In an earlier post, we met Americans, Kyle and Jeff, and learned about their unsuccessful attempt to finalise terms for a regional distribution centre with a Malaysian company. The Americans had failed to understand the differences between task-based and relationship-based cultures and had rushed to conduct business before allowing time for relationships to develop.

Over lunch, the Malaysians had listened attentively to the Americans outline their proposed terms. While the Malaysian representatives asked a few questions, they did not raise any objections. The Americans had incorrectly interpreted their Malaysian counterparts’ silence as agreement to their proposed terms and expected the deal to be signed the next morning.

Relationship-based cultures value relational harmony and the avoidance of conflict. In those cultures, communication is indirect and subtle and concerned with saving face. Disagreement is seldom expressed explicitly. You will rarely hear a Malaysian say “No”—rather disagreement is expressed indirectly through phrases like “I will try” and “We will see what we can do”. Negative intentions may also be conveyed non-verbally through the use of body language, eye contact or silence.

In relationship-based cultures, silence can also imply contemplation and there is normally a longer pause before responding than in task-based cultures. Relationship-based cultures may also mask their true emotions—laughter is used to cover embarrassment, disagreement, unease or anger. You may remember the Malaysian CEO laughed when his American guests implied that they were being treated with disrespect by deferring the commencement of business discussions. Showing strong emotions in business is considered inappropriate in Malaysia and erodes trust.

In task-based cultures, communication is direct and there is less concern for preserving relations and saving face. Members of task-based cultures express disagreement openly. Also, members of task-based cultures are uncomfortable with silence—this means that in discussions with relationship-based cultures, members from a task- based culture often dominate the discussion.


Task-based cultures have a low-context communication style. 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 low-context cultures, directness, clarity, 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 individualist task-related countries like the United States and the nations of Northern Europe.

In contrast, relationship-task cultures have a preference for high-context communication. In high-context cultures, there is a preference for indirect speech. In high-context cultures, 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 non-verbal behaviours like eye contact, facial expressions, body language and the use of silence. High-context cultures typically have collectivist relationship-based values. These are cultures of Malaysia, China and India, in which group cohesiveness is valued over individual expressiveness. In high-context cultures, ‘white lies’ and hiding your true thoughts are preferable to damaging another’s face or threatening group harmony.

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


Cross-cultural researchers have documented wide variation across cultures in verbal and non-verbal communication. There are variations in language, paralanguage, speech acts, gestures, body language, eye contact, touch, space and emotional expression, to list just a few. While the sheer volume of variations in behaviour across cultures is overwhelming, there are some basic strategies that you can employ to improve communication when working across cultures.

1. Slow Down and Be Explicit

The most basic tool for improving communication across cultures is to slow down, speak clearly and explicitly and avoid slang, idioms and humour as those do not transfer well across settings. Increasing the directness of speech is particularly important for members of high-context cultures who are socialised to speak indirectly and rely on non-verbal behaviour to deliver messages.

2. Cultural Intelligence (CQ) Talk

CQ Talk involves engaging in deliberate verbal and non-verbal behaviour during an intercultural interaction to help you to find out what needs to be learned. Misunderstandings, misattributions, confusion and uncertainty are common in intercultural interactions. CQ Talk involves active strategies for solving those puzzles as the interaction emerges.

CQ Talk strategies include;

  • Inquiry/checking—for either finding out more about the other person’s knowledge, experience, intention and meaning, or for assessing the validity of your interpretation of the other person’s behaviour. ‘Do you have a different view?’ ‘I’m right in understanding that…?’
  • Self-revelation—volunteering information about yourself to communicate skill gaps and uncertainties. ‘I do not have any previous experience in this context’. ‘I do not understand what you mean by…’
  • Correction/alternative—rephrasing a misstatement or suggesting an alternative interpretation or approach when confronted with an unexpected response—hesitation, silence, abruptness or confusion—from the other party.
  • Building—engaging in collaborative dialogue by building on information communicated by the other person. ‘Can you tell me more about that?’

3. Optimistic Listening

It is difficult to learn a foreign language. It’s even harder to learn how to use it appropriately. Our cultural codes for communication are deeply ingrained and largely unconscious. Studies show that second language learners, even at high levels of fluency, frequently apply the rules of their first language when communicating in the foreign language.

With the widespread adoption of English as a global language, native English speakers should not ignore their roles as listeners. Listeners need to become cautious and optimistic hearers. A cautious and optimistic mindset starts with the belief that the other party is benevolent. It holds the belief that others do not want to deceive, to be impolite or rude or to impose. It entertains the possibility of a communicative mismatch before making assumptions of disrespect, deviance or incompetence.

With this awareness, listeners are better able to reject initial negative impressions of the speaker as rude or incompetent, and they consciously seek more likely interpretations of the speaker’s intent. Listeners who employ this mindset during intercultural interactions are more likely to interpret a message accurately. A cautious and optimistic mindset promotes harmonious and effective communication.

4. Mimicry

Mimicry involves the deliberate mimicking of an interaction partner’s behaviours during a social exchange. Behavioural mimicry activates mirror neurons with positive implications for interpersonal relations. Studies show behavioural mimicry reduces prejudice and is an important source of social rapport.

However, behavioural mimicry should be undertaken selectively. Our culturally conditioned behaviours are nuanced and ambiguous. You may make a fool of yourself, send the wrong message, or be perceived to be mocking your counterpart. Some behaviours are better suited to mimicry than others. It is easier to experiment with greetings, personal space, touch and eye contact than with nuanced and complex behaviours like the Indian head-shake or the Japanese bow.

5. Impression Management

Cultural dissonance refers to the emotional discomfort experienced when an individual is required to act in a manner inconsistent with his or her cultural values, attitudes, beliefs or norms. Even simply observing behaviours inconsistent with one’s cultural preferences can cause anxiety. Culture shock can provoke negative emotions, including anger, frustration, confusion and even fear or disgust. These may show in your facial expressions and body language. Cultural bias increases avoidance-orientated behaviours (e.g. increased personal distance) and decreases approach-orientated behaviours (e.g. smiling).

Successful interactions, even between individuals sharing a similar background, require skills in impression management. Creating a favourable impression is more challenging when you are experiencing cultural dissonance. This is particularly true of behaviours that are largely unconscious and thus difficult to control, such as non-verbal behaviours—tone of voice, body language and facial expressions.

This ‘leaking’ of non-verbal prejudiced responses may explain why many interactions between members of different cultural groups feel awkward and uncomfortable. These subtle expressions of bias can be detected by the interaction partner who, in turn, becomes guarded. The result is a less open and more suspicious interaction. Individuals with high cultural intelligence consciously monitor their responses for micro-biases and actively seek to override their subtle negative responses towards diverse others.

6. Civility

When you interact with individuals from backgrounds different from your own, there will be times when your values conflict with the cultural ideals of your interaction partner. Cultural intelligence does not require you to abandon your cultural values or to support the practices or beliefs of other cultures. Rather, cultural intelligence encourages a non-judgmental respect for difference. This improves your interactions. When people feel respected, they are more likely to reciprocate the favourable sentiment with pro-social behaviour and you are more likely to achieve your goals.

Luckily, there is a notion of respect that lies midway between complete acceptance and reluctant endurance. Respect as civility is about treating others with courtesy, politeness and concern. Civility is respecting the humanity of diverse others. It does not involve endorsing their specific ideas or behaviour. Respect as civility means showing a positive regard for others as equals. It involves disagreeing without demonising and hearing diverse opinions without attacking.


Felicity has a passion for evidence-based approaches to diversity and inclusion and is committed to the practical application of robust academic research and industry best-practices to improve business outcomes.

Padilla Cruz, M. (2013). Understanding and overcoming pragmatic failure in intercultural communication: From focus on speakers to focus on hearers. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 51(1), 23-54.

Rogers, P. S. (2008). The challenge of behavioral cultural intelligence: What might dialogue tell us? n S. Ang & L. Van Dyne (Eds.), Handbook on cultural intelligence: Theory, measurement and applications (pp. 243-256). Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Von Bergen, C. (2013). Misconstrued tolerance: Issues for multicultural and diversity training. Development and Learning in Organizations: An International Journal, 27(2), 9-12