4 Cross-Cultural Communication Mistakes to Avoid

(This blog was updated in January 2024)

In our interconnected world, we often find ourselves collaborating with colleagues, clients, and suppliers from various countries and time zones.

Cities and countries are becoming melting pots of diverse cultures, emphasising the need for effective communication both within organisations and with the public.

Recent studies highlight the growing trend of cross-cultural interactions. A review from the perspective of cultural psychology and neuroscience suggests that social media platforms have become crucial in cross-cultural communication, necessitating further research to integrate these disciplines1. Another study advocates for a fear-free approach to cross-cultural communication, encouraging the use of similarity as a starting point and the development of a multicultural mindset2.

Investment patterns also reflect this global interconnectedness. In 2023, Chinese companies continued to contribute significantly to the UK economy, with the Tou Ying Tracker revealing the scale of Chinese investment in the UK3. Moreover, the announced M&A deal value by Chinese companies in Europe was US$3 billion in the first half of 20234. British companies are not far behind, with the UK’s competition watchdog aiming for a leading global role, indicating a strong presence in the global market5.

As British companies vie for international contracts and employees collaborate in diverse teams, understanding and avoiding cross-cultural communication mistakes is more crucial than ever.

Chinese market

Avoid making damaging communication mistakes.

This article will explore five cross-cultural mistakes to avoid when working with people from other cultures:

1) Make an Effort to Understand different communication styles

In different countries people communicate in different ways, often due to linguistics or cultural customs. For example, from a British point of view,  other cultures e.g. Eastern European or Mediterranean people are very direct in their communication style – what they say is what they mean. On the other hand, Asian Pacific cultures can be very hierarchical and therefore may be more likely to communicate in an indirect manner. This means that you will have to Listen effectively and read between the lines if you want to understand the true meaning and make sure that you are communicating with the right person in the first place in order to save time and be able to check understanding.

Furthermore, in some countries simple words such as “yes” can have different meanings. In most western countries when people reply “yes” it usually means they understand what was said and agree to do something. On the other hand, in some Asian cultures when someone uses the word “yes” it simply confirms that someone is listening to you. Someone might say “yes” and then later on say “no,” or you might find out that they didn’t understand what you said or that culturally they are conflict averse especially if you are seen to be of a higher seniority to them.

In this case it is important to double check if the other person understands your point by looking at their facial expressions, asking them to paraphrase what was said or sending them a summary of what was agreed in writing. Equally, you can paraphrase back to them (this also demonstrates that you have Listened effectively).

Equally in any working relationship is the importance of Feedback, it is important that people respect each other’s preferences for giving and receiving feedback. This may be the level of formality, or even who to give the feedback to, in a rigid hierarchical culture.

These differences are often known as ‘Low V’s High’ Context cultures (as introduced by cross-cultural researcher, Edward T. Hall in his book ‘Beyond Culture,’ 1976)

2) Comparing other cultures to your own

Some expatriates working overseas sometimes struggle to get used to unfamiliar cultural habits. For example, this could be the European style of greeting, to kiss on the cheeks or Japanese bowing. If you do not understand the working environment and context, or keep comparing a different culture with your own in a negative way you might offend people from that culture, and it could lead to conflict or misunderstanding. This can affect your ability to build strong relationships. Remember, their culture and working practises work very well in their own country and may have evolved to fit their working environments and accepted normal behaviours. It maybe that your communication or workplace behaviours are seen as odd to them !

3) Being negative or critical

Some people complain a lot about working with clients or colleagues from other cultures. If you are negative about other nationalities or cultures and criticise the way they behave, this will have a negative impact on your ability to work together,  and may affect future working relationships. Remember, all businesses depend on good relationships and future work!

4) Not adapting to the other culture

Some expatriates work in other countries but do not adapt at all to the local culture. They live in a compound with other expatriates, they don’t eat the local food and they don’t mix with the local people. These same people often do not adapt their style of communication or way of conducting business, and are then surprised when they struggle to be successful.

When working with clients or colleagues from another culture it is important to find out about the cultural differences and common cross-cultural misunderstandings. This could be something as simple as giving and receiving a business card with two hands in China, or whether local holidays (maybe religious) that affect the ability to meet deadlines.

It must also be recognised that staff who are new to an organisation or the workplace in general may have different expectations or preferences too. For example, it is often said that ‘Gen Z’ are more likely to send blunt ‘text like’ emails and less likely to actually phone someone as this may be seen as ‘rude.’  Managers must be aware of these in order to help them communicate effectively. The same could also be said of higher level ‘strategic’ managers, who may have learnt their workplace communication skills in a vastly different environment to the one that predominates today e.g. they have not been comfortable building personal relationships and may prefer to focus in dealing with the Task at hand.


To avoid Culture Shock, it is important to build an effective Culture where everyone respects each other’s cultural preferences, but also fosters an organisational culture where we all learn to work effectively from an organisational point of view. This means that we may need to adapt our own personal nuances and avoid Stereotyping to work and communicate more effectively together. In turn we will all be able to meet the needs of the Organisation and our Tasks.

Where anything impacts upon your ability to work together or impacts on the objective, then take the proactive professional approach, and have meetings to agree best practice and intercultural working. This may extend to. for example, having a rota system so that Teams can communicate effectively over different time zones, or to make sure important information is handed over effectively at the end of shift working. It also ensures that no-one is offended by any misunderstanding if the teams visit each other!

There are several websites which outline general cultural differences, however, to make sure that you are being accurate, then it is professional to ask and check what is expected. This is especially important when working with Companies who are pan-cultural e.g. where the parent company maybe Japanese, but the English is a subsidiary. In another example, just because cultures speak the same language, does not mean that the working environment is the same – there can be major differences in the way British and American companies work.

Cross-cultural differences are important to consider when working with clients and colleagues from other countries to ensure your staff work efficiently and productively. If you would like to improve the ability of your staff to work more effectively with clients or colleagues from other cultures, read about our standard Communication Skills courses, which include Skills such as Active Listening and Feeding back effectively, and Cross-Cultural Communication Training.


1 – 5 www.frontiersin.org – Cross-Cultural Communication on Social Media: Review from the Perspective of Cultural Psychology and Neuroscience.

Further Reading

12 Key Skills to Navigate Communication in the Modern World

Effective Communication