Simple Tips for Cross-Cultural Communication via the Internet


Cross-Cultural CommunicationThe Internet has opened the door for cross-cultural communication. Where the United States was once isolated because of its size and location, you can now easily communicate with people in other countries, for work or networking, without having to leave home.

If you work for a global company, your team might be located in the United States, Germany and India, but you can easily communicate via email and can have face-to-face team meetings through video-conference.

Social media offers wonderful opportunities for networking around common interests, and opens the door to direct conversation.

As the opportunities to use the Internet to communicate with people in other countries increases, we must think differently about how we communicate.

When you are physically in another country, you can see the cultural differences around you. However, if you are at home, and especially if you are communicating via email, you don’t get the cues that remind you there are cultural differences.

Unfortunately many people from the United States treat people in other countries as though they should adapt to us, and an unfortunate stereotype has emerged.

The best way to create effective, respectful relationships when engaged in cross-cultural communications via the Internet is to adapt your style to theirs instead of expecting them to adapt to yours.

Nine tips for making your email communications more effective.

Here are 9 simple things you can do when communicating by email that will demonstrate you recognize and respect your cultural differences. Although very simple things, they give the message that you don’t expect them to adapt to you.

  1. Spell words the way they do.  Although English is a universal language, many countries use the British spelling, such as Australia, India, and South Africa. You can check the Internet for common spelling differences or simply watch how they spell words (e.g. organisation, recognise, analyse, flavour, and colour).
  2. Write your greeting in their language. You can easily look up how to translate “Good Day” into any language and that simple effort is much appreciated.
  3. Use their colloquialisms. For example, when communicating with colleagues in the UK, try using “brilliant” instead of “wonderful” or “great.”
  4. End your communication with “Kind Regards” or “Best Regards.” In the United States, we tend to be more informal, ending with “Thanks” and sometimes no valediction at all.
  5. Communicate meeting times using their time zone. Instead of making them do the work to convert the time of the meeting, you can do it for them. Use a time zone converter to find out what 7:00 am your time is in their country.
  6. Format meeting times the way they do. Many countries use a 24 hour clock. If so, set a 2:00 pm conference call for 14:00.
  7. Format dates the way they do. Many countries format the calendar with the date before the month. For example: 21 August 2011
  8. Offer to schedule conference calls at times most convenient for them. Think about what time it is in their country before suggesting a time that converts to 9:00 pm their time.
  9. Be aware of their holidays and key religious observances when suggesting a meeting time.

Four simple things you can do to learn more about life in other countries without leaving home.

To really be successful in cross-cultural communication, you must become aware of their culture.

  1. Read novels by authors from other countries who write about events in their country. Stories give you a sense of the cultural context.
  2. Watch movies from other countries. Even Bollywood movies, although westernized, can give you a sense of some of the differences.
  3. Seek alternative news sources outside the US.
  4. Read blogs by authors in other countries. A recent post on the Brussel’s Leadership Watch blog explains Why Learning Chinese Business Etiquette is Not Enough.

These are all simple steps that you can easily take that help tear down barriers. The world is getting smaller and our old isolationist assumptions no longer serve us. We must educate ourselves about our differences in order to discover our similarities, and to make the real connections that will enable us to truly work together effectively.

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10 comments to Simple Tips for Cross-Cultural Communication via the Internet

  • Fay Kandarian

    Splendid suggestions Jesse. I wish driving in other countries could be so simple!

  • Pamela Ex

    Excellent tips! Please check for holidays searchable by date, country and religion. This is helpful when planning overseas business trips and determining project due dates.

  • HI Lynn, great to “e-meet” you!

    The overall list is great and most of it is stuff I tell my clients as well. Numbers 1 and 3 could be misinterpreted as crossing the line from being friendly to co-opting or mimicking, depending on the audience and your relationship to them. Interestingly, I just had a conversation with another friend about this issue in relationship to dancing.

    Because of experiences with past domination or prejudice, some people are particularly sensitive to the idea of other ethnic or cultural groups co-opting their habits, speech patterns, art, music, etc. It’s important to consider this.

    Regarding colloquialisms, you’d better know for sure that you are using them correctly before you use them, or you could get yourself in trouble.

    Also, I don’t think you need to deny your own experience or culture in order to accommodate another. OTOH, if you have more multicultural experience, you need to reach further across the table to meet your counterpart. The best thing is to be explicit about guidelines/expectations, etc. and to form a team culture that takes the best of everyone’s culture and uses it in the team relationship.

    One thing missing is that you have to assume good intent and have a sense of humor about the inevitable misunderstandings that arise. People are people–we all want the same basic things: food, shelter, clean water, safety and for our kids to be better off than we are. The other stuff, though important to recognize and pay attention to, is largely superficial.

    I look forward to talking more with you.

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Hi Kit, Thanks so much for taking the time to share your excellent thoughts. I really appreciate your enriching this conversation.

  • Luis Padron

    Good morning! I have had the opportunity to work in different countries and with different and diverse cultures and people. My advise, treat them in the way they expect to be treated. That means, do your homework before hand and arrive prepared!
    And remember, no culture is “superior” or “better” than other.

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Good advice, Luis. And I would say to consider that you are traveling when you communicate via email or over the Internet, even though you haven’t physically left your home. I would encourage people to take your advice and do their homework before sending email or setting up conference calls.

  • Great list Jesse to get people thinking about how connect across cultural differences. I like Kit’s comments too. Seems that the most important element is the intent and sincerity of the communication or interaction. When we are being good natured and whole hearted people pick that up … whether virtual or direct interaction. Who we are ‘being’ says so much about what we are ‘doing’.
    Perhaps the question to consider is “what does the relationship need?” or in other words, ‘what will make the most positive contribution to the relationship I want to develop?” Then we are able to move away from my way or your way to what will serve what we want to create. Thanks for initiating this important conversation. Laurie

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Hi Laurie, I agree with you that “the most important element is the intent and sincerity of the communication or interaction.” Even if you are clumsy, an attempt to demonstrate that you recognize and respect the other person’s customs goes a long way. I love your question, “what does the relationship need?” Thanks for your thoughts and deepening the conversation.

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