How To Overcome Cross-Cultural Communication Barriers

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Are cross-cultural communication barriers getting in the way? Do they affect your relationships? Are they preventing cross-cultural conversation? Learn how to effectively communicate across cultures! I teach you about the important of body language, paralinguistics, prosody, pronunciation, mannerisms, and more! Read on

A cross-cultural misunderstanding or miscommunication is the result of a gap in understanding of a linguistic or sociocultural aspect of that language and culture.  

A word that was mispronounced, incorrect use of an expressions, a hand gesture that was construed as inappropriate, an improper word, a culturally sensitive topic…and so on.  

Language and culture are intertwined and comprise a complex and dynamic system.  So as we are learning another language, we are all bound to make mistakes.  But the more cultural awareness we have as communicators, the better off we will be when dealing with a communication conundrum such as this.

Now, while cross-cultural miscommunications are often inevitable, how we deal with the situation at hand will either make it worse or better. 

And of course, we want to focus on making the situation better. 

SO let’s jump right into it.

Let’s say there was a cross-cultural misunderstanding in a professional setting. 

Immediately, we know not to place blame on the other person involved. Instead, we assume full responsibility for our communication outcome.

Strategy 1: linguistic awareness

These are language-based points. The first thing you can do is to learn to use a few key phrases in the target language.

Know the proper greetings, and the protocol for properly addressing the person. Learn relevant phrases. It would be most effective if the phrases are specific to your field or industry.

For example, if you’re in sales, then you’ll want to have the appropriate sales lingo to get the job done.  If you’re in the fashion industry, you know the phrases that pop up in that world.  If you’re in the tech world, then you are up to speed on the jargon. 

Doing this will help even out the playing field. You are showing that you are making an effort to be on the same page as they. It also shows that you don’t just expect the other person to be able to communicate in your language, but you are also trying to communicate in theirs. Even if your language skills are very poor compare to theirs, still make an effort to learn a few key phrases, it puts you both on equal ground and creates a positive atmosphere that is conducive to effective communication.

The phrases you learn are based on your needs, so figure out first what you need and then how to say it.

Strategy 2: pay attention to nonverbals

This step is tied to sociocultural awareness.

Some people are oblivious to the fact that hand gestures, certain types of body language and other nonverbal cues are not universal. 

For example, in one culture a specific hand gesture could be perceived as highly rude and vulgar whereas in another culture it is innocuous 

Be aware of what is interpreted as appropriate body language in said culture

For this, you’ll want to do your research to know how to gesticulate appropriately within the given context. Remember, these are often context-based!

Strategy 3: Phonetic and phonemic awareness

TONES Pay close attention to your tones 

Tonal languages (Mandarin, Cantonese) are sometimes tricky to someone coming from a non-tonal language (English) because they’re not used to having there be multiple definitions of a word based on the rising or falling intonation of that word

Sounds (phonemes)

Phonemes are distinct units of sound and can alternate the meaning of a word: for instance bat and bad are 2 distinguishable words *but there is only one phonemic difference /t/ vs /d/*

There also might be certain phonemes that are considered highly inappropriate in one language even though they be completely innocuous in your own language and are actually words. 

Prosody (intonation and emphasis) 

The tone of our voice can really make a big difference with intention and delivery. How are you expressing yourself? Inflection patterns can make or break a message. if someone is being mono-tonal, that might be construed as rude or impolite within a specific cultural context. So you need to be aware of prosody.


Let’s quickly recap before we go. The problem that we’re trying to solve is a misunderstanding due to lack of cross-cultural communicative competence. Our solution to this problem is to increase linguistic awareness, sociocultural awareness, and phonetic + phonemic awareness. These 3 strategies will help you get to the heart of the issue by increasing awareness in areas we’ve discussed. 

Always remember Explearners, when we’re learning a new language there is always a learning curve. And don’t be shy about asking for help from your interlocutor and saying “Could you clarify this word for me?” or “I’m not quite sure about this intonation?” or “In American culture this hand gesture means X…is it the same in your culture or….?” 

You could even say more broadly, “I’m still learning this language and it would really mean so much to me if you could correct me when necessary. Your feedback is greatly appreciated.”

By just putting it out there that you’re taking risks with the language and that you are open to corrective feedback, you’re showing that you want to make this social interaction work. You’re a team player and you have the shared goal of communicating effectively.

Happy Explearning 🐝