August 2020

Communicate Across Cultures

Be a better leader by making note of cultural nuances and acting accordingly, as our panel of webinar experts advise.


Communicating Across Cultures


Are you a culturally intelligent leader? Success in the global marketplace requires cultural finesse when communicating. To help communicators from all walks bridge the culture gap, Toastmasters recently hosted a free webinar series, Communicating Across Cultures, featuring three separate webinar topics: Know Your Audience, Humor and Body Language, and Cultural Awareness in Business. Insights and anecdotes were shared by a panel of international experts, who had roots represented across the globe, including Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, India, Afghanistan, Uruguay, and Australia. Here are some of their top takeaway tips:

  • Smile. This is a “soothing and bonding” important first step, after which many doors begin to open.
  • Never make assumptions of where someone is from, especially when you encounter someone with an accent.
  • Ask the simplest of cultural questions to get the conversation started: Where are you from? What dialects are represented?
  • Get a good world map or globe and reference it often when communicating inter-culturally. Give yourself a visual of where, exactly, people are from.
  • Be a good listener. Let others know you are interested in them and not coming from a place of authority or judgment. Observe and reflect. Use silence and wait for a response.
  • Find something in common upon initial communication. Set the stage for open exchange through shared interests such as sports, food, parenting, or the arts. Remember we all share the desire to have health, education, and safety. Establish commonality in an online environment by talking about the weather or family. Pick out a word or phrase in their response that you can follow up on.
  • Topics of discussion should all begin with a genuine curiosity. No question is off-limits if it comes from a place of sincere curiosity with no judgment or condemnation. Curiosity, humility, and vulnerability can go a long way.
  • Do your research. Know your audience no matter how great or small; find out what is important to them. A best practice is to test out your speech or presentation so as not to offend anyone. Do your presentation homework beforehand. Send out questionnaires and find out who you will be talking to. If possible, show up early and interact with audience or meeting members.
  • Treat everyone with respect, which literally means “to look again.” It’s important to look at people from new angles with the desire to want to know and learn from their story.
  • Be aware that there are non-verbal gestures that some cultures find offensive such as showing teeth, making eye contact, or shaking hands.
  • If you don’t know your audience, err on the ‘safe side’ of what you say and do.
  • Humor used to communicate should never mock anyone or anything. There should be no inside jokes. The best type of humor is to use a tactic whereby the audience thinks you’re going in one direction—and then you suddenly veer a different way.
  • When speaking to people in a language other than their first language, slow down your pace and annunciate clearly. Use basic language.
  • Music can be a wonderful way to reach out to other cultures. For example, some inter-cultural groups are being taught to communicate with small drums in a drumming circle. No language is required, and it can be fun and engaging.
  • Be considerate of time differences when visiting foreign cultures regarding mealtimes, break times, work times, and play times. Take the time to understand their time values.
  • Prepare your open heart. Above all, speak from the heart. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

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