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Communicating Effectively with Non-Native Employees or Clients: Strategies that Work

Aug 26, 2022
Communicating Effectively


Today, globalization is creating business opportunities all over the world. In addition, immigration is bringing many internationals to our workplaces.

The problem is that effective communication in a multicultural setting can be very challenging. For example,

  • Workers may not comprehend instructions.
  • Your customer services personnel may have difficulty describing your products to prospective clients.
  • Managers may wonder if crucial details of contract negotiations are being understood.

In today’s multicultural workplaces, you need to adopt strategies that will allow you to communicate effectively across differences. 

Cultural Differences that Prevent Communication Success

While there are many cultural differences that can impact the communication process, in this issue, I will cover only two of them. Expect more on this topic in later issues of the DEI Minute.

Cultural Difference 1: Reluctance to Say “No”

In some cultures, it is inappropriate to say “no,” especially to someone in an authority figure. So, the tendency is to “soften” a negative answer or statement. For example, some individuals may avoid saying “no” by answering a question with another question. Yet, others may say, “Maybe I can do it, I’ll let you know,” even though they know it is impossible. 

There is also the possibility that “yes” simply means “Yes, I understand you” and not necessarily, “Yes, I agree with you.” 

Very important! This type of behavior is often misunderstood, even though the individual may be employing this method as a means of avoiding being seen as rude.

So, what can you do? A more effective strategy would be to avoid asking “yes” or “no” questions. In other words, provide your international employees or clients with options so they can reject what they do not want without feeling they have offended you or disrupted the harmony of the relationship. 

Cultural Difference 2: The Importance of Saving Face

The concept of “saving face” is frequently misunderstood in the West. What this means is that none of the parties in the situation should suffer embarrassment.

For individuals where “face” is important such as Asians or Middle Easterners, understand that preserving harmony in the relationship is the primary concern. If telling the truth will impact such harmony (or someone’s “face”) individuals will say what the other person wants to hear. That is because preserving or strengthening the personal bond is the goal of the communication exchange.

Please note that U.S. Americans place nowhere near the emphasis on saving face as do most other cultures.

Three Strategies for Communicating Effectively Across Differences

  1. Avoid shouting or raising your voice.
    I have seen this happen many times. As natural as this may feel, it will only frighten the individual. Rest assured that raising your voice will not improve the communication process.

  2. Speak slowly and distinctly.
    Instead of raising your voice, recognize that native speakers speak faster than they realize. Because of that, the words are all jumbled together, which really makes comprehension more difficult.

    Notice the difference between “What did you say?” as opposed to “Whatdjasay?” Big difference!

    So, remember to slow down in order allow those who are not very proficient to catch up.

  3. Be comfortable with silence.
    U.S. Americans tend to see silence as a breakdown in the communication process.

    In many other cultures, though, silence is just another communication strategy. A client or employee may be trying to formulate their answer and when they are ready, they will share it with you. But because we tend to feel uncomfortable with silence, what do we do? We interject, repeat the question, or try answering it for the individual, which will not help.

    Here is my suggestion: Embrace the discomfort. Give your international employees or clients the time they need to formulate their thoughts properly.



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