Where can cross-cultural communication skills be particularly important? – Feedback

Published on March 30th, 2022

This blog is the third part of the series on cross-cultural communication where we’re answering the question – where can cross-cultural communication skills be particularly important. 


Communication skills are at the heart of giving feedback effectively. And when discussing your team members’ job performance, cross-cultural communication skills become absolutely essential for leaders. To support the work of your employees and team members, you need to understand the feedback process within a cultural framework. 

The attitude of different cultures towards feedback and criticism

In their book ‘Navigating Multicultural Teams: A Road Map to Feedback Across Cultures’, Moukarzel and Steelman identified three categories that represent cultural norms and which can affect the feedback process:  

  • Relationships among people  
  • Strategy  
  • Relation to the broad environment.   

These shape employees’ motives to ask for feedback, the type of feedback that will be valued, and whether it will be effective and result in better performance.   

People with a relationship cultural orientation are rooted in respect towards authority and hierarchy. They are less likely to ask for feedback from their superiors directly. Instead, they might rely on looking for hints and indirect messages since they might see asking for direct feedback as questioning their superior’s competence. A leader from an individualistic culture might perceive not seeking feedback as a lack of motivation.   

In individualist cultures, relationships are often seen as a doorway to achieving personal goals. Team members from such cultures will be more open to seeking and accepting feedback that focuses on their individual performance as they see that information as valuable for achieving those personal goals. On the other hand, people coming from group cultures might find feedback on their personal performance uncomfortable. They are more interested in what is important for the whole group and if what is being done is beneficial for the whole team.  

Since people coming from collectivist- and relationship-oriented cultures highly value harmony and ‘face’, they will interact with people in a way that preserves everyone’s reputation and will expect the same from others. They would experience receiving criticism in public as unrepairable harm to their reputation. If you’re a leader from U.S. or U.K., more individualist and task-oriented cultures, you probably don’t perceive feedback as something potentially harmful to your reputation. Without cross-cultural communication skills and understanding of relationship-oriented cultures, you could overlook this employee’s need to receive feedback in private and risk their reputation and potentially lose a highly competent employee. 

Explicit vs implicit communication styles and delivering feedback

Edward Hall, an anthropologist and pioneer of intercultural communication studies, was one of the first researchers who noticed that the words we use to convey a message and their meaning don’t always align. Something that clearly means “no” in one culture may sound like “maybe” or even “yes” in another. Today, we understand these differences as two cultural preferences in communication – implicit and explicit. 

The explicit versus implicit style of communication is a key factor in understanding how different cultures deliver feedback. An explicit communicator will use specific words and rarely leave room for interpretation. In fact, many Western cultures believe in something called ‘absolute truth’ and believe that it should be told. Therefore, the convention stipulates that communication should be explicit and messages clear, direct and unambiguous. However, in cultures that value implicit communication – like many Asian and Middle Eastern cultures – there is no such thing as ‘absolute truth’. Decency, good relationships and ‘saving face’ are considered higher value. Implicit communicators will rely much more on non-verbal cues, gestures and even silence to send the message. 

Culture greatly influences how managers around the world give feedback. Americans are trained to use the ‘feedback sandwich’, also known as wrapping positive comments around negative ones. Germans appreciate honesty and will use direct language to make sure the message is clear. The Chinese, however, know to deliver criticism in private, using indirect language and, often, metaphors.

Culturally intelligent communication and cross-cultural communication skills for giving feedback effectively across cultures

Cultural intelligence gives us the knowledge and awareness of different cultural preferences when it comes to communication and receiving feedback. It helps us to understand our own style and teaches us to identify the style of other people. This allows us to adapt and deliver the message in the way that is most comfortable to others. In the end, isn’t that what matters the most? To be able to convey the message so that it is clear, accepted and leads to the desired result.  

You should never assume that your style will be successful in any culture, just because it has always been successful in yours. Be prepared, learn about new cultures and their codes and conventions of appropriate communication. Be curious, observe and ask questions to reach a deeper understanding. This doesn’t mean that you have to completely change your style to accommodate the difference. Try and develop a new feedback style that will be a blend of what feels comfortable and natural to you and is also acceptable in the new business setting.  

Harvard Business Review recommends another tip to ensure your style fits the new setting – find a cultural mentor. Someone who is globally savvy or just has a lot of experience with working with that specific culture can help you develop a style that will work both for you and the new setting.

Training for high CQ and great cross-cultural communication skills

One of the best ways to start working on developing cross-cultural communication skills and cultural intelligence is through training. We designed Country Navigator’s Develop Your Cultural Intelligence Course specifically to equip learners with an understanding of the influence of culture on a person’s behavior and with skills to communicate and work effectively in cross-cultural settings.

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