At English Express we’re all about helping you learn English, so others can understand you better. But understanding others and being understood is not about words and grammar alone. 

Effective cross-cultural communication, and even just effective communication that doesn’t cross cultures, is also a skill in its own right. The fact that misunderstandings are common between native speakers of the same language proves this.

With cultural differences thrown into the mix, you can imagine it becomes even harder to understand the other, and get your meaning across. So, let’s step away from the language technicalities for a while and talk about the 4 keys principles for effective cross-cultural communication.


Building understanding between cultures starts with mutual respect. Never forget etiquette and good manners. Entire books have been written on the etiquette of specific cultures. A friendly gesture in one culture can be considered offensive in another. But before anything else, respect is an attitude. A willingness to treat the person you’re communicating with as an equal.

Don’t get me wrong. Learning about another culture’s customs and etiquette can help a lot. Putting in the effort is the best way to show an open attitude. In the end, the willingness to learn is more important than performing every ritual exactly like a native.

Be respectful to everyone, not just to people who you perceive as having a higher status than you. Your cultural values may differ from your conversation partner, but basic respect is universal. Just put yourself in their shoes and think how you would like to be treated in that situation. Ask them if you’re not sure. Do that, and you’ll do just fine.

During the holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the dead) the Mexicans celebrate their ancestors. Image credit: Israel Torres



Culture greatly influences the way people think, see, speak, listen, understand and even act. Misunderstandings often happen when we interpret others’ words or actions through our own cultural lens.

Deep down under our differing communication styles is the difference between low and high context communication, as introduced by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his 1959 book The silent language.

High and low context are the extremes of a continuum. 

On the one end of the spectrum, with low context communication, the message is in the words. You can take what the speaker says at face value, there aren’t any hidden meanings. This mode of communication is common in the United States, northern Europe and most other English speaking countries.

On the other end, in high context communication, peoples’ words aren’t always the whole message. In fact, the intended message can be the opposite of what’s being said. The meaning depends on the context: the relationship, traditions, the way the message is delivered, and so on. Most Asian countries tend to have a more high context communication style, as do countries in the Arab world, Africa and southern Europe.

Can you imagine how misunderstandings happen when you’re not aware of this? An American may take the words of a Japanese person at face value, not taking into account the context. Or vice versa, a Japanese listener may look for hidden meanings behind an American’s words, while they’re not there.

Active listening and practicing acceptance takes effort, but in return, you get to build close friendships that cross cultural boundaries. Image credit: Roman Odintsov



After awareness comes active listening. Hearing is not listening. When you listen, you have the intention or the conscious effort to process the meaning of the words that are being said to you. By doing this, you give the person you are talking to the time for him or her to finish what he or she needs to say before you begin.

But it is also important to listen to him/her with an open mind. Keep his/her cultural background in mind. Does he/she mean what you think they mean? Pay attention to non-verbal cues and ask clarifying questions.

If what someone says to you can be interpreted in different ways, work with the most benign interpretation first as an assumption and try not to take offense. Instead, clarify. When you get offended, listening becomes a lot harder.


Sometimes it is not enough to listen to someone. It is much better if you comprehend what they really mean, and accept that you’re different from the person you’re talking to. 

If we can accept cultural differences, communication becomes easier. Many global leaders use interpreters when dealing with other nationalities but the potential for misunderstanding grows. That’s why adapting to this challenge is necessary. Cross cultural knowledge is essential to anyone’s growth and success. 

Accept that cultural disparity are not barriers, just challenges that we have to welcome and find ways to work with. Learning about other cultures, how they look at the world and do things can provide inspiring new insights into your own life and be incredibly enriching. Enjoy!

At English Express and other Crystal Learning language schools, we see language, first of all, as a tool.

Every small improvement makes a difference immediately. You may never be perfect, and that’s ok. Even native speakers make mistakes. But as you become more confident in your ability to communicate in English, you’ll see the benefits.

We strongly believe that confidence is built through doing. That’s why our teachers will always encourage you to take the next step. Speak out, and try to speak out faster.

Practice and application are more important. To improve your conversational skills in English, you need to “do more” and “understand less”. That’s why we focus on practical topics that you can apply at the office the next day.

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