Beyond Language: Communication Across Cultures


One thing that many people first assume when starting their journey toward cultural competence is that language is the only element of communication. However, communication depends highly on cultural preferences, specifically the interaction style preferences. Communication varies so much by culture, it is just as important to learn about a person’s interaction style as it is to learn their language.

Let’s take this as an example of how the cultural element of interaction style influences communication: A New Zealand accounts manager moved to Mexico to manage her company’s sales team in the country. She was about to hold her first meeting, and had some concerns about the content, flow and setup of the session. Should she expect the meeting to start on time and follow the agenda she prepared? Would everyone speak, or should she invite certain participants to give their opinion? How would the team make decisions and handle conflict? All of these questions not only involve language but knowledge of local interaction style preferences.

Through the Cultural Navigator, the accounts manager learned that the Mexican interaction style is more fluid and that people in the country tend to favor a loose definition of punctuality. Therefore, in the Mexican business sphere, if someone is late to a meeting, it is not because of a lack of respect, as it may be perceived to be by someone from a culture with a more fixed time preference, like New Zealand’s. She also learned about the hierarchy and indirect preferences in Mexico, which helped her predict how attendees would participate in the meeting and how they would handle any possible conflict.

Here is another example of the need to understand culture when it comes to communication: A Japanese businessman was working in Britain. His level of English was advanced. However, during a meeting with his clients, they asked him a question to which he did not know the answer, and he was too embarrassed to tell them he needed to do some research before providing them with the answer. This stems from the highly indirect interaction style preference in Japan, by which people try hard to avoid negating proposals or conveying bad news. The businessman became so nervous he could barely speak. 

He used this uncomfortable situation as a catalyst to begin his cultural competence journey, specifically focusing on the role of culture in communication. With his cultural coach, he used role-playing situations, and eventually became more comfortable saying things like, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have the answer right now, but I will get back to you tomorrow.” This made the difference between him staying on his assignment or returning to Japan.

One of the pitfalls many people face in multi-cultural situations is that they assume language is all there is to communication. By learning about other cultures’ interaction style preferences around communication, people can maximize exchanges, leading to successful collaborations.