How to communicate with people from other cultures

Despite the popularity of video-calling technology such as Skype, Facetime and Messenger, global business is still relying heavily on written communication to bring people from different time zones together. But the big question is are we communicating effectively? How to communicate with people from other cultures

The problem with written communication is we lose some of the advantages of a face-to-face or even a phone conversation. We do not see the people sending or receiving the message, nor do we even hear their voice. This leads to a lot of opportunities to misinterpret the tone or intention of a message and even how the receiver interpreted it.

It doesn’t mean the email or IM has to be the weakest link in global communication, but it does mean it needs greater attention – especially when communicating across different cultures.

Alyssa Bantle, our Intercultural and Language Services Curriculum Manager, says: “Before writing or even reading an email, it is important to consider the culture of the person you are communicating with. What type of communication do they respond best to? How might their cultural background affect the way they read or understand an email? If English is their second language, how can you make the message clearer and easier to understand?”

Here are Alyssa’s cultural tips on how to write, receive and respond to emails across different cultures:

Writing global emails

1. In some cultures like Hong Kong, IM is the norm between colleagues – even if they are only a few desks away. Try not to see this as ill-mannered or an indication of what they think of you.

2. Also, in many Asian cultures a detailed email is preferred to a phone call. The written format gives them a chance to really understand the content, and pull in anyone they need to make the decision, get the information from, etc. 

3. Many cultures prefer a pre-scheduled time or at least a quick check by IM or text to see if a phone call is not interrupting anything. 

4. With very relationship-oriented cultures like Brazil, Colombia or Italy, treat your written communication more like a face-to-face interaction versus a transaction or task to be completed. 

5. In many Latin American cultures like Mexico, communication is often wordy, indirect and formal. This is due to requiring more context and background when communicating. And also, indirectness and formality show respect and politeness in those cultures. 

6. Most importantly, always remember: norms are not absolutes. Never forget to consider each person and situation as unique and “new.”

Reading and responding to emails

1. You will save yourself lots of time and stress if you just give the writer the benefit of the doubt. Remember, they might not be native speakers. Even if someone has great English, those cultural nuances of the tone and wording of a message are so difficult to master. 

2. Tap into what you know about the communication norms of that culture and that person. If you do not know the cultural norms, look them up online (use a few sources and check they are reliable!) – or ask a friend or colleague who is from that culture or has worked with that culture. 

3. Use a different medium: if it was a series of IMs or texts, try an email where you can carefully craft the message. Or maybe this culture prefers face-to-face interactions. In that case you could try a video call or even just a phone call. 

4. If confused, admit it and ask for clarification. A great way of doing this is stating: “I want to make sure I understand correctly, could you explain/ do you mean?”

5. Many indirect cultures like India and Japan, value relationships, hierarchy and not losing face. As a result they tend not to give you a clear “no.” This is especially the case if you are the client, the boss or if they do not know you well. 

6. Bring culture and personal preferences into the conversation: it can be so helpful to just share what your communication style is and that you realize there are other equally valid ways. For example, admitting to a relationship-focused colleague from Spain that you tend to communicate in a direct manner, especially where there is an issue to resolve, can do wonders in taking the emotion and frustration out of a miscommunication.