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Effective communication in the workplace
Effective communication in the workplace

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2 Culture and communication

Culturally diverse working environments can experience communication problems because there is greater potential for individuals to misunderstand or misread non-verbal signals, or gain the wrong impression from an overuse of jargon or the way something is written.

For example, in some cultures making eye contact is considered disrespectful and can be interpreted as a sign of dishonesty, whereas in others making eye contact is seen as essential in building rapport.

You don’t need to have a detailed knowledge of different cultural norms, but an awareness of cultural diversity will help you to communicate more effectively within a diverse environment.

Under the UK’s Equality Act, it is considered important to develop some understanding of different cultural practices. This is more likely to be a requirement if there is a particular customer or client group to consider, for example, health care workers understanding the particular needs of traveller communities.

Some companies in the UK work extensively with overseas clients, such as in China or the Middle East, where the way business is conducted may be very different. This has led to communication strategies being developed to ensure compliance with cultural norms.

Activity 2 Understanding cultural differences in the work place

Timing: Allow 30 minutes for this activity

The following video describes some of the differences in working practices between nations and the adjustments that individuals and business make.

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Video 2
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  1. Can you name any of the languages spoken by the team based in the UK?
  2. Can you name three different countries that team members originate from?
  3. What language are many of the staff learning?


  1. The staff members who explicitly mentioned their language skills could speak Polish, German, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
  2. You could have chosen Germany, Pakistan, Italy, China, Poland or Brazil.
  3. Portuguese.

How did you find this activity? Do not worry if you did not manage to answer all the questions correctly. Overall, this case study is a positive demonstration of how valuing diversity in a workforce, and appreciating and understanding the differences that individuals bring, helps to bring teams together. There is also a company ethos to support staff in building an understanding of the culture/countries in which the business operates. This is valued by businesses and individuals from these countries.

Working in cross-cultural environments can be demanding, but there are some steps you can take to maximise working relationships.

  • Managers and business leaders should ensure that staff have some understanding of the cultural differences they will be experiencing.
  • If businesses have significant interests in other countries it important to understand simple things such as public holidays and time zones. Being mutually respectful and aware of differences is essential.
  • Avoid using humour as a way to break the ice, as this could backfire in a country where the workplace is more formal.
  • Be aware that some cultures do not have a diverse workforce (e.g. in terms of gender, ethnicity or disability). However, this lack of familiarity with diversity should not detract from the expectation of an open-minded approach from all.

Activity 3 Thinking about diverse workforces

Timing: Allow 20 minutes for this activity

Imagine that you are part of a new project team.

Half of the team are based in Mumbai, and half are in London. In India, there is considerable formality in business working environments and some staff might find the comparative informality in the UK a little difficult to understand.

  1. Can you envisage any communication problems the team may face? Consider some of the practical concerns.
  2. What could the team manager in London do to help non-Indian staff prepare for their new team experience?
  3. What could the team manager do to support the members of the team based in India?
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  1. Some of the practical considerations would be time zones and also the communication challenges. Although the Indian team have a good standard of English there may be some issues around use of jargon, colloquialisms and accents that are unfamiliar to people outside of the UK, which could hamper communication.
  2. The team manager could offer training for non-Indian staff, which could include cultural awareness to understand how business in India is conducted, and some language training for greetings.
  3. The team manager could offer training to the Indian members of the team, which could cover how business is done in the UK. It could also cover the UK perspective and approach to office etiquette, so that Indian colleagues are aware of and not surprised by a less formal approach.

Different cultures have variations in the way that they conduct business meetings, eat, drink and greet each other. Demonstrating an understanding of difference, or a willingness to learn about it, will go a long way towards gaining the respect of international colleagues and associates.