Overview

03 Cross-Cultural Communication

Overview

Introducing Communication in a Cross-cultural Context
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Introduction

Imagine you are visiting a new country that’s quite different from the United States. Although you don’t speak the language and much of the culture is unfamiliar to you, in no time you’re communicating with your host.

Communicating across cultures can be exciting—each interaction is a new adventure. But adventures can also be a bit frightening and unsettling because you don’t know what’s coming next. Your expectations of what is normal paired with others’ preexisting ideas about Americans can lead to miscommunication and some difficult interactions. However, there are a number of things you can do to navigate through those moments more smoothly.

In this section, we’re going to focus on some of the common pitfalls that can occur as you communicate across cultures, as well as offer you some tips that can help you to engage with others more fully and respond to difficult questions effectively.

Context is Everything

Where you are and the situation you are in will set some of the rules around communicating. The following examples show some differences in what people expect across different cultures. What is normal in some cultures isn’t in others…

Communication Gone Wrong, 3 Examples

Scene 1:

An American woman is seated at a table at café in Latin America, waiting for friend. She keeps looking at the clock on the wall. A thought bubble appears above her head with text reading "She was supposed to be here an hour ago! Unbelievable!" Her friend finally shows up and says "Hey! You ordered for me. Thanks!" The American has an annoyed expression on her face, while her friend shows surprise at the annoyance.

Scene 2:

A Chinese businessman is in a formal meeting with an American businessman. The Chinese businessman says, "Sir, thank you for visiting. Please take my card" and offers his business card with two hands (a sign of respect). The American businessman casually takes it with one hand and puts it in his pocket, and does not offer a card in return. The American then says, "Well, see ya later!" The Chinese businessman appears very angry and offended. As the American turns around and walks away, a thought bubble appears above the Chinese businessman reading "He just took my card with one hand! No respect!"

Scene 3:

An American college student and Middle Eastern man are talking in a bar while another man plays pool nearby. The Middle Eastern man tells his friend "I must say, I'm very happy we've become friends." He then places his hand on his American friend's shoulder and says "Please, will you join my family for dinner tonight?" The American man then looks very uncomfortable.

What's normal in some cultures, isn't in others.

As you can see in each of these examples, differences in the cultural norms that surround communication—from expectations around time, to respectful greetings, to interpersonal space and touching—can lead to challenging exchanges.
In another culture your norms may appear odd to the people surrounding you. To diminish communication barriers, you might also consider adapting some of your own behaviors or adopting some new ones to interact more harmoniously with people from different cultures.
Much of your success in responding to difficult questions depends on your approach and your attitude towards cross-cultural communication.
Collage of greetings in different languages

The idea of a greeting is something that varies from place to place. Often this is not simply a verbal greeting like people in the United States are accustomed to. It could include a full report on the well-being of family members and various nonverbal rituals.

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It’s All About Your Attitude

Your personality, your cultural norms, and the culture and circumstances you find yourself in all influence your attitudes, behavior, and decisions.

Here are a handful of tips about attitudes you can foster as you begin to communicate with people from other cultures and respond to their questions about the United States.

Be Empathetic

Try to see the world from the perspective of other people by more deeply understanding their worldview, beliefs, values, and experiences.

As you learn about the lives of people in other cultures, you increase your empathy and connection with others who may lead very different lives and hold different beliefs.

Heart with six silhouette figures holding hands.

Embracing this way of thinking can make fielding difficult questions with tact and empathy much easier.

There are things you can do before, during, and after each interaction. These steps can help you have more successful encounters when communicating across cultures and can build your confidence for answering difficult questions.

A point along the path your journey in another culture, expanding into a larger graphic with more detail about each point in an interaction.
Image of a dotted line representing your journey in another culture, with a pin on that line representing a singular interaction on that journey. The pin is enlarged to show a large circle (representing the communication cycle) containing three smaller circles, each containing details about each of the three cyclical stages in a given interaction. The first small circle is labeled "Before Do your homework," with an arrow pointing to the next small circle in the cycle, labeled "During Get out there," which in turn points to the third small circle labeled "After Reflect on your experiences." An additional arrow points from the third circle back to the first circle.

Attitude

Your attitude surrounds each of the stages we’ve outlined and it will have a huge impact on each interaction you have, as well as how you grow and change between interactions. As you work to maintain flexibility and an open mind you will become more comfortable tackling difficult questions when they arise.
How does your attitude impact these stages?

Practice Makes Perfect

As you continue to foster these attitudes, they will become easier to put into practice.

A path representing your journey in a new culture, with interactions happening along the way.
Communicating across cultures is a continuous journey, and each interaction will hopefully make future interactions more comfortable.

Evaluate What is Important to You

As you go through these steps and interact with people from different cultures, you should constantly reflect on your effectiveness and what really matters to you. Check in on what you hoped to accomplish, how you feel about your own behavior and the reactions and responses of the people you were communicating with, and the overall outcome of your interactions.

Throughout your journey you may find yourself adjusting your beliefs and bending your behaviors to match the culture you’re immersed in. Luckily, you’ll be relying on communication techniques you’ve been practicing your whole life to accomplish this.

Communication cycle, representing Before: Do your homework, with an arrow pointing to During: Get out there, with an arrow pointing to After: Reflect on your experiences with a final arrow leading back to before.
It is possible to form and sharpen the communication skills you already have. By building your awareness and continually practicing with these skills, answering difficult questions will become less challenging and each new adventure you jump into will be easier to navigate and more enjoyable.

Greetings

  • Latin Americans and southern Europeans tend to hug and kiss (cheek touching cheek).
  • The Maori of New Zealand will press their foreheads and noses together in a gesture called hongi.
  • People in English- and German-speaking countries and Scandinavians tend to shake hands.
  • Indians will often press their own hands together near their heart, slightly bow the head, and say “Namaste” which literally means “I bow to you.”
  • Very formal Japanese will bow to each other, with the subordinate aiming to bow lower than the superior.

About this Resource

Representing the United States—and Americans—while living and working abroad is an honor and privilege. At the same time, it can be overwhelming and intimidating to answer questions on behalf of a nation and its people, especially considering the diversity of the American experience. Every American living or working abroad needs the skills and confidence to answer difficult questions politely and substantively, while at the same time respecting the many cultural realities of all interpersonal encounters.

This interactive resource, So You’re an American? A Guide to Answering Difficult Questions Abroad, is designed to build skills and confidence in responding to difficult questions about culture and nationality. Specifically, this resource focuses on handling everyday inquiries from curious folks around the globe. Have you ever jumped in a taxi and been confronted with “Why do Americans love their guns so much?” or some such question mired in history, culture, and values? Or, have you been at a local market trying to purchase a gift and been surprised that what should have been a 10 minute encounter has turned into a 45 minute ritual of tea, presentation of goods, and detailed explanations of the craftsman’s process?

So You’re an American? A Guide to Answering Difficult Questions Abroad is an online resource created by the Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute for all Americans living and working abroad who are eager to prepare for the many informal and unofficial questions they will receive while overseas. Throughout this resource, you will explore cross-cultural communication techniques as well as various aspects of culture through self-paced activities, videos, and simulations. Participants will develop confidence in their ability to navigate difficult questions and conversations, including knowing how to disengage appropriately. This resource limits its scope to non-foreign policy questions, as those demand answers from official sources.