11 Expert Tips for Crossing the Cultural Chasm

Why are native English speakers often the worst communicators on a global team, even though English is the only language used by all? What are people from different cultures really saying when they’re not saying anything? How can a team culture trump national differences?

  • Native English speakers don’t actually know how to speak and write their own language in a way that can be understood by non-native English speakers. Since English has become the global language of business, it seems like Americans, Brits, and Australians have a huge advantage. But in reality, many native English speakers tend to assume that because they have mastered their own language, they don’t have to consider how English is likely to be heard by non-native English speakers. In fact, some non-native English speakers have told me they feel that Brits and Americans use English as a weapon. The very best global managers know how to communicate in English really effectively across cultures. If I had to choose whether language or culture is the biggest barrier to global teamwork, I’d say it’s usually language, and I think that culture is frankly sometimes used as an excuse.
  • Sometimes nuanced communications just do not translate very well. If you need to deliver bad news, such as telling someone that something is not being done correctly, we usually search for the just the right words so we get our point across while minimizing any hurt feelings. If we’re speaking with a colleague who speaks the same native language, our words are likely to be interpreted more or less correctly, if we’ve done a good job. When working across cultures, however, finding the right words and context can be infinitely trickier. Even if you manage to select words that come across as intended, in some cultures, communicating bad news with a positive spin can be very confusing , and it can inadvertently breed distrust when people wonder what your real motives are. Many cultures prefer “low context” communication, which means that you need be very explicit about your message.
  • Be very clear, right up front, how and when progress will be tracked. As team leader, you need to make sure that people are following the agreed-upon process up front, so that you can follow up when you feel you need to without annoying anyone. This means you need to communicate clear deadlines in advance, being very specific about timing. For example, you might say, “Right, I am going to be reminding you every Friday morning that by 5 PM GMT, your status report—containing this information, using that format—is posted in our virtual conference area.” That way, if someone does not get that report in on time, you can follow up more easily without fearing that you might be perceived as a micromanager.
  • To avoid misunderstandings when you’re on a team call, ask people to regularly summarize what has been agreed. Vary who you ask, so everyone has a turn summarizing key points as they have heard them. Also: ask open questions to test agreement. If you ask: “Sergey, do you understand? Do you agree?” you may well hear only silence, or a very tentative “yes,” even if the real answer is “no.” By asking an open question such as: “What do you like or not like about this idea?” or “What have you understood as the key point?” then you can get an idea of whether that person understands or agrees. At the same time, you have helped that person save face, which is especially important for certain cultures.
  • Listen deeply to what’s being said, or not said. I once asked a Japanese colleague of mine how he thought the meeting went. He replied: “Ah, very good.” Now, I’d been in Japan just long enough to know that if someone says, “very good” it may not be, so I asked: “Toshi-san, how did really go?” He taught me a valuable lesson: “In Japan, we sometimes say you have two ears, two eyes and one mouth.” I realized that it was a beautiful way for him to gently criticize me for speaking too much in the meeting. It’s also a very good piece of advice for anyone operating internationally: Use your eyes and ears to observe and listen, and keep that mouth under control. If you’re going to be successful, you need to be genuinely curious about how other people operate and how they think. To do that, you need to ask lots of questions and you’ve got to be a damn good listener.
  • Respect the national holidays of all team members, which can be a logistical nightmare. A couple of solutions: Get holiday schedules well in advance, and try to plan the meetings well beforehand, especially any really important ones. Also: Have meetings in sub-groups. Does everybody really need to be present on every single phone call, or can we handle it bit by bit, group by group, nation by nation? If it is an important decision, then can we have somebody on standby from a particular location, even if they’re on holiday? Another option is a compromise: If it is an important meeting that can’t possibly be rescheduled, then a small group of people will agree to be present, even though their country’s on holiday. And the reason a group of people is important is that it works better if you have a little cluster of at least two from the same location. Otherwise, they really do feel singled out and lonely having to come into work when everybody else is off.
  • Make sure everyone that is on the virtual team shares the same “system” of communication and that they know how to use it. This includes a common set of communication tools, like email, instant messaging, team portal, etc. But the most important aspect for me is how do we use it, how frequently do we update people, who do we update, who gets copied in, do we have to copy everybody in all the time (especially if it’s email), what is the speed of response, when do we expect people to answer or deal with the problem. Although we have to allow for differences in language and communication styles, the team ultimately needs to decide on a team style, or they need to acknowledge that different members of the team are going to have different styles that may sometimes clash, but that nothing should be taken personally.
  • Virtual water coolers are a great way to make social connections for virtual teams. These are informal updates, by leaders and participants, where people call in once every week or so and share ideas, ask questions, and say what’s on their mind. These meetings provide a great alternative forum for people who might tend to go on too long during the formal team meetings. Be prepared to open global team meetings, informal or formal, with a bit of small talk. So many cultures, such as Mediterranean cultures, South American, Middle Eastern, and East Europeans, like to have a little informal chat before they launch into the actual purpose of the meeting. Make sure to build this into the meeting time. Think of it is a virtual water cooler, a place where people can come together for a brief time and exchange hellos, and even indulge in a little gossip.
  • Different cultures have different notions of punctuality. All team members need to agree: What is the real meeting start time? Can we all make sure that we will be on time? What is the maximum flexibility that we will allow? Will we update latecomers? For example, the team might agree that being five or ten minutes late might be acceptable, especially if the latecomer can sneak in and not ask to be brought up to date. It’s important that the team discuss this and set out very clearly what their expectations are, and then stick to whatever they agree to.
  • The best way to learn about other cultures is to leave your comfort zone and actually travel. A little bit of culture shock is good for everybody! But if you can’t travel to the countries where your team members work, then look into inter-cultural training that focuses on your assumptions and your stereotypes, and helps you come to grips with why you interpret things in that way, and how your culture is seen by others. That’s just as important as learning about others’ cultures. We need to accept that it’s a continuous learning process and that it’s okay to make mistakes, as long as we apologize unreservedly when they occur, creating a comfortable atmosphere so people feel it’s easy to speak up, and check in with each other when in doubt.
  • Accept that silence can mean different things in different cultures.  For instance, in Finland, silence means that everything’s fine, that they’ve understood and it’s all good. In other cultures it can mean, “Yes, I’m thinking about it, I’ve got to digest that information” – that would be in Japan, for instance – “I’m still thinking about this and I’m not saying” or “I’m saying yes, as in I’ve absorbed that information, but I’ll let you know later on what I really think about it.” And in other cultures, silence can mean disagreement. In Switzerland, for example, you might try to convey through heavy silence that you object to a particular issue. The real trouble comes when the others assume that silence is consensus. When in doubt, have a 1:1 conversation to make sure you understand what that silence was really about.

Successful global teams establish their own identity and agree on how they will work together, setting up rules that can accommodate preferences and differences of all team members. This means openly acknowledging cultural differences and discussing how they may affect the team. Factor in those differences as you establish a team culture, which can take a bit of time to evolve. Once it does, a strong team culture trumps differences in national cultures almost every time.


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