Five basics for effective cross-cultural communication

In the second of our series of articles with UWE, Moon Consulting talks to Suzaan Rowley, Senior Lecturer and Module Leader Property Law & Practice and Interviewing and Advising, Wills and Administration of Estates (LPC) at UWE about the importance of cross-cultural communication.

The widely recognised definition of effective communication is “a two-way information sharing process which involves one party sending a message that is easily understood by the receiving party”.

However, when it comes to cross-cultural communication the basic principles of business etiquette are not always as clear cut as they seem.

Formality when greeting a new client face to face will always create a good impression - use titles (Mr, Mrs, Ms), shake hands, engage in small talk, have some distance between your client and respect their space - but this alone isn’t the basis for effective cross-cultural communication.

There are many cross-cultural nuances at play that we need to be aware of to make good business relationships, and without a doubt it makes sense to do some basic research into cultural etiquette to establish what is, and what’s not appropriate to different cultures and countries.

While it is not possible to cover all considerations in an article, there is a foundation from which we can begin to try and get it right.

Assuming you meet your client in the UK and English is spoken by your client, I see that there are five basics principles:

Introductions – these can make or break a cross-cultural relationship. Is a handshake adequate or is bowing a more appropriate form of greeting? Do not treat a dismissive as what you might consider a rude introduction with obvious displeasure, it may not be intentional. It may be the norm in a culture based on hierarchy. Be open minded, do not take offence easily, and be aware that your culture will determine how you interpret signals and non-verbal communication.

Don’t rely on stereotypes – to be able to decode messages on the information provided, you cannot simply be familiar with the participants cultural norms. These will not provide an adequate basis for you to reliably decipher and respond to the nuances at play when business is conducted in a cross-cultural setting. It is important to understand not only different cultures specific ways of doing business but also to be aware of how personal business style and personality will contribute to the relationship.

How much of a distance to adopt – consider both familiarity and physical distance. How formal should you be in address? Should you be on first name terms or do you need to use a title? How close should you be when conducting formalities, too close in some cultures can cause anxiety.

Keep it simple – use plain English without resorting to technical language. Use short sentences and if necessary consider drawing diagrams. This was recently put to wonderful effect between a team of negotiators in an international competition between Brazil and the US. Team Brazil struggled with the English language so the US team used a more visual representations to present both team’s suggestions for a resolution in a bid to reach a compromise.

Avoid humour - until you are familiar with your client. Whilst humour can be effective between two native speakers the English sense of humour can have disastrous effect. Many cultures do not understand irony or sarcasm and you should certainly avoid putting your host down by reference to sport like the world cup!

In conclusion, if you follow these principles then you should have the building block for a successful cross-cultural relationship.


Moon Consulting’s position in the market, and our status as trusted partner means that we are actively supporting our clients with the continued diversification of their workforce – from board-level down.

This also means that we understand the importance of cross-cultural dynamics not only in terms of interviewing but also in the workplace more generally.

Vanessa Moon, Founder at Moon Consulting comments, “when interviewing it is important to brief both the candidate and the client on any specific cultural differences that might be experienced during the interview process so that neither party is making assumptions based on their own cultural norms. We want to ensure that both the candidate and the client feel comfortable and are able to have a genuine conversation.

However, cultural fit goes beyond the interview process. We always get to know our clients and their culture so that when we undertake a retained search we’re able to balance culture and diversity appropriately.”