Intercultural communication

Non-verbal communication is the most important one of all and often reveals more than words would. When communicating with different cultures whether we are able to speak the language or not, non-verbal communication can make or break the relationship.

Relations to time, humour, time, food, manners and much more vary according to different cultures.

Here are some a few examples of those varitations:

  • The simplest thing, saying hello varies very much between different cultures as we can witness on this picture and many everyday situations when travelling abroad.

  • Many cultures will not appreciate the same humour and jokes. One has to think carefully whether it will be understood and that it won´t cause offense. For instance Polish humour is very abrupt whereas English humour is more subtle. Poles often don’t understand sarcasm.
  • Shaking the head in a horizontal direction in most countries means “no”, while in India it means “yes”.
  • Showing the thumb held upwards means in many countries “everything’s ok”, while it is understood in some Islamic countries as well as Greece as a rude sexual sign.
  • Laughing is connoted in most countries with happiness, while in Japan it is often a sign of confusion, insecurity and embarrassment.
  • In Mediterranean European countries or Latin America, it is normal, or at least widely tolerated, to arrive half an hour late for a dinner invitation, while in Germany and Switzerland it is considered to be extremely rude.
  • In the European and North American countries it is considered rude, leaving straight after diner (an indication that the guest only wanted to eat but wouldn’t enjoy the company with the host) while in many Asian countries it is well-mannered to leave right after the dinner: the ones who don’t leave could be demonstrating that they have not eaten enough.
  • In Europe, North America and many other countries telling a woman she has put on weight is very offending while in Africa it means she is physically healthier than before.
  • The English call everyone “you” while the French for instance differentiate the polite you “vous” and the familiar you “tu”. It is hard to know which one to use, when being too polite of friendly people can be offended.


Many cultures have certain etiquette when communicating. My advice would be to always do some research and ask people about cultural differences when communicating and doing business. Remember that often things on the surface aren’t the most important. It is hard to know how to react, the wrongs and rights. We need to dig down deep into the culture for the communication to be successful. Nevertheless we need to get the simple things right first. Remember at all times to respect differences.

Polly Hodkins

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