Shirley's Articles / Communication Skills and Building Relationships

Intercultural Sensitivities

Many businesses today operate on a global scale, and our culturally diverse workforce is made up of people from different countries, ethnic backgrounds, races, religion and family structure. If you are to communicate effectively with all these different people, it is important to keep an open mind and try to learn as much as possible about their various cultures, and be sensitive to them.

What is culture?

Culture is a shared system of beliefs, attitudes, values, expectations and norms of behaviour. Members of a culture often have similar beliefs and theories on how people should behave, think and communicate, and they all tend to act on those beliefs in much the same way.

From group to group, cultures differ considerably. When you communicate with someone from a different culture, you normally do so using the theories and beliefs of your own culture. However, when your audience receives your message, they do so based on the assumptions of their own culture. As a result of basic cultural differences, misunderstandings could easily occur, and often do.

How can you improve your cross-cultural communication skills?

  • By recognising cultural differences.
  • By being willing to accept that other people have different beliefs and assumptions.
  • By being open-minded enough to know that not everyone has the same standards and theories as you.
  • By learning more about people from different cultures.
  • By constantly making an effort to improve your inter-cultural communication skills.

Acknowledging cultural differences

If you are to communicate effectively across cultures, you must not judge other people by your own standards. It is essential to retain an open mind, and remember that your own cultural background is not necessarily superior to anyone else’s.

Many people assume that other people’s attitudes and lives are like our own, but this is not so. Your aim should be to try to treat people not in the way you wish to be treated, but rather treat them the way they want to be treated.


Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own cultural background is superior to all others. This creates a barrier to effective communication because the mind remains closed to new information.

Ethnocentric people tend to form pre-conceived judgements of different cultures based on one experience, or based on limited evidence. Perhaps they tend to take stereotyping a little too far and don’t keep an open mind so they cannot move beyond a certain stage. For example, when talking to Barbra Horsky, instead of looking at her as a special human being with unique qualities, ethnocentric people believe they are simply talking to “an Israeli”. Perhaps they believe that all Israelis are Jews who are outspoken, demanding and aggressive, simply because of preconceptions and limited previous experience. Therefore despite Barbra’s many unique personal qualities, the ethnocentric person cannot see beyond their fixed ideas, even when those ideas are wrong, so their mind remains closed.

If you want to avoid ethnocentrism, you should:

  • recognise differences. Accept and acknowledge that there are distinctions between your own cultures and those of other people.
  • avoid assumptions. Bear in mind that others may not act in the same way as you, nor will they have the same fundamental theories or beliefs.
  • do not pre-judge. If people act differently to you, do not automatically assume that they are wrong, that their way is unacceptable, or that your cultures and customs are more superior to theirs.

Checklist for communicating effectively across cultures

If you are to communicate effectively in a culturally diverse workforce, here is a checklist of points to remember. If you follow these tips you will be able to communicate with anyone from any culture:

  1. Show respect. – Learn how respect is communicated in different cultures (gestures, eye contact, symbols, signs, etc).
  2. Show empathy. – Put yourself in the shoes of the recipient and imagine their feelings and their point of view.
  3. Do not prejudge. – Accept differences without judging, and learn to listen.
  4. Be open-minded. – Accept that you may have to change your habits or mind-set when communicating across cultures.
  5. Avoid distractions. – Do not be distracted by things like appearance or dress.
  6. Be patient. – Sometimes persistence will be necessary when communicating with someone from a different culture.
  7. Look for similarities. – Try to find common ground, parallels, connections.
  8. Send clear messages. – Make sure all your written as well as your verbal and non-verbal communications are quite clear, reliable and consistent.
  9. Recognise your prejudices. – Learn to appreciate and accept when your theories and beliefs are different from other people’s.
  10. Treat people as individuals. – Do not treat one person as being a stereotype of a particular group, but rather as a unique human being with individual qualities and attributes.
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Shirley is an international bestselling author. She has established herself as a leading authority in email and business writing skills. Her international bestseller Model Business Letters, Emails & Other Business Documents 7th edition sold over half a million copies worldwide and has been translated into 17 languages. Her book Email Essentials reached #2 in the USA for publishers Marshall Cavendish International. Find out more about Shirley at

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