11 Ways to Communicate Better Across Language and Culture Barriers

Today, you’re more likely than ever before to meet, work with, live with, study with and maybe even fall in love with people with a different first language from you, who were brought up in a culture that’s different from your own. Communicating across language and culture barriers can be a recipe for confusion, frustration and causing offence, but with a bit of effort from both parties, it doesn’t have to be.
In this article, we look at some strategies for making communication go more smoothly and effectively, whatever context that communication is happening in – whether you’re trying to get a project sorted via an unreliable Skype connection, or you’re in a restaurant just trying to make sure you’ve actually ordered the thing you wanted to order. Here are our top tips.

1. Discuss your communication aims and don’t assume

There are only a few settings where you can safely assume what everyone wants to communicate.

In the context of ordering a meal at a restaurant, you can be pretty confident of the aims of your communication – you want to order something, the waiting staff want to get your order right, and as long as you can achieve that politely, chances are everyone will go away happy.
But that isn’t always the case. If you’re having a conversation in an informal setting – for instance, with a new friend or study partner – you might find that your aims differ. This becomes particularly apparent when one of you has more fluency in your shared language than the other. Sometimes it’ll be the case that someone wants to get to the point as quickly as possible, and if they mangle a metaphor or decline a strong verb as if it were a weak one, it doesn’t really matter to them. But sometimes, they’ll be trying to improve their linguistic abilities. In the latter example, if they make a mistake, it’s kind and helpful to correct it; in the former example, it’s likely to be perceived as rude.

2. Be aware of personal space

Are they sitting too close? Or is it friendly and comfortable?

One big difference between cultures is what counts as an appropriate level of personal space. This doesn’t just relate to how closely together you sit or stand, but also how much it’s appropriate to touch the other person during a conversation. At one extreme are countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, where people have a large personal space bubble and touching is taboo. At the other extreme are South American countries like Peru and and Argentina, who are comfortable getting closer to strangers than people in Saudi Arabia and Turkey like to get to their dearest friends.
All this spells trouble if two people have significantly different cultural expectations of personal space. It’s a recipe for one person feeling crowded and threatened, and the other feeling disliked. Solutions that work for everyone are hard to find (though having a conversation with a physical barrier like a table between you can help); what matters more is understanding that their body language doesn’t necessarily mean what you think.

3. Think about your body language

One person’s grumpy is another person’s normal expression.

Different cultures use body language differently, and not just in personal space. Chinese and British attitudes to personal space are not much different (Chinese people like a little more space with strangers) but other aspects of their body language are remarkably different. Think about a standard Western smiley, like this 🙂 – there are dots for the eyes, and the focus is on the big, wide, smiling mouth. You could even use this to be extra expressive 😀 – note that the eyes stay much the same while the mouth is bigger. Now let’s look at the Eastern equivalent ^_^ – the focus is all on the eyes, not on the rest of the face. And that reflects a key difference in body language between the West and East; Western people smile with their mouths, and Eastern people smile with their eyes. The result is that Western people might not spot an Eastern smile at all, while a Western smile can look like a rictus grin to someone from Asia.

4. But be expressive

It might look exaggerated – but you can understand what he means.

Bearing in mind the possibility that your body language might be misinterpreted, it still doesn’t help overall to try to contain your body language and focus on your words. A lot of body language is universal, and even if someone finds your smile a bit strange, it can help them to figure out a context for what you’re saying.
Not just your expressions, but your tone of voice can be helpful in providing cues for understanding. Imagine that someone has understood that your car was on a big truck. Being expressive can help them figure out whether you’re happy (so perhaps this is a delivery of a new car, or your car has been repaired), annoyed (your car’s been towed) or sad (your old car has broken down beyond repair). Once they’ve got an idea of the context, they can look for other clues to figure it out (e.g. “new car smell”, “parking ticket” or “failed MOT”). Without help from your expression, it would be much harder for them to work out what you’re saying.

5. Choose your vocabulary carefully

“Putting your feet up” isn’t that easy to understand.

It’s important to remember that the vocabulary that’s easy for a native speaker may not be easy for someone learning your language as a second or third language. For instance, in English, the tiniest native-speaker child understands the phrase “get up”. But for someone learning English as a foreign language, it’s a minefield. “Get up” can mean “stand up” or “the process of getting out of bed, including brushing teeth and showering” – or they might even have come across it in the sense of outfit, as in “are you really going out in that get-up?” Plus it’s a phrasal verb, which are one of the trickiest aspects of English for new learners.
This is particularly helpful to remember when communicating with speakers of Romance languages. Latinate words in English are understood as difficult, but for speakers of French, Spanish, Italian or Romanian, “after their departure, we will recuperate” is much clearer than, “once they’ve got up and gone, we can put our feet up”.

6. Avoid idioms

What does it mean if they pop? The answer might surprise you…

“We can put our feet up” is particularly challenging because it’s an idiom; someone understanding you literally might ask, “put your feet up where?” Idioms sneak into our speech all the time without us noticing, but they’re best avoided when speaking to people with a different first language or from a different culture.
Idioms can even cause trouble when speaking to people with the same first language, from a country with a similar culture. An Australian saying “it’s better than a ham sandwich” [it’s better than nothing], a Brit saying someone’s “popped their clogs” [they’ve died], or someone from the southern USA saying they’ll be there, “if the creek don’t rise” [in all likelihood, or if nothing goes horribly wrong] are all likely to be confusing to the others even though they’re all speaking the same language. This can even cause difficulty among non-native English speakers depending on whether they learned US, Australian or British English (or Irish, New Zealand, Canadian or any of the many other distinctive varieties of English spoken around the world).

7. Mind your sense of humour

Slapstick is a nearly universal form of humour, but you wouldn’t want to use it in a business meeting.

Humour can make conversations flow more easily, but it can also add extra layers of confusion that already challenging conversations don’t need. There are significant cultural differences between what we might find funny; for instance, in the US, a funny personal story might result in the speaker doing something clever to come out on top. By contrast, in the UK, funny anecdotes are expected to be self-deprecating.
A particular minefield is sarcasm, which doesn’t exist as a concept in every culture, let alone being easy to understand through the medium of a second language. If you come from a culture where sarcasm is normal, it can be very hard to switch it off – for instance, replying to a question about an upcoming exam with “yep, thrilled to be spending two hours in an exam hall being reminded that I should have paid more attention this year” makes sense if sarcasm is part of your culture. But if it isn’t, then someone’s going to be very confused not only about why you’re excited about an exam, but also about why you’re saying so in such a strange tone of voice.

8. Speak more clearly, not louder

This is not helping them to communicate.

The stereotype of Brits and Americans trying to speak to people who don’t have fluent English is them repeating the same thing over and over, in a steadily louder and angrier tone of voice. Not only is this desperately rude, it’s very unlikely to be effective; people’s comprehension of foreign languages doesn’t increase with volume.
Instead, keep the same volume, but try to speak more clearly. Enunciation can help a great deal – as can making sure that your mouth isn’t covered (this may be harder if you have a large beard or wear a niqab). In general, if someone asks you to repeat something, the most helpful thing you can do is repeat exactly what you just said; paraphrasing might only confuse them more if there was just a word or two that they didn’t catch. The exception is if you realise you’ve accidentally said something that is very likely to be confusing, such as something sarcastic or with lots of idioms. Under those circumstances, it’s better to rephrase and try again.

9. Focus on being understood, not on being precisely right

Does it matter exactly which colour you mean?

Imagine you’re having a conversation about how you’d decorate your dream house, and you’re explaining that your bathroom would have teal tiles. Only the language you’re using doesn’t have a precise translation for teal, and your friend is confused, so you’ve got a colour swatch up on your phone, and you’re pointing at the teal square. Your friend’s confusion clears. “Oh,” she says, “you mean turquoise!”
The distinction between teal and turquoise in your dream bathroom might feel very important to you, but unless your friend is actually going to be the one doing the redecorating, this is a good illustration of when it’s time to let something go. There are lots of occasions in communicating with people across language and culture barriers where you will come close to being understood, but their understanding won’t be precise. When that’s the case, most of the time, the best option is to settle for “close enough”.

10. Double-check that important points have been understood

If you’re at the railway station west entrance, and they’re at the east entrance, you’re going to have difficulties.

The only occasion when you shouldn’t settle for “close enough” is when a precise understanding is necessary. If you want someone to meet you at platform three at King’s Cross, it’ll be annoying to both of you if they instead wait in the queue at platform 9 ¾. Conversations across a language barrier inevitably require some guesswork and some filling in the blanks based on context, and normally that works, except when the blank that’s being filled in was a crucial part of the information that needed to be conveyed.
To deal with this problem, make sure you double-check that the other person has understood all the key points – for instance, by getting them to repeat what you’ve said back to you, or otherwise quizzing them (gently) on the important details.This needs to be done carefully, as it can feel patronising, but it’s better that way than – for instance – waiting for hours on a platform when the person you’re meeting has been on the other side of the station the whole time.

11. Be forgiving of each other

Both parties being forgiving and sympathetic to each other can make all the difference.

Above all, communication across language and culture barriers is possible when we are kind and forgiving of each other. Sometimes you’ll forget about someone’s cultural taboos around touching and make them feel uncomfortable with a pat on the back; sometimes you’ll use sarcasm and offend them (“the food was revolting, that’s why I just had to get rid of all of it,” said with a beaming grin); sometimes you’ll be accidentally patronising; sometimes you’ll get frustrated at your inability to make yourself understood. And sometimes you’ll be on the receiving end of all of the above.
The only way to deal with this is to be kind, polite, and forgive mistakes as much as you can – and hopefully you’ll have some great conversations as your reward.
Images: restaurant; personal space; body language; expressive boyrelaxing; idioms; slapstick; loudspeaker; colours; railway station; hug; cat and dog.