This FAQ is a combination of an article I wrote for Professional Marketing Magazine and a blog post published recently on cross cultural and multicultural communication. So how can I improve my cross cultural communication?

Remember the joke about the cruise ship captain who has to convince the passengers of his sinking ship to jump overboard? He has to use a different approach with each nationality – He tells the English it would be unsporting of them not to jump, the French that it would be the smart thing to do (they agree but don’t do it), the Germans that it is an order, the Japanese that it is a matter of honour and the Italians that jumping overboard is forbidden. I remember with stark clarity my consternation (mirrored by the UK senior team) at trying to facilitate a rebranding meeting over 15 years ago with the leaders of firms from across Europe – the UK “rules of engagement” were simply inadequate.

As globalisation and consolidation in professional service firms increases, the need to understand cultural differences becomes more important whether to achieve good internal communication and buy in where multiple territories must collaborate on a project, where we are trying to develop international marketing campaigns or where we are co-ordinating activities for multinationals as part of a key client programme. The topic is nearly always raised by delegates on my marketing and sales training sessions – especially if there has recently been a merger which has increased diversity.

Culture, as we know from our organisational perspective, represents “the values, norms, and traditions that affect how individuals of a particular group perceive, think, interact, behave and make judgments about their world”.

Key models

There are a number of well-known models which attempt to provide a framework for understanding cross cultural communication by articulating the main cultural differences. For example, the early work of Hofstede (whose study focused on people at IBM) generated five dimensions of cultural difference:


It helped us understand different business drivers when dealing with, for example, the highly individualistic cultures of Northern America and Western Europe compared to the more collective cultures in Asia. The masculine approaches in Japan and Austria are in contrast to the more feminine cultures in, for example, Scandinavia when it comes to people management. The respect for hierarchy and status in high power distance cultures such as India are not easily combined with the low power distance in places such as Israel. And managers in weak uncertainty avoidance cultures such as Denmark and Singapore understand why they must be specific in their instructions for strong uncertainty cultures such as Portugal and Japan.

More information is here

The work by the Globe project studying international leadership resulted in nine dimensions:


This provides some useful insights for the professions (dominated by the largest American and Western European firms) which traditionally rewarded individual performance at the expense of group or team results and are typically quite assertive. And the lack, until recently, of a strong future orientation is the bane of many professional service marketers lives! The power distance dimension probably remains more influential than the collectivism, human orientation and gender egalitarianism dimensions which the more advanced firms are now trying to embed in their organisational cultures.

Further information from:

And then there is the work by Trompenaars Hampden-Turner which is based on seven dimensions:


Imagine a negotiation when a ‘universalist’ (e.g. Australia, Germany and France) who attaches importance to observing rules and applying the same rules in all situations and puts personal feelings and emotions aside) with a ‘particularist’ (e.g. Brazil, Mexico and Thailand) who. assesses the specific circumstances or the personal backgrounds in a situation.

Observe people from neutral cultures who do not carry out their feelings but keep them controlled and subdued become uncomfortable with those from high emotional cultures who show them plainly by laughing, smiling, scowling and gesturing. And anyone who has worked with Japanese will know that the small talk conversations and questions about family will not be well received.

Many Westeners (sequential), who have a crucial path worked out in advance with times for the completion of each stage are frustrated with they must deal with Middle Eastern people (synchronic or polychromic) who are less insistent upon punctuality. Brits will also know that their thoughtful agendas will be perceived with some suspicion by Continental Europeans.

Further information:

Practical application

Obviously, it would help if we could participate in one of the many cross-cultural training sessions available (which are sadly usually rather expensive) or spend time working in a variety of overseas territories, which can be logistically difficult if there are families to consider. Many firms are reviewing their overseas experience and secondment programmes as they recognise the value in such first- hand experience.

But for those who cannot adopt one of these routes there are other ways to increase their cross-cultural sensitivity and intelligence.

  1. Be aware of cultural differences The first step is the need to accept that not everyone thinks and behaves the way that you do and that there is no one “right” way of doing things. Everyone has a world view which affects the way that they perceive things and a large part of that internal mental model will be shaped by the culture and society in which they grew up. This model – shaping every aspect of how we perceive, process and understand information – is so deeply ingrained that it is almost impossible to identify and examine it and consider how it might be very different for others.
  2. Learn more about other cultures At a simplistic level this might involve reading books and resources to help you appreciate cultural differences amongst the international groups you are most likely to encounter. There are books that overview etiquette in a variety of cultures (e.g. Kiss, bow or handshake by Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway) and those that focus on a particular culture (e.g. “Getting along with the Japanese” by Kate Elwood)
  3. Expose yourself to other cultures Another step is to expose yourself regularly to another culture so that the differences become more apparent and you can start to develop some empathy for another view of the world. This may be difficult as many people from other cultures who work or live alongside you will have assimilated much of your own culture – so you need to find people who are as unfamiliar with your culture as you are with theirs. Some firms have “buddied up” people from different territories in similar roles to promote this kind of understanding but it can take a significant time and numerous encounters in order to be effective.
  4. Immerse yourself in another culture Ideally, this would involve going to live and work overseas for a period of time and throwing yourself in the deep end – although there are significant risks here if it is in a work environment. But even personal trips can be used to increase exposure to business practices with a little foresight and planning.
  5. Organise cross-cultural groups It may be that your role already requires you to work with people from a variety of cultures in which case you can observe and learn what is happening as communication between group members takes place. Some firms set up such groups to tackle low priority and low risk projects so that cultural differences can surface and become known to all group members.
  6. Arrange face to face contact wherever possible Obviously, where travel budgets allow it is always best to try and get to meet people face to face in their territory so that you have the chance to observe them in their native environment. In many cultures, it is difficult to develop a strong working relationship without this kind of interaction where it is a pre-cursor to build trust. Happily, the advances in technology mean that high quality face-to-face encounters can be facilitated without people leaving their desks if necessary.
  7. Develop cultural competency frameworks Work with the human resources team to see if cultural literacy can be embedded within existing competency frameworks and included in appropriate traditional and e-learning training programmes.
  8. Observe and adapt Ultimately, you will need to let go of some of your preferred and proven methods of working and experiment with new approaches that will feel more familiar to those from other cultures. As Eleanor Roosevelt said “Do one thing every day that scares you”.


I do not restrict access to the FAQs but I politely request that you let me know by email and acknowledge the source ( if you wish to use the material anywhere.

As always, if there are particular topics you would like me to address in the future, please let me know. You will also find a source of more and up to date information on a broad range of management and marketing issues in the professions by checking out the blog where I also post regular reviews of books that might be helpful.