Your Biggest Cultural Challenge: Intercultural Miscommunication

10 July 2014, by
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As more organisations extend their reach into new geographies, most recognise the need to learn the basics about these new countries: time zone differences, public holidays, travel and safety issues, etc.

This is the easy bit: the information is researchable, it can be integrated into corporate policy and easily managed within any type of business. Other less obvious aspects,however, can be a little trickier.

Customs, values & behaviours

As globalisation becomes more important in the business environment, organisations that are serious about expanding their business abroad also recognise the need to understand the basics about different cultures’ customs, values and behaviours.

For example, organisations may learn about different dietary habits that may be unfamiliar back home
, or religious values and practices to avoid giving offence
. There are also more subtle cultural behaviours, such as how to greet one another or the level of formality that is expected in typical business settings.

Important cultural challenges

However, once the basics are established, cultural challenges really begin. Many of these challenges are beneath the surface and are thus more difficult to observe.

For example, if an organisation is very time sensitive and also places great importance on planning, scheduling and meeting deadlines, that organisation can become frustrated when working with another culture that values relationships, intuition and has a more fatalistic approach to the future.

In this example, setting expectations is key. Explaining why a time constraint is important and what consequences could be felt as a result of a missed deadline may help both cultures understand one another.

Defining terms with more clarity can help. Whereas it may seem to you that stating something is urgent is straightforward, it may be interpreted differently across cultures.

For example:
one culture may instantly drop what they are doing to attend to the urgent matter;
another culture may finish the task in process and then prioritise the urgent matter to be addressed next;
while a third culture may consult their diary for the next free slot.

Cultural miscommunication

Similar examples of potential cultural miscommunication abound, where certain behaviours may be judged differently across cultures.

For example:
is answering a mobile telephone during a business meeting acceptable or rude?
is it ok to be spoken to differently depending on your job title, age, gender, etc.?

why do some people seem to get away with obviously and publicly breaking the rules when others are punished over the violation of a technicality of the same rules?

intercultural miscommunication challenge

All of these are examples of behaviours where cultural norms, values and behaviour may be interpreted very differently amongst different groups of people.

- The use of language


The use of language can also cause much cultural miscommunication, even when all parties are speaking the same language.

The challenges are wide ranging. It may be that a choice of words that is innocuous in one culture could cause offence in another culture, while the use of slang or references to popular culture may not travel or resonate with another culture.

- Non-verbal communication


Non-verbal communication can be even more difficult to interpret. A strong tone of voice can sound commanding to one culture and thus represent status and authority. Another culture, however, may judge the same style to be pompous, discourteous, arrogant or pretentious.

- Directness of a message


Other language challenges surround the directness of a message. Stating what you mean clearly and precisely may seem to be the correct thing to do across all cultures.

However, this may not actually be the case in other cultures, where employees expect to be given permission to speak by their management regardless of their level of knowledge. Body language, tone and being modest are all interpreted through our own cultural lenses.

- Humour


Be careful of humour. What may be funny to one culture may be offensive to another culture. Something that may be funny to both cultures may still cause difficulties if delivered in a formal environment, especially if one culture considers it to be an inappropriate setting.

- Diversity

Finally, be aware of diversity, both on an individual and on a cultural level. What may be perfectly fine with one group of people may not be so fine with others who belong to the same group who may have a different opinion due to diversity issues.

People are unique!


And of course, people are people everywhere. Not everyone who belongs to a particular group necessarily shares all of the attitudes and behaviours of that group. Know your audience!


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About the Author
Declan Mulkeen

I am an international sales and marketing professional with a passion for discovering new countries ...

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