality is a person’s vocal strength and clarity. Vocalisation refers to non-word fillers such as ‘ahem’, ‘uh-huh’, ‘um’, ‘er’, ‘you know?’, ‘okay’, etc. Vocal qualifiers refer to pitch and intonation, and to the use of silence.

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Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.