Effective communication in the workplace
Effective communication in the workplace

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Effective communication in the workplace

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.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 2
Skip transcript: Video 2

Transcript: Video 2

At Guidance, staff at all levels are good at understanding cultural differences and putting their own culture into perspective.
I think here in UK everything is less formal, and the biggest difference for myself is that you can call your bosses by his their first names, which is a bit unusual in Poland. In Poland, I used to start earlier and also finish earlier. We have actually flexible working hours so I can start a few hours later.
China in general, the people work for long hours during the day and then meetings, and business meeting held over lunch as well as dinner, whereas in the UK, generally we have a very fixed working hours. So after work, people don't tend to talk about work too much.
Generally speaking, environment in UK it's more informal, more flexible, whereas in Pakistan it is more formal and does not support too much integration, if you like, between people at work. People won't call each other with their first names at work, for colleagues. They would rather call each other with surnames-- Mr. and Mrs. And then for boss and for seniors, we don't call them with their names at all. We are to call them as sir or ma'am.
Oh yeah, look at that. I've got plenty.
At the beginning, it was a bit strange, trying to get used to call your boss with his nickname instead of his full name. Talking with colleagues, in Italy you would interrupt each other. I think you might try to find the right spot to interrupt people, so always with respect, of course. So the culture is allowed, some others are not, but from where I come from, I think it is allowed.
And awareness of linguistic and intercultural differences is essential when conducting business abroad.
This year I've been to America, Southeast Asia. Last year I was in Rio, across Europe, and various places. So I do get to experience not only other cultures and countries but doing business in other places around the world. I think it changes everywhere you go, and people will do and say different things in a different way.
Sometimes it's the tiniest detail. So in a Southeast Asia, for example, or China, if somebody gives you a business card, they give it to you with both hands and you receive it with both hands. And then you leave it on the table and you refer to it during the meeting. Well, you wouldn't do that in America or in Europe.
Hi. Good afternoon. It's James from Guidance. Yeah. Yeah, I'm very well. How are you? So in order to support the Marine Division of the company and the products, we have a worldwide support network that is made up of 14 service partners. So they're based in key regions around the world-- the States, the Middle East, Brazil, India, a lot of key regions. And we use them for service and maintenance of our products.
But really, the key thing for us is they have a relationship with suppliers in that area. They understand the customers, the traditions, the culture, and they are the kind of benefits that really you can't learn here in the UK.
The company has recently recruited a Brazilian national to be their business development manager in Brazil.
There's a very potential market. There are lots of progress in Brazil, and the oil and gas industry is booming. But the problem is it's not an easy market to work. So you have to understand the market to work in that.
We Brazilians, we have Latin roots, so we're very personal. We like to interact with people. We like to know who we're actually doing business with. So I believe the reason why Guidance hired me, first, I've got a good grasp of the language because Portuguese is my mother tongue language and communication is very important.
Second, I've got a very good network because different than the majority of European countries, you need to know people to do business with them, and networking is really important. Outside, it's important in all the industries, but in Brazil especially, if you know people, they will make your life much easier, and they will help you out.
In addition, guidance sponsor's language classes at the workplace for employees involved in business with Brazil.
Last lesson, could you play music?
We sponsor Portuguese classes specifically because we identified Brazil as a target market for us. Brazil is fairly unique the level of English speaking in business is not hugely commonplace. As well as now employing a Brazilian person, we've also got our staff involved in learning Portuguese, which is extremely helpful. And whilst they're not going to become fluent Portuguese speakers, it gives them an appreciation of other languages and other cultures. We've learned a lot about Brazil as a consequence, which is really important.
I find it quite difficult to learn languages. So I think it's very useful to show that you are making an effort when you speak to people in their country.
After a year now, I'd say that I'm able to understand the basic conversation. I can certainly pick up the gist of emails, which is really useful. And I think what's most important in Brazil is to be seen making the effort. So that first exchange of three or four sentences, if you can say, hello, how are you doing, how's business, how's the family in Portuguese, they love it.
The staff at Guidance, having more than one language or experience of several cultures, have are that can enhance their career and the profile of the company.
In terms of the CV, yes, I certainly put down that I've got the London Chamber of Commerce exam in French and a level of German. I think the conversational Portuguese is stretching the point a little bit, but it certainly helps, I think. Shows that you've got a wider understanding of what's going on in the world.
In my career, I believe having a multicultural experience is really, really important. If I apply for a job somewhere and if I mentioned that I have been to these different countries, and I'm OK going on with people from any different region, then people really respect this adaptive ability. And yeah, it's easy getting more job offers from different countries.
UK is a multicultural country. It is really commonplace that you will end up finding a multicultural team here. Now, having my background as being part of another culture, it's very easy for me to connect with the fears, concerns, motivations, desires of a person with a different culture. And therefore, I feel that it's very easy for me to connect with them and I feel that that competence is very important for any managerial role. It has been really useful. And I really value this experience.
The fact that I'm bilingual, I'm pretty sure it affects my career. Maybe Polish is not so useful like Spanish or German. however, it's another skill, and I'm pretty sure this is something that employers look for. I think it lets me to have a look on some things from another point of view.
I'm originally from Germany, Hamburg, in the north of Germany. And my main languages, obviously, are German as a native language and I speak English, and I've got a bit of a knowledge of French and possibly Spanish.
[INAUDIBLE] process, if you can have a VOC, Voice of Custom activity.
English is a dominant language, but you get a lot further in particular markets by investing into the local language. And apart from all of that, not just for normal business transactions, but also just for the social level. You need to establish some rapport with the people you're dealing with. And then at least they feel you're not putting your particular view across immediately. You're not imposing your culture and your interaction onto the meeting. You're leaving it open, and you're letting maybe the hosts respond. And you just get a much, much warmer reception.
The management team at Guidance understands that to work successfully in international markets, the company not only has to be outward looking, but also ensure that their employees are open to and engage with the different cultures of the countries in which they do business.
Celebrating the different cultures of the workforce, sharing experiences about cultural encounters, and encouraging language learning are some of the ways the company goes about achieving this.
It's really important be aware of all the cultural differences and use local languages wherever you can.
End transcript: Video 2
Video 2
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
  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?
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


  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.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371