8 Keys to Communicating Across Cultures with Credibility

Published: Jan 27, 2022
Modified: Apr 08, 2024


Every successful organization depends on effective communication—at all levels and with all stakeholders. And in today’s business world and workplace, effective communication depends on being sensitive to different cultures.

Most business leaders acknowledge the importance of cultural awareness when communicating with team members or other collaborators, whether face-to-face or screen-to-screen. This isn’t only because of increased globalization, but also because their domestic workforce is growing more and more diverse, ethnically and beyond. Yet, even leaders with the best of intentions often grapple with how to navigate the various cultures among their people to get their messages across with clarity and impact, and avoid saying something that might be misinterpreted or, worse, be perceived as offensive.

Communicating with credibility, diplomacy, and tact can distinguish you as a true professional. As a global leader in professional development, American Management Association (AMA) recognizes a critical component of those hallmarks of an accomplished communicator: cultural competence.

How do you become more culturally competent? Developing the ability to recognize cultural differences and respond to them appropriately starts with knowing what “culture” is. Culture doesn’t only mean a person’s national origin or heritage; often, two people from the same country identify with different cultures. Beyond surface traits, culture is a set of values, beliefs, behaviors, customs, and attitudes shared by a group whose members might also share the same ethnicity, race, religion, or sexual orientation. While some of a culture’s philosophies, principles, practices, and attitudes are taught explicitly, most of the information is absorbed subconsciously. To further complicate matters, we are all individuals, and no two people belonging to the same culture are guaranteed to respond in exactly the same way. However, generalizations are valid to the extent that they provide clues on what you will most likely encounter when dealing with members of a particular culture.

To help you strengthen and improve your cultural competence, the experts at AMA highlight eight keys and offer some helpful steps to take:

  1. Self-knowledge. Everyone has biases—it’s part of being human. Cultural competence requires recognizing your own biases and how they affect your behavior. For example, do you ever catch yourself having an automatic reaction to someone based on preconceived notions or stereotypes?
  2. Self-regulation. Once you acknowledge your unconscious biases, then make a conscious choice not to let them cloud your judgement or dictate your actions. In many cases, the best option is to simply speak and act as if biases don’t exist. Just communicate the way you would, with clarity and professionalism, as if there were no cultural differences.
  3. Timing. Hit the pause button. Slow down and check any culture-related assumptions you might be making about someone before you speak or act.
  4. Common ground. It’s not uncommon for people of different cultures who work together to share common interests. You might connect over your mutual passion for a project or fascination with an emerging trend in your field.
  5. Interpersonal sensitivity. How good are you at picking up on someone’s verbal and non-verbal cues, and adjusting your behavior as needed? When communicating with anyone, and especially with someone from a different culture, it’s crucial to be able to “read” and respond appropriately to others’ feelings and circumstances.
  6. Empathy. When someone from a different culture feels misunderstood or overlooked, try to build greater empathy for their situation. Letting someone vent their frustration and really listening is a good place to start.
  7. Flexibility. People from different cultures frequently have different approaches to solving problems and different perspectives on issues. Strive to be open to hearing them with an unbiased ear, and be flexible about accepting opinions that challenge your own.
  8. Curiosity. Every culture has its own customs, beliefs, and traditions. When you’re genuinely curious about other cultures and communicate that in a respectful way, people tend to respond positively and feel valued. And you’re bound to learn something new and interesting in return!

Communicating effectively across cultures isn’t just a business necessity. Developing your cultural competence offers a powerful opportunity for greater professional success and a wonderful way to improve your workplace relationships.

About AMA

American Management Association (AMA) is globally recognized as a leader in professional development. For nearly 100 years, it has helped millions of people bring about positive change in their performance in order to improve results. AMA’s learn-by-doing instructor-led methods, extensive content, and flexible learning formats are proven effective—and constantly evolve to meet the changing needs of individuals and organizations. To learn more, visit www.amanet.org.