As I write, England is dragging itself back to work on a wet Monday morning after last night’s bruising penalty shoot-out in the final of Euro 2020. England’s defeat wasn’t down to early onset lethargy, as has dogged games in years gone by. The team has much to be proud of, their actions were applauded by millions. By taking a knee, for example, they did much to spread the word against racism, communicating cross-culturally via one small gesture in an international arena. 

In business, the ability to communicate cross-culturally helps teams work together more easily regardless of geography. It smooths relationships with international business partners and helps you speak the language of clients even when you don’t speak their language. These skills have never been more important than today.

The pandemic has broken down geographical barriers and speeded the transition towards new ways of working. There’s less international travel. But with the meteoric rise in virtual meetings, working cross-culturally has become routine procedure.

Cultural models

Communicating virtually brings its own set of challenges, even when speaking to someone you’re familiar with. Without physical presence, we rely instead on greater clarity, sharper emphasis, more patience in conversations. In communicating cross-culturally, we need to be aware of unfamiliar expectations and etiquette.

One way of getting to grips with a different culture is to understand it in comparison with your own. For example, the anthropologist Edward Hall suggested that cultures fall into one of two categories. In some, communication relies on knowledge known in advance, for example about a person’s background and manner. These places are known as ‘high context’. Others, where someone must say everything that needs to be said if they want to be understood, are described as ‘low context’.

Alternatively, Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede identified a set of values that all cultures respond to, each in their own way. By comparing these responses, we can more easily see how one culture differs from another. Understanding cultures in detail in this way can give valuable insights into how we might approach a business relationship in an unfamiliar country.

The virtual world has brought us closer

In describing a national culture, Hofstede looked at six values – which he called ‘dimensions’, these are: power distance, individualism, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity versus femininity, long-term orientation versus short-term and indulgence versus restraint.

For example, the US, Australia and the UK particularly reward individualism, whereas Hong Kong, Serbia, Malaysia and Portugal favour a more collectivist approach to managing projects and relationships. Indulgence scores are highest in Latin America, parts of Africa, the Anglo world and Nordic Europe; however East Asia and Eastern Europe are more likely to favour restraint.

The virtual world might bring us closer together but it doesn’t wipe away the cultural differences that populations are proud to hold on to. Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory flags up these differences so they don’t trip us up when we’re building international relationships or seeking to better understand colleagues from other cultures.

Step-by-step practical advice

Our eLearning Learnflix course on Communicating Cross-Culturally gives you step-by-step practical advice on how to better understand different cultures. Cultural models are broken down and explained, giving you an edge in managing international relationships in person and online.

The course focuses on four key areas:

Intercultural Communication 1   In the Cultural Learning Cycle, you’ll learn how to recognise, research, relate and reflect on how to narrow the gap between your own global communication challenges and the outcomes you’re looking for.

Intercultural Communication 2    Two different cultural models within the workplace – High Context / Low Context and Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions – will give you the tools to understand the subtle but crucial differences between cultures.

Virtual Communication Essentials    Being present; plain language and message structure; using your voice effectively (range, variety, energy) – how to bring clarity to your message.

Running Effective Virtual Meetings  Effective meetings – the elements; agendas and chairing; managing different behaviours; action planning; responding to the unexpected.

In today’s post-pandemic world, where more jobs are performed remotely, virtual communication is an accepted norm. Not being in the room means there’s plenty of potential for cross-cultural misunderstanding. We can’t all be Gareth Southgate. But learning to build rapport at an international level is an open goal we can’t ignore.


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