Managing Cross Cultural Communication

Published on December 3rd, 2021

Is this article ‘quite good’? How should I respond if it is ‘quite good’? According to the linguist, Prof. Ron Scollon, language is a poor tool for the job it’s supposed to do – communicate a message. In fact, as a tool, it’s quite good.  

That’s the problem, isn’t it? ‘Quite good’ can mean ‘needs improvement’; or it can mean, ‘excellent’. It all depends on how you say it and what your cultural expectation of ‘good’ is. If someone sitting next to you in a coffee shop remarks, ‘It’s quite warm in here!’ would you agree politely and get on with whatever you were doing, start up a friendly conversation, or would you get up and open the window or turn the air conditioning up? 

If you prefer video over text, we made a short under 5 min video for you:

Communication and culture

I’m writing in English (the language where though, rough, ought, brought are written the same but are all pronounced differently) but there are equivalents in every language. The challenge is that communication is deeply grounded in culture. In fact, the study of culture began as a study of communication. E. T. Hall, the anthropologist and grandfather of cultural studies titled his research into cultural differences, The Silent Language.  

Although he wasn’t the first, he is the best-known of those who noticed that words and meaning do not always align. He documented the differences into what we now recognize as one of the key cultural dimensions – explicit-implicit. Understanding your own style and identifying the style other people are comfortable with will make a huge difference to your understanding of others. And understanding others will help you make your messages clearer. And that means you can save a huge amount of time, effort and stress by reducing that awful email table tennis when you try to hammer home your point to someone who appears to be deliberately misunderstanding you. 

Explicit vs. implicit communication

Let’s have a look at the two styles in a bit more detail. 

An explicit style is characterized by directness. In most cases, the words convey the intended meaning, and the choice of words is important. To reduce confusion, explicit communicators will probably use a lot of words and give plenty of details. At the extreme end, this can mean that you won’t hear many unnecessary politeness indicators, such as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. When giving feedback, an explicit communicator won’t tone it down or consider mitigating the impact of their words.

An explicit communicator will often seem rude and brutal to an implicit communicator. They can seem obsessed with details and be accused of micromanaging. They will keep sending messages or speaking until they are absolutely sure that the message has got through.

An implicit communicator relies much more on the context around the actual words to infer meaning. Not just body language, but the imprecise hmms and ahhs that you can hear in conversation can be loaded with meaning and importance. The relationship between the two communicators also has an impact on how the implicit communicator derives meaning, their shared history and power relationship. Silence is just as important as saying something.

An implicit communicator will most likely speak less as they will hope that their counterpart can understand everything they need to from the subtle hints and implied meanings. But this can mean that they can be perceived as deceitful or holding back important information. They can appear shy or reticent to share.

Humor is another way to distinguish between the two styles. An explicit communicator will prefer puns and plays on words; an implicit communicator will gain pleasure from irony and sarcasm.

Style switching

These descriptions obviously describe the extremes of the scale, and in reality, we all use both styles in different situations – a family is more likely to communicate implicitly as there are so many shared understandings and commonalities that there is no need to repeat the full detail each time; a broadcast or lecture is likely to be more explicit as the audience is much less involved and may have little shared ground with the speaker. A mother who speaks at large events regularly will switch between the two styles quite often! 

Once you can recognize the styles, it makes it easier for you to ensuring that you don’t miss the opportunity to maximize the potential for understanding. We can never guarantee that people listening to us understand what we want to say in the way we intended to be understood. Everything goes through our cultural filter but being aware of the cultural styles will help us see the gaps in understanding. Our internal alarms bells will ring when we start thinking that someone is being rude or deliberately holding back. 

Culturally intelligent communication

There are some very simple things we can do right now to raise our cultural intelligence when communicating. 

Firstly, as I mentioned above, learn about your own communication style. Read the descriptions and work out which is your default – if you’re not sure, ask your friends and co-workers. Which style do you resort to when you are under pressure or stressed? That is the one that is most likely to be your most frequent style – the one you use without even thinking about it. 

Secondly, look for and listen or the clues that tell you how the people around you are communicating. Don’t expect them to be consistent, but you can usually tell. If you think someone is being more implicit, then you may need to ask more questions to clarify. Using a question funnel to follow up:  

  • General open questions (what, when, how, why, where?) – these help you get the general idea of what is going on and get the speaker to rephrase what they are talking about. 
  • Specific open questions – using the same principle but drilling down into the specific area you want clarification. 
  • Closed questions (Do you? Will they? Did she? Etc.) – these help you finalize your understanding by questioning a specific detail and requesting a specific response.  

A question filter, combined with great active listening will help you transform your understanding in cross cultural situations. 

And finally, for explicit communicators, don’t rush to fill silences. Silences not only have meaning, but they are usually filled with additional detail. And implicit communicators might consider using encouraging phrases if they are expecting a response before the silence becomes uncomfortable. 

When we are born, we take our first breath and from that moment onwards, everything we do is communicating. It’s a bit of a surprise that it’s something we are not particularly good at it, but it’s not too difficult to make a significant difference to our ability to communicate effectively. 

WRITTEN BY MATTHEW MACLACHLAN

Matthew MacLachlan is a well published, leading expert in the field of cultural intelligence, global leadership and organisational development.


We’ve got over 28 years of experience supporting over 1 million people worldwide. We’re passionate about delivering change; how can we help you?