How to Improve Your Intercultural Communication Skills

Intercultural communication isn’t just about “studying” others.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Illustration of various people from different countries speaking different languages

While a stable internet connection and a reliable computer are some of the primary requirements for a remote or hybrid work environment, cultural awareness and an ability to communicate effectively in the workplace are also an indispensable part of today’s global workforce.

In this article, we’ll discuss the what, why and how of intercultural communication skills: What are they? Why are they important? How can we develop them?

Let’s dig right in.

What are intercultural communication skills?

Intercultural communication consists of two different concepts:

  1. Culture — generalizations about how a group of people defines itself, finds meaning, and takes action; and
  2. Communication — how individuals or groups mutually create meaning.

Taken together, intercultural communication can be described as “the mutual creation of meaning across cultures”. They are the tools and strategies which help individuals to mutually create meaning with each other beyond cultural differences, while at the same time respecting the distinct nature of those differences.

This can include:

  • An understanding of different cultures and belief systems
  • Knowledge of one or more foreign languages
  • Respect for differing viewpoints

Why are they important?

As interpersonal communication skills are crucial for both personal and business growth, intercultural communication skills are necessary to understand and communicate with others in an appropriate manner on a cross-cultural scale.

Within a remote or hybrid workplace, a lack of intercultural competence and communication skills can have a negative effect on employee productivity and pose potential risks for organizations. It can even result in the loss of millions in revenue, leading employers to recognize that job applicants with intercultural communication skills add business value.

Tips to improve your intercultural communication skills

Now that you know what intercultural communication skills are and why they’re important, you might be wondering how you can apply them.

Fortunately, we’ve put together a list of 10 tips to help you out.

1. Develop a strong sense of self-awareness

Cultivating self-awareness is an essential part of understanding how we interact with our surrounding environment. When we react to our surrounding environment, whether it’s familiar or foreign to us, we often don’t realize that these reactions say a lot about our own upbringing and cultural background.

Becoming aware of biases and taking measures to overcome them are important steps in encouraging interpersonal and professional potential. It’s difficult to do this, but by investigating your belief system and assumptions, you can better understand how and why you react to cultural differences in the workplace. This will help you adapt your responses to be more productive, inclusive and unbiased.

2. Be open-minded

In general, it’s important to be open-minded toward the opinions of others. Of course, we all have our differences and should be given space to form and cultivate our own opinions. But shutting someone down based on your preconceptions about them is a surefire way of making them feel less valued.

Not only is open-mindedness essential for cultivating interpersonal relationships, particularly when we meet someone for the first time, it’s also one of the soft skills employers place high value on.

3. Connect with others from different backgrounds

Make it a point to seek out individuals who come from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds than your own. If you’re not sure how to begin, social media can be an interesting and unexpected source of information on local customs, since cultural values influence social media.

Keep in mind that people aren’t abstract objects. You can’t place anyone into strict categories, as they may have interests, likes and customs that may not reflect your understanding of their cultural background. It’s important, nevertheless, to find ways to show openness and respect for others’ preferences and methods of communicating.

4. Be inclusive

Have you ever been in a situation where you were the only person in the room that couldn’t communicate in the language the others were using? If you’re multilingual and you work with a multicultural team, it can be easy to revert to your own language when you meet someone at work who’s from your country.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to connect with others from your cultural background. But you should be careful to not make it seem like you aren’t interested in communicating with others outside of it.

5. Ask questions (but don’t be intrusive)

Research shows that asking questions makes you more likable. Why? Because we normally don’t enjoy one-sided conversations; and when others ask questions about our lives, it makes us feel like they’re genuinely interested in us. It can even make us feel special.

Asking questions can also be a way of avoiding miscommunication at work. If we cultivate active listening, the answers to these questions can teach us about, and demonstrate our interest in, others’ cultures.

6. Avoid potentially culturally sensitive topics

But be careful, because asking too many questions can backfire. While it may be true that “no question is a stupid question”, it’s also true that some questions can be more appropriate, effective and interesting than others. In fact, asking questions (and, more importantly, asking great questions) can make you seem more empathetic and interested.

If you’re into history and international relations, you might be inclined to use these topics as a springboard for a conversation. But you should never broach topics involving national or local trauma (you’d be surprised how often this happens!).

7. If you’ve accidentally offended someone, apologize!

Accidents happen. Mistakes are made. Nobody’s perfect. If it becomes obvious you’ve committed a faux pas or offended someone, just apologize!

Apologizing doesn’t come easy for most. It’s particularly complicated at work, where the environment can be more competitive. But while some might think it’s a sign of weakness, apologizing can be powerful and can show a strong character and willingness to work towards maintaining good working relationships.

If you’re not good with words on the spot (maybe that’s what landed you in trouble in the first place), consider taking the time to write an apology letter.

8. Be willing to adapt

Since digital collaboration can be messy and written messages can often be misconstrued, it’s important to choose your mode of communication wisely. Sure, emojis have become commonplace even at work, but they still can’t take the place of body language.

Some cultures might consider a conversation via instant messaging less appropriate than a face-to-face interaction. In this case, you might want to adapt, go the classic route and do things in person. If that’s not possible, then consider having a video chat. But remember that, even with video conferencing, there are some dos and don’ts that may be cultural.

9. Take notice of nonverbal communication

All forms of in-person communication should take body language into consideration. By paying close attention to an individual’s posturing, you can gain an understanding of how they want you to react within their personal space (if at all). Different cultural groups have different ideas about personal space and how much of it is required.

If, for example, you feel like someone is backing away from you, instead of taking it offensively, maybe consider whether your idea of sufficient personal space is the same as yours.

10. Remember that we’re all human

Learning to communicate with individuals from different cultural backgrounds than our own may not be easy. But one of the most important things to remember is that you have a common ground to build from: you’re both human.

At the end of the day, you can at least appeal to your shared experience of living in this world, trying to navigate life, family, work and everything in between. In the end, you might even make a new friend who challenges you and opens your mind to new ideas!

Key takeaways

The value of intercultural communication skills in the modern global workforce and its diverse teams can’t be overstated. Navigating cultural differences and practicing cultural sensitivity can at first seem difficult, but they are necessary parts of adapting successfully to today’s culturally diverse workforces.

Since developing intercultural communication skills is a process which can take years, the following points will help you get started:

  • Be open and inclusive toward those whose cultural background differs from yours.
  • Be forgiving and learn to apologize — to both yourself and others.
  • Be humble and adaptable. Mistakes happen!
  • Be human. We all are!

Got any personal tips for improving intercultural communication skills at work? Let us know in the comments section below.


Originally published on September 21, 2014.