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6 stumbling blocks to effective cross-cultural communications

Meeting and communicating with people from another culture can be both exciting and frustrating. We have good intentions, but sometimes we still accidentally make mistakes. These mistakes can result in a humorous or embarrassing situation, or worse.

Here is the bottom line – automatic thinking and not taking the time to really understand the other person can get us into trouble.

We can communicate more comfortably and effectively when we watch out for a few stumbling blocks.

Assuming similarity

It is a common sense that cross-cultural interactions are difficult because people are different. But cross-cultural interaction can be tricky. On one hand, we want to get along with others, so we may convince ourselves that we are really not that different. This helps bring us together and helps reduce our level of discomfort in interacting with others. On the other hand, when we overly assume similarity, we miss differences. We may see things are superficially similar and miss their deeper differences. We may not exert enough energy to observe, understand, and integrate what we are learning as we interact.


I think we would all agree that we live in a complex world. This complexity can be overwhelming. To handle it, we have adopted a habit of creating patterns in our minds of what we see and how the world works. This is how we make the world make sense. We create expectations of how things should be. These mental shortcuts help us navigate complexity because they simply the world as we see it. This helps make the world more predictable and understandable. Unfortunately, these shortcuts can be wrong. Stereotypes create problems since they lead us to be subjective, using our own frame of reference and expectations, rather than being objective, truly observing the people we are interacting with and the situation.

Rushing to judgment

Thousands of years of evolution has created hardwiring in our brains so we can rapidly, often subconsciously, assess risk around us. This hardwiring helped our distant ancestors survive when faced with daily threats to survival. But, today, we have the luxury of being more relaxed and less hurried in our judgments. Unfortunately, we sometimes have to fight with our old hardwiring. Part of the problem with rushing to judgment is that we have a survival-based negativity bias. When we appraise in a hurry, we tend to more quickly make a negative appraisal. Hitting the brakes on judgment gives us time to learn, think, and interact more before drawing conclusions and helps us avoid our negativity trap.

Language differences

This is probably one of the most straightforward roadblocks and one that often comes to mind first when we think about talking, socializing, and working with others. We can make minor changes that help cross-cultural engagement in many ways, such as keeping an open mind or being attentive to the other person. But language skills require more time to develop. The sooner we work on them, the better. But there is an upside. We do not have to be perfect. Most people are forgiving when foreigners attempt to use their language. Also, research shows that it is not the actual language skill that is most important. It is our desire to use the language. When we really want to use a language and interact, people often sense that our interest is authentic, even if our skills are low, and will typically respond positively to us.

Not understanding behavior

The flip-side of not understanding language is probably not understanding behavior. This can include gestures, actions, body language, and acceptable space between people. The key to understanding behavior is to observe it in action. We can often figure it out and use the actions of others as a guide for how we act. But, when we are uncertain, it is best to ask someone about it. When we are on a cross-cultural journey, it is helpful to have a local or some with experience in the culture who can act as a guide and mentor. A lot of our questions about what to do may involve sensitive or private areas of life, especially social taboos. It is good to have someone we can confide in and can ask delicate questions.

Engagement anxiety

Depending the context and what is at stake, cross-cultural exchanges can be highly stressful. Stress is generally considered to be a part of all cross-cultural engagements to some extent. The reason is simple. We do not fully understand each other, so it creates uncertainty about behavior and expectations. This uncertainty, in turn, leads to anxiety or tension. Fortunately, part of managing this anxiety is simply knowing that it exists and anticipating it. When we anticipate a problem, we disarm it. When we are under stress we tend to sharply focus, which unfortunately leads to poorer cognition and the closing of our minds. By managing stress, we help keep our minds open, flexible, and receptive to what is happening. It helps us more comfortably adapt to the situation and go with the flow.

James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life – whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.

For more insights see my books and blog at



YouTube channel, The Coping Expert, at

Image credit is Unsplash

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