Cross Cultural Communication in the Workplace
As Canada becomes a multi-cultural society, it is
Culture is communication , according to Edward T.
increasingly important to be sensitive to cross
Hall, a pioneer in the exploration of cultural impact.
cultural issues that may arise in the workplace.
Through our verbal communication and non-verbal
behaviours, we convey the norms of our culture. A
When we encounter someone who acts outside of
firm handshake is an acceptable greeting in North
one of our cultural norms, we often assume the
America whereas a bow is customary in parts of
problem is one of ignorance. If the behaviour
Asia. In the West, direct eye contact is a generally
persists, we may suspect that person has a personal
accepted sign of trustworthiness and someone may
issue. Eventually, we entertain the possibility that
be deemed shifty if they fail to make eye contact.
the person is operating from a different set of rules.
For aboriginal Canadians however, and in some
For example, in North America, we place a lot of
Middle Eastern countries, direct eye contact is
importance on time and punctuality is revered. We
regarded as disrespectful and improper.
rely heavily on day planners and electronic
schedulers; the retirement watch is often the parting
Context is a useful frame work to think about cross
gift to symbolize the end of a successful career.
cultural communication. Hall describes Western
Common expressions in our language include spend
culture as low context in that we rely heavily on
time , kill time , waste time, do time , time is
words to make our messages direct and explicit. In
money , one thing at a time , etc. Consider then the
high context cultures, there is greater reliance on
example of an employee new to Canada who
non-verbal cues and the context in which the
routinely arrives late for work. Initially, we may
communication is occurring. Western culture
assume that he or she is not aware of the expectation
emphasizes rational thought processes and there are
of starting on time. If the lateness persists, we may
many cultures that rely more on intuition than logic.
begin to suspect that a personal failing is responsible
Our low context society focuses on individual
for the tardiness such as laziness, disregard for rules,
fulfillment and our strongest ties are generally
or even an addiction. When the employee is finally
limited to immediate family. In high context cultures
confronted about the issue of being late, it only then
in other parts of the world, people fulfill roles as part
becomes clear that for that person, their concern for
of their societal group and decision-making is made
supporting relationship is more important than their
as a group and community. Family affiliation
concern about time .
includes extended family.
According to Statistics Canada, in 1981, visible minorities represented 4.7% of Canada s total population.
By 2006, the number had grown to 16.2%. If the current immigration trend continues, visible minority
groups could account for about one-fifth of the total population by 2017. The vast majority (95.9%) of
visible minorities reside in metropolitan areas. More than half (54.2%) of Canada s visible minority
population resides in Ontario.
Permission to photocopy with credit given to Kylene Dube, MSW, RSW, Program Manager
FSEAP Thames Valley.
Cross Cultural Communication in the Workplace (continued)
In work settings, it may be helpful to consider
other critical factors: family constellation, life
whether employees or business associates are
experience, education, world events, and pop culture
affiliated with low context or high context culture.
during formative years. It is important to be curious
For instance, by Canadian standards, job applicants
and ask what is important to the person, how would
are expected to promote themselves explicitly and
they know they had done a good job, how does
by detailing their skills. An applicant from China or
learning and communication work best for them.
Japan may be uncomfortable with this process as
To reduce the possibility of misunderstanding in
accomplishments are most often attributed to group
cross-cultural communication, the following
efforts. The interview may be culturally biased if it
suggestions may be helpful:
does not take into account the person s skill set in
relation to their country of origin experience.
Do not make assumptions
Similarly, a Canadian may get frustrated when doing
business with someone from the Far East who insists
on consulting with colleagues before making a
Treat people with respect
decision. The delay may be misconstrued as a
pressure tactic rather than reflecting a cultural
Seek understanding and common interests
Although there are obvious challenges associated
When considering the role of culture in an
with cross-cultural communication at work, diversity
individual s frame of reference, it is equally
brings with it opportunities for innovation and the
important to remember that values and
possibility of expanded opportunities.
communication style are influenced by a number of
Some of the following tips may be useful when communicating with someone from a different culture. Be
especially vigilant when communicating by telephone, paper, or e-mail where the person does not see you and
cannot ask for immediate clarification.
Use short, clear simple sentences.
Speak at a normal speed.
Confirm comprehension by asking What do you understand? rather than Do you understand? The person may
answer yes to be polite. Paraphrasing can lead to similar misunderstandings.
Do not raise your voice they can hear you.
Avoid sports English.
Define the meaning of important technical words at the beginning.
Avoid creating new words such as Doable, Google, etc.
Avoid double negatives and Isn t it? questions.
Beware of differences in the various forms of English (British, American, Australian, etc.).
Be patient and do not interrupt.
Talk about the process of communication and examine barriers. Ask What is going on here and check assumptions.
Respect differences; do not judge others based on style of speaking or accent.
If you are angry, try to calm down before listening.
Empathize with what the other person may be thinking or feeling.
Listen to understand rather than reply. Try to help the speaker feel at ease.
Mutale Chanda, Workplace Discrimination, 1986
Edward T. Hall, Understanding Cultural Differences,
Lionel Laroche, Hiring the Best Taking Cultural
Intercultural Press, 1990
Differences into Consideration. ITAP International
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