Cultural differences in communication exist in the workplace, and it’s important to understand and manage them to create high-functioning, diverse teams. These differences include verbal and non-verbal aspects, such as body language and facial expressions.
With understanding comes the ability to adjust to, accept, and embrace cultural diversity and eliminate prejudices and stereotypes.
Remember: When in doubt about a cultural difference between you and someone else – whether that is a colleague, friend, or teacher, always ask! The more transparent and open we can be with communication, the better.
6 Non-Verbal Communication Differences
Culture isn’t just the ethnicity or nationality of a group of people. It’s much more, including beliefs, language, food, religion, customs, music and arts, social institutions, and rituals. Because signs, symbols, and gestures vary between countries and cultures, let’s look at some important non-verbal language differences.
1. Eye Contact
Looking at someone in the eyes while speaking to them is a sign of attentiveness and tends to be expected in the United States. However, people from other cultures may perceive this as aggressive, intimidating, or rude.
A 2013 study found that “individuals from an East Asian culture perceive another’s face as being angrier, unapproachable, and unpleasant when making eye contact compared to individuals from a Western European culture.”
Another study noted that while maintaining eye contact is valued in Western Europeans, it is not the case with East Asian backgrounds. Japanese children learn to look at others’ necks to avoid looking directly into the eyes because too much eye contact is considered disrespectful.
Tip: Several other reasons a person might avert their gaze or avoid eye contact altogether. They may feel stressed or anxious, have a high level of neuroticism, or have autism. Sometimes, people rub their eyes to cut off eye contact to reduce negative feelings. Look for these signs and be sensitive. Offer to take a break and return to the conversation later.
If someone’s eye contact becomes uncomfortable, look away naturally by slowly averting your gaze. If appropriate, laugh, nod, or use hand gestures. Look at their nose or chin, or you can end the conversation or continue it at another time.
2. Personal Space
According to anthropologist Edward Hall‘s theory of proxemics, culture can also influence personal space. It says people maintain differing degrees of personal distance depending on their social setting and cultural backgrounds. His work helped inform American diplomats working abroad so they would match their new environments.
It also led to additional research that sorted countries into high and low-contact cultures. In high-contact cultures, like South America, the Middle East, and Southern Europe, people tend to stand closer together and are not afraid to use touch as part of their communication. People tend to stand farther apart and touch less in low-contact cultures, like the United States, Northern Europe, North America, and Asia.
You can see how this might create complications in communal spaces as people choose their spots on elevators and public transit. Those from high-contact cultures might interpret those who stand or sit far away as distant and hostile. And those from low-contact cultures may see someone who stands too close as pushy and aggressive.
Tip: It’s easy to become uncomfortable with other people’s behavior. Instead of jumping to conclusions about their intent or social skills, recognize that culture has its understanding, habits, and norms about personal space in interpersonal interactions and social situations.
3. Physical Contact
Greeting a colleague with a kiss on the cheek may be conventional in France and Spain, while colleagues in the United States tend to go for a handshake and minimize physical contact. In some cultures, such as the Mediterranean and South American countries, physical contact is a regular part of conversation and connection. In Eastern cultures, however, it is inappropriate, particularly between different genders.
Tip: Follow the lead of your colleagues when greeting each other and during a conversation. If they touch the shoulder or back of your hand, then feel free to reciprocate during the exchange.
Learn more about the value of mirroring to build rapport in Mirroring Body Language: 4 Steps To Successfully Mirror Others.
Some individuals find it challenging to understand the concept of working together because self-sufficiency is foundational in their native society. This is very true in certain Asian countries where self-sufficiency is highly valued and expected. Other cultures may rely more heavily on teamwork and community to solve problems, and these individuals prefer working together. Understand that besides an individual’s personality, cultural influence may inform how a person works to get the job done
Tip: Dig deeper to find out more about the person’s work style and why they prefer it. You may learn that they have incorrect assumptions about expectations. Then level up your understanding of yourself and others with the OCEAN personality test. It will help you meet people where they’re at and optimize your interactions. Feel free to send this test to a colleague and have them screenshot their results. Then compare and contrast with yours!
5. Eating & drinking
Eating and drinking are important parts of society and relationship building. Understanding the customs prevents career-damaging faux pas. Consider these cultural practices:
- Some Russian and Asian families focus on food, and conversation occurs on post-meal activity. However, in Japan, it is customary to conduct business over dinner.
- In Middle East and Asian cultures, people generally eat with their hands, but only with the right hand, as eating with the left is considered disrespectful and unhygienic.
- Chopsticks are used for eating Chinese cuisine but should never be used to point, a sign of disrespect.
- In some countries, like Russia, Greece, and Italy, the host may be offended if you don’t eat enough of the bounty they’ve provided.
Tip: Grasping the table manners and traditions around food and drink is a big undertaking. But you can take small steps toward understanding by asking your colleagues about traditions. Articles and forums on sites like Rick Steves, Frommers, and Trip Advisor can also provide great insight.
Gestures acceptable in the United States, such as talking during a business lunch, crossing your legs, or giving a thumbs-up sign, may not go over well in other cultures. Look at some of the more common ones to prevent running into trouble:
- Giving the ok sign by making a circle with your first finger and thumb is like giving someone the middle finger in Brazil.
- Don’t point with your index finger in Malaysia. Instead, point with your right thumb to be on the safe side.
- In Spain and Italy, avoid the “hang loose”—thumb and pinky in the air with the other three fingers folded down—and “rock on”—with the index finger and pinky because the sign symbolizes a husband whose wife is unfaithful.
- In Thailand, don’t touch someone’s head or point the feet. They consider the head the most sacred part of the body, so avoid touching someone else’s. The feet are the dirtiest part of the body, and pointing a toe or foot can be insulting.
- Avoid motioning to a person with your hand in the Philipines, either with a single finger or with the whole hand, palm up. They consider it demeaning because it’s how people summon dogs.
- Don’t cross your legs in the Middle East or South Africa because the sole of your foot might show (and that’s considered rude!)
Tip: If you find yourself in any of these situations with coworkers, consider whether a cultural difference is in play.
Learn more about how to greet people (Should I bow or offer a handshake?) and the Gestures You Shouldn’t Be Making Abroad.
Verbal Communication Differences
In addition to the words chosen, tone, speed, and volume can affect communication. This can vary across cultures, although this is still an emerging research area as the importance of cross-cultural communication increases.
Why do some people speak quickly while others speak more slowly? It could have to do with their native language. One study looked at 17 spoken languages and ranked them from fastest to slowest. This is what they found:
- Japanese (fastest)
- Mandarin Chinese
- Thai (slowest)
While this study is pretty limited, it is interesting to think about what culture has on how slowly or quickly you speak.
For fun, you may find it interesting to gather a few colleagues and look at how your speaking rates vary.
- Choose a few short paragraphs from your company’s website or human resources manual.
- Count the words.
- Time yourself reading that passage.
- Take the number of words by the time it took you to say them. The answer is your speaking rate, or words per minute (wpm).
- Compare your rate with your coworkers. Is it the same, slower, or faster?
- Discuss your thoughts about whether your cultural background affects your speech.
Each language has slang or idioms that are unique to it. When working with people from diverse backgrounds, speaking in plain, easily understandable language is essential, and this can be accomplished by focusing on readability.
One way to ensure the reading level of your document will work for your audience is to use a readability checker or Microsoft Word‘s readability tool. Aim for a 10th-grade reading level for general business writing and an 8th-grade reading level if your audience is the general public.
Additionally, when developing a brand identity, it’s crucial to explore how the name, keywords, and phrases translate into other languages to avoid embarrassing or offensive word choices. Want to confirm that a word doesn’t have an unwanted meaning in another language? Use a word checker.
Cultural Contrasts in Group Dynamics
Besides verbal and non-verbal communication, individuals with varied experiences may have a unique approach to workplace situations. It’s important to note that some responses are based on personality rather than culture.
People from different backgrounds may have different expectations about collaboration. In hierarchical cultures like China, India, Italy, Mexico, Morocco, and Russia, good managers are the ones to make decisions and tell staff how to do the work. Countries like Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and Sweden encourage collaboration and aim for consensus before moving forward.
Depending on your team’s cultural influences, you may need to ask for input from specific team members who may think their voice is unimportant or that only the manager provides direction and ideas.
Americans, Australians, Germans, and Anglo-Canadians tend to be direct and unafraid to express different viewpoints in one-on-one meetings. They tend to see honest and frank discussions as efficient and effective for problem-solving.
Other cultures consider this approach rude or offensive and prefer more indirect communication. Countries such as Japan, China, India, and Saudi Arabia prefer discrete problem-solving one-on-one or in writing to avoid potential embarrassment for either party.
Task-oriented vs. relationship-oriented
In project teams, cultural differences may occur because they prioritize tasks or relationships. For example, Asian and Hawaiian cultures first build relationships and then focus on tasks. In contrast, many European cultures are the opposite and work on the project first and let the relationship develop over time. Neither way is right or wrong—they’re just different approaches.
Other Types of Cultural Impacts
In addition to the various backgrounds of employees in a diverse workplace, there are three other types of diversity to consider.
There are many ages in today’s workplace, and each generation brings unique ideas about what is professional, the best way to collaborate, how to dress, what good communication is, and what they can expect from an employer.
There’s a lot to learn about each one, so we’ve provided this overview below.
|Generation||What they value||Communication-style||Motivated by…|
|Gen Z (born after 2000)||Direct, fun communication via anything tech-related||Fast (because they have short attention spans)||Individuality, creativity, and diversity,|
|Millennials (1980-2000)||Self-expression||Brainstorm together||Responsibility & unique work experiences|
|Gen Xers (born 1965 to 1979)||Shared responsibility||Focus on their needs||Work-life balance; personal and professional interests over the company’s interests|
|Boomers (born 1946 to 1964)||Respect and tradition||Respect their experience and opinions||Company loyalty, teamwork, and duty|
|Silent (born before 1946)||Enjoy life and share experiences||Listen and learn||Enjoying life|
Read our handy guide, How to Communicate with Any Generation, to learn what each generation values and tips for communicating with each one!
An individual’s preferred religious affiliation can significantly impact their value system. This can affect their perception of what is acceptable or not. It can also affect how they dress, express themselves, the holidays they celebrate, and their ethics. Honor and respect the different faiths represented by your team. One simple way is to say “Happy Holidays” or “Have a blessed holiday season” instead of saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Kwanza.”
Many companies have staff with various educational backgrounds. While this is necessary to achieve business goals, not everyone comes from the same place of comprehension. And sometimes, this means not everyone understands complex or challenging concepts.
To avoid confusion, break down steps and information into easily digestible pieces. Limiting the use of jargon and acronyms and other “inside baseball” terms is also helpful. Check out 10 Effective Ways You Can Improve Your Communication Skills to ensure you get your point across to individuals across cultures and backgrounds.
How to Build Cultural Intelligence
Cultural intelligence (CQ) is the capacity to work effectively with people from any culture. Building and developing CQ is important because it allows people to function better while working alongside each other.
Understand your cultural history
Take 15 minutes to do a mental inventory of your background. Did you grow up with a strong ethnic influence, such as in the movies Mamma Mia, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and West Side Story? Were there obvious cultural differences between you and your friends? Were these positive or negative experiences? Do you have friends of different cultures?
If you have an hour: Consider calling a parent or older relative and asking them how they saw the heritage play out in the family dynamics.
If you want to dig deeper: Research your roots through Ancestry.com or 23andme.com to find out specifics of where your ancestors originated from and find resources and news clippings about your relatives and the region.
Explore your cultural biases
If you have 30 minutes: Look for specific ways in which your background and experiences have influenced your perspective on other cultures or societies. Think about what attitudes and approaches have influenced you.
Do you have friends with different backgrounds?
Are you open to original foods and languages?
Do you have opinions or biases about different cultures?
Recognize that not everyone from a specific culture thinks or acts the same, so be careful not to make generalizations or judgments based on one person.
Be curious about others
If you have an hour: Visit a local ethnic restaurant outside and notice the types of food, specific spices, the decor, and the body language of other diners.
If you have a day: Many larger cities have neighborhoods where groups of people from the same ethnic backgrounds live, play, and work. You can find Little Bangladesh, Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Armenia, Little Italy, Greektown, and other enclaves in Los Angeles. Take a few hours to walk around and observe the sights and sounds. Even better, ask a friend or coworker to introduce you to their neighborhood, place of worship, or favorite community center.
Immerse yourself in different cultures
If you have 15 minutes: Read an ethnic newspaper, like one of those listed by the Harvard Library.
If you have several months: Learn a new language. With all the apps available these days, it’s easy to access a language program that works with your time, schedule, budget, and smartphone. Check out this list of the 7 best language apps out now.
If you have time and money: Visit a new country and stay with a host family to see what the culture is like. Go to a local grocery store. Ask about how they do laundry. Take public transit.
6 Strategies for Navigating Cultural Differences (As a Manager)
As a leader, you can set the organizational tone by expressing genuine interest in your employee and the cultures they bring to the office, which builds connection and trust within the workplace. Doing this work can minimize harmful or embarrassing situations for your employees and your organization.
1. Learn about your employees
Get to know your employees and the unique experiences they bring to the workplace. By learning a little more about their background, you can begin to understand how their culture influences their work styles and preferences, behaviors, and communication. Proactively educate your office or team about the cultural differences within the workplace.
Try one of these CQ-building activities.:
- Sit down with each employee individually to learn if they are open to sharing their background. Be sensitive to the fact that not everyone feels comfortable opening up to their boss or team.
- Ask each team member to take a few minutes at the next staff meeting to describe a favorite custom or food.
- Have your team bring a picture of a relative in traditional dress—or if your office dresses up on Halloween, suggest that each person dresses as their ancestor.
- Ask for suggestions from restaurants that serve food from around the world and plan a quarterly lunch.
- Learn about treasured holiday celebrations and ask your staff to share the meaning or significance of the day or event.
2. Improve cultural awareness
Conflict at work can arise for many different reasons. Often, they are unintentional because of different cultural expectations. Help bring awareness and understanding to your teams to resolve and minimize these misunderstandings and conflicts. Encourage people to ask questions to understand each other and their individual experiences.
3. Show cultural appreciation
Cultural diversity improves workplace performance, so celebrate it by showing appreciation for the diverse experiences and cultures your employees bring to the office. Ask employees to share their foods, arts, and holiday traditions with the team.
4. Offer training
Allowing employees to attend diversity training can help create a more understanding and inclusive workplace that helps employees work with people with various cultural experiences.
5. Be more self-aware
Do you know what cultural norms you are operating under? Are there things you bring to the workplace from your family or the region where you grew up? By understanding who you are and what drives you, you can be more sensitive to the cultures of others.
6. Build up your team
Trust and communication are the foundation of high-performing, functional teams. A great way to manage cultural differences in the office is to build your team so that individuals feel safe expressing themselves, their values, and their beliefs. This strengthens relationships, builds empathy and understanding, and breaks down barriers.
Some favorite team-building games include:
- This or That
- Apples to Apples
- Code Name
Other fun activities include food because who doesn’t like to eat? Consider hosting a potluck, offering a cooking class, or catering a great meal.
Find a great list of 12 Non-Awkward Team Building Activities That Build Trust for more inspiration.
Summary of Cultural Influence in the Workplace
- Cultural differences in the workplace can take many forms. Understand the various verbal and non-verbal communication modes to work more effectively in various environments.
- Recognize that the cultural influences of different countries can impact how we address conflict, take risks, accept organizational structure, and work with others. Generational, educational, and religious differences can also affect how individuals interact.
- Learning about a new idea, experience, or cultural norm can be enriching. Exposing yourself to a different thought or viewpoint can help you understand your employee and how to motivate them.
- Be humble, and don’t be afraid to ask sincere questions. Learning about other cultures and background takes an open heart and mind. Try phrases such as “I’m curious about…” or “I watched a movie about [insert name of country], and I’m curious about whether that is accurate. Do you have any experience with that region?”
- To create a culturally affirming workplace, learn about others, dispel myths and stereotypes about different cultures, embrace each other’s unique operating system, and celebrate the range of experiences.
- Don’t make assumptions about a person’s culture by accent, skin tone, or last name. Rather than guessing about a colleague’s history, get to know them and understand what values they bring to the office.
If you liked this article, you might like the Ultimate Guide to Body Language.