Communication – the cultural perspective

Eximia Comms | Communication | Employee Comms

The art of communication:

Whether you’re trained in the art of communication or not, we all partake in conversation and adopt certain characteristics due to our influences (parenting, education, peer network etc). It’s so important to appreciate that these influences result in us being programmed differently. So, when we roll out a communications campaign, or even write an email to an international colleague, to increase success, we must stop and consider these cultural characteristics.  

This month I attended a seminar with DLA Piper as part of its ‘WIN Future Legal Leaders 2017’ event series, lead by Keith Warburton, Global Business Culture. It was of great value to my path of continuous learning, so I thought I’d share some key takeaways.


Key takeaways:

The training session delved into the deep impact global cultural differences can have when we work in a cross-border environment. Keith brought this session to life using a number of examples where key day-to-day areas were affected by cultural differences – meeting styles, decision-making processes, style of legal advice, corporate structures, management approach, ethics and communication styles.


Complexities of cultural variations – examples:

(1) Solo versus Team:

In many countries in the Western world, children are developed on the basis of being individualistic, problem solving on their own. However, in many parts of Asia, children are encouraged to work in teams to problem solve. Therefore, suggested business solutions are often affected by this clear divergence.

(2) Business versus Relationships:

In many Western societies, it’s a business first approach, where product, price and delivery are the focus. However, in many Asian countries, business isn’t even a consideration until relationships are formed. The latter will only become more prevalent as globalisation develops.   

Where do you think the UK sits? Solo and Business? How is this perceived by those who adopt a Team and Relationships philosophy?

Be conscious of this and also remember, there’s always some that sit on the periphery and don’t conform to such national characteristics.


Communication styles:

(1) Truth versus Diplomacy:

“The work so far is off target and needs a re-think” versus “I really like what you’ve done so far – with a little more work we’re almost there”.

Whilst some would speak the truth, others are more inclined to adopt a diplomatic approach. The latter often sees the former as often abrupt and rude – but if communication is in English and is not an individual’s native language, then it can simply sometimes be linguistic limitations that create this perception. On the other hand, diplomacy can often create confusion.

(2) Literal versus Coded speech:

“That’s a great idea” versus “That’s an interesting idea”.

The latter can often be taken either way so can prove highly confusing, especially if English is not your first language.

(3) Emotion versus Reserve:

For those with reserve, emotion is often taken as a sign that somebody’s lost the plot, whilst to emotionally led people, those who are reserved can often be seen as uninterested.

(4) Serious versus Humour:

Whilst humour often acts as a tension release mechanism or ‘ice-breaker’, humour doesn’t always travel well, especially in the form of sarcasm or irony. When this is not face-to-face, it becomes even harder without tone and facial expressions. In fact, this can be taken as a sign of dishonesty when it’s interpreted as saying the opposite of what is meant.

(5) Self-promotion versus Self-deprecation:

“My project went really well” versus “I’m not sure I couldn’t have done more to improve the outcome”. If the latter is looking for validation of the work they’ve done then this is often lost on the self-promoter type and again it’s seen as saying the opposite of what is meant.


Which of the characteristics do you think is easier to work with?

Truth, Literal, Emotion, Serious, Self-promotion


Diplomacy, Coded speech, Reserve, Humour, Self-deprecation


And where do you think the UK sits?

If it’s the latter combination, is it any wonder other cultures find the UK the most difficult communicators?

The UK is one of the only countries that exhibits all of these complex characteristics, and yet the British generally believe they are great communicators.


Now take the following traits into account and we create further difficulty

(1) Speed – speak slowly and allow more time for meetings. More breaks and shorter meetings help as working in a second language is far more tiring.

(2) Vocabulary – if you have to refer to a thesaurus to find a good word, then imagine what that will mean for those where English isn’t their first language, so keep it simple and avoid colloquialisms.

(3) Abbreviations – Latin abbreviations are not universal so avoid these where possible.

(4) Grammar – keep sentence structure simple and easy to interpret.

(5) Questions – when you have these for somebody that speaks English as a second language, allow them time to think of an answer and translate it – a little silence is actually ok.


If you’ve found this interesting, then check out these in-depth country-by-country business-focused information sheets for greater insight and cultural awareness:

Keith: “If culture eats strategy for breakfast, then local culture eats corporate culture for breakfast.”


The challenge is on:

Intuitively we all know the answers to the challenges posed, but we quite often fail to apply it consistently in the busy working environment we operate in.

Cultural problems aren’t always seen as a focus and issue until there’s a problem. I challenge you to work to avoid such problems – think about the above points the next time you write an email or communicate using other channels across various cultures and asses it to see if it is truly accessible and mindful of our huge cultural diversity.

Also, try to remember that 75%-80% of communication is non-verbal, so emails and calls internationally are problematic. Consider video calls to bring in the human element and facial expressions.

Have self-awareness and apply the knowledge – your actions will affect the outcome of any situation.


Culturally Communicating:

Want to create an international communications campaign that is both creative and adopts these principles? Want help? Let’s talk!

EXIMIA is a creative communications agency founded by a corporate, for corporates. The team combines first-hand experience alongside creativity and marketing nous to ensure communicating with your key stakeholders is easy, efficient and effective.

phone Call us on 020 7420 1984 or send us a message

    This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.


    Get unmissable insights


    Everything you need to know about communicating share plans and rewards, delivered straight to your inbox! Sign up to never miss out on the latest industry news and insights. Delivered monthly, unsubscribe at any time.