Intercultural Communication

What you’ll learn to do: Discuss how different cultures impact the workplace

Multi-colored jelly candy in the shape of people.

One of the most fundamental ways that members of a particular culture bond and indeed perpetuate their culture and traditions is through a shared language—not only the written and spoken word but through gestures and interactions.

In this section, we will consider the concepts of race and ethnicity and the implications of culture—be it based on country, race, or religion—for effective cross-cultural business communication.

Learning Outcomes

  • Compare and contrast race and ethnicity
  • Discuss how cultural differences among races may influence communication
  • Discuss how cultural differences among individuals from different countries may influence communication
  • Discuss how cultural differences among individuals from different religions may influence communication
  • Describe strategies to adapt communication for an intercultural audience

Race and Ethnicity

Group of seven people from different cultural backgrounds.

The concept of race has changed across cultures and eras ranging from being based on ancestral and familial ties to theorists assigning categories of race based on geographic region, ethnicity, skin color, and a wide range of other factors. These assumptions were reflected in their labels; for example, people would be categorized based on region (e.g., Chinese or German) or skin tone (e.g., black or white).

Ethnicity is a term that describes shared culture—the practices, values, and beliefs—of a group. Common cultural elements may include a shared language, religion, and traditions. Like race, ethnicity is a complex concept, and its meaning has changed over time. And as with race, individuals may be identified or self-identify with ethnicities in complex, even contradictory, ways. For example, members of ethnic groups such as Irish, Italian-American, and Russian are generally included in the “white” racial category. Conversely, the English ethnic group includes citizens from a multiplicity of racial backgrounds: including black, white, Asian, and a variety of racial combinations. These examples illustrate the complexity and overlap of these identifying terms. Ethnicity, like race, continues to be an identification method that individuals and institutions use today—whether through the census, affirmative action initiatives, nondiscrimination laws, or simply in daily interactions.

Read and view more

While race and ethnicity are both based on the idea of a common ancestry, there are several differences between the two concepts. Sociologist Dalton Conley, one of the experts contributing to PBS’s RACE: The Power of Illusion project, explains the differences between race and ethnicity: “First of all, race is primarily unitary. You can only have one race, while you can claim multiple ethnic affiliations. You can identify ethnically as Irish and Polish, but you have to be essentially either black or white. The fundamental difference is that race is socially imposed and hierarchical. There is an inequality built into the system. Furthermore, you have no control over your race; it’s how you’re perceived by others.”[1]

Fellow contributor and author John Cheng draws the distinctions further, noting that ethnicity represents a choice to be a member of a group; for example, one can adopt the language, customs and culture of that ethnic group. Race is not a choice: “you either are or are not a member of [a given] race.” Echoing Conley’s point about the socialization of race, Cheng emphasizes that “race becomes institutionalized in a way that has profound social consequences on the members of different groups.”[2]

Explore aspects of race with PBS’s RACE: The Power of an Illusion programming or watch the Khan Academy video “Demographic Structure of Society: Race and Ethnicity.”

Practice Question

Language, Communication, and Diverse Social Groups

Image of a group of five people huddled in a circle to talk. There are two males and three females.Whether we realize it or not, we use language as a way to classify people into social categories, just as it is common to use physical variations like race to distinguish people. We all have an idea in our heads of what a “standard” version of a language sounds like based on how and where we grow up and our early social influences. It is easy to pick up on very small characteristics in spoken language that can differentiate it from what is considered standard.

Imagine a group of five people talking after a staff meeting. As you walk by, you overhear a snippet of their conversation. You notice all are speaking the same language together, for example English, and you are able to hear several different varieties of English at once. This means you are hearing different types of intonation, pronunciation, or regional accents. Someone’s voice and language can provide information about their geographical locality, socio-economic status, and ethnicity or racial groups.

To add to the complexity of this topic, people often ascribe certain language characteristics to racial groups. Since many individuals have dual or mixed heritage, they can belong to many different language groups or varieties. For perspective on this point, watch “tri-tongued orator” Jamila Lyiscott’s spoken-word essay “Broken English,” presented at TEDSalon New York as “3 Ways to Speak English.”

Unfortunately, people’s perceived racial differences can create a type of language barrier. This can then influence how individuals communicate in the workplace. Sometimes at work people may adopt a particularly “professional” way of speaking, be it jargon or a certain level of vocabulary or elaborate coded language. This can be off-putting and sound fake to other individuals who use different ways of speaking and may find some types of “professional language” difficult to understand.

Some individuals may take the opposite approach. Especially in marketing, we see individuals using “street” language or new slang (or even memes) in an attempt to connect with their target audience. This approach almost always fails, as it is nearly impossible to correctly mimic this type of dialect. It can also alienate those targeted by these tactics by making them feel like their identities are being flattened and commodified.

Depending on racial or ethnic background, people from different groups may approach public communication in a work setting differently:

  • Beliefs about what is considered polite
  • Beliefs about what emotions are appropriate to be expressed in a public setting
  • Beliefs about how to interact with someone if there is a large age difference
  • Beliefs about how to make a request or to offer assistance in a direct or indirect manner
  • Beliefs about what is considered humorous or in poor taste
  • Beliefs about the appropriateness to talk about someone who is not there or to speak for someone else who is not present
  • Beliefs about eye gaze or physical touch from non-family members (such as giving a hug to a co-worker if they look upset)


Consider the following scenarios of employees working at a grocery store and write your thoughts on each.


Two associates in the bakery department have been working together for about a month. They have just started their shift after having two days off. One associate Mary, seems to have no issue sharing with her coworkers every detail about her weekend with her children. Mary asks about her coworker Jane’s weekend. Jane gives a short and nondescript answer. Is Jane being rude for not disclosing much information, or is Mary sharing too many personal details to someone she barely knows?

Break Room

In the break room, several men and women are sitting around tables eating lunch. Next to the tables there is a young man, Tomas, who is sitting on a couch and looking at his phone. At the table, the conversation turns towards the monthly celebration of any employees who have birthdays that month. The young man on the couch pipes up saying “my birthday is actually today.” Employees around the table express the regular “happy birthday” and congratulatory phrases. One person gets up and gives Tomas a hug. Tomas is taken aback and tries to pull away from the embrace. Is Tomas being rude for not accepting the celebratory nature of the hug, or is the coworker unaware of how people might feel about physical touch from non-family members or close acquaintances?

The three-part PBS series Do You Speak American provides additional perspective on the expression of the English language in America, discussing differing varieties of English ranging from A-Prefixing to Spanglish. Spanglish is an expression of both Anglo and Hispanic culture, with its fluid shifts between English and Spanish language often compared to jazz.

For more on immigration and the evolution of language, including how Spanglish compares to other languages such as Black English and Yiddish, tune in to the Ilan Stavan’s “Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language” on the Drescher Center for Humanities YouTube channel.

Key Takeaways

Generalizations about people’s appearance and cultural identity help us understand where they are coming from, but it’s critical to focus on understanding the individual as a person. As one of the testimonials on Nike’s Equality page puts it: “I am not a color. I am not a race. I am an individual. I am me.” While we may not be able to visualize or connect one-on-one with each person we communicate with, we can choose language that allows people to see themselves in the picture.

Being aware of (and respecting) differences in communication isn’t the only facet of communication to consider when talking about race and ethnicity. It’s also important for individuals to consider the words, both in casual conversation and in addressing others. While most individuals know not to use racial slurs, there are some unintentional slurs that people often don’t realize they’re using. For example, the word jipped (as in “I got jipped by that car salesman”), has its roots in a racial slur.[3] Above all else, listen to individuals who belong to minority groups, and if they say a word is racist or a slur, don’t use that word.

Practice Question


Image of a globe with the silhouettes of people standing on the circumference of the globe. The silhouette of the people has been filled in with the flags from countries in the world.

With the possible exception of math, there is no universal language. Each country—and, in some cases, regions of countries—has different languages, business practices, and social customs. What is a common or established communication behavior or business practice in the United States cannot be assumed to be appropriate behavior or communication elsewhere. And, as we will see in the next section, the expectations of other cultures can have a significant impact on how American businesses communicate and operate not only abroad but at home.

Differences in business etiquette and nonverbal communication account for the majority of culturally-related communication errors. In her “Cross-Cultural Business Etiquette” article for, Lisa Magloff highlights the five primary areas of difference and potential miscommunication:

  1. Clothing: managing the first impression
  2. Conversation: appropriate business and ice-breaker conversation
  3. Greeting: local customs and expectations, including greeting style—the distinctions that inspired the title of the best-selling guide to business etiquette and practices, Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands
  4. Forms of address: level of formality and use of titles and degrees
  5. Time and Space: interpretations of “on time,” personal space, and physical contact.[4]

Different countries may also have different interpretations of nonverbal communication. Non-verbal communication includes gestures; body movement, including eye contact; and decorative and functional objects, from clothing and equipment to furniture and furnishings. To illustrate the differences, let’s focus on gestures. The relative brevity of a gesture as communication belies its potential impact.

For many Americans, gestures are a cross-cultural communication blind spot. For example, flashing a peace sign, a benign gesture meaning “peace” or “goodbye” in the United States is perceived as insulting and a provocation in Australia, New Zealand and the UK.[5] Another translation failure: the thumbs up sign. In America, “thumbs up” is a positive gesture, conveying “good job!” or agreement. In a number of countries and regions including Greece, Latin America, Russia, Southern Italy, and West Africa, the thumbs up gesture is tantamount to giving a person the middle finger.

As Jolie Tullos concludes “as a form of language, a gesture can be just as if not more powerful than words themselves” [and] the miscommunication of hand gestures can be the difference between a greeting or the invitation to a fight.”[6]

Practice Question


Photo of six people of different religious holding a purple poster with white text. The sign says "Coexist pilgrimage people of faith walk as people of peace".

Religion is an area steeped in tradition and conventions, and is, therefore, fraught with potential for error for the uninitiated. For example, in the summer of 1977, Nike launched a Summer Hoops campaign to introduce a line of basketball shoes with an air logo based on stylized letters with flame detailing. When the shoes went into distribution in Saudi Arabia, the logo was questioned and modified, but not enough to avoid a backlash.

At issue: the logo was perceived to resemble the Arabic word for Allah, or God, and some Muslims considered the association with shoes specifically to be disrespectful. Facing a global Muslim boycott, Nike recalled the shoes in distribution and agreed to discontinue sales. As reported by Caryle Murphy for the Washington Post, “Nike’s action came after weeks of negotiations with the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an Islamic advocacy group that had threatened to urge a boycott of Nike products by the world’s 1 billion Muslims.”[7] A chastised Nike spokesperson acknowledged, “Our company has to be more vigilant and work more with communities on issues of sensitivity.”

Fear or apprehension of the unknown is a large contributor to inadvertently creating communication barriers. This is especially common when faced with new or different spiritual beliefs and practices. Sometimes, a person may feel uncomfortable communicating with people from other religions because of assumptions about the other’s beliefs and opinions. One main communication barrier stemming from religion is individuals’ lack of knowledge or information about other religions and belief systems.

Due to the extensive variations in religious and spiritual beliefs, people who identify as religious or spiritual may have vastly different ideas and opinions about what constitutes appropriate life practices and behaviors. These beliefs, or discrepancy between beliefs, can impact how people communicate with one another. These beliefs include the following:

  • Beliefs about what topics are appropriate to talk about
  • Beliefs about what amount of physical touch by non-family members is appropriate
  • Beliefs regarding what is considered appropriate clothing (this can include head coverings, wearing form fitting uniforms, etc.)
  • Beliefs about time off from work to attend religious gatherings
  • Beliefs about breaks for rituals, such as prayer at certain times of the day or needing a specific day off each week to go to a spiritual gathering place like a temple, mosque, or church
  • Beliefs about food allowances including, but not limited to, consumption of alcohol, caffeine, cigarettes, meat or specific types of meat, and going without food or fasting for specific periods of time
  • Beliefs about the role of family in personal, social, or work life

Depending on religious background, people with different spiritual beliefs and practices may approach public communication in a work setting differently as well. Here are a few language specific areas to be aware of:

  • What topics may be referred to in a humorous or flippant way
  • Specific words or phrases that may be prohibited, such as saying the name of a deity in an irreverent manner
  • Different connotations of religious terminology or jargon
  • Unfamiliar or new religious terminology and vocabulary
  • Use of religiously approved communication methods. For example, some religious factions may dissuade the use of social media as a means to preserve one’s modesty, to prevent access to material that would lead to impure thoughts, or to avoid potentially inappropriate conversations between non-married or unrelated individuals

If you are worried about contributing to a communication barrier or if you notice a breakdown in communication in the workplace, the way you approach it can make all of the difference. Above all, approach the situation or individual(s) with empathy, curiosity, and respect. Ask questions, define terms that are unfamiliar or understood differently, use clear language with neutral terminology, avoid jargon, and avoid judgment. Taking the time and effort to listen and learn about other’s spiritual beliefs can help facilitate more open and effective communication channels.

Practice Question

Culture and Communication

Photo of two women and one man.

Culture and communication are inextricably linked, and messages can be misconstrued without an awareness of a particular cultural or subcultural context. As Richard Bucher notes in Diversity Consciousness: Opening Our Minds to People, Cultures and Opportunities, “Communication takes place whenever meaning is attached to a message.” However, because of differences in how a message is interpreted, the intended meaning or message may not be what is received. When people attach different meanings to gestures, symbols or words, miscommunication can result, with significant financial repercussions.

In the aftermath of the Air-Allah incident, Nike Communications Manager Roy Agostino reflected “As our brand continues to expand, we have to deepen our awareness of other world communities.”[8] The way Nike responded to this incident provides perspective on how to adapt communication for an intercultural audience. Two of the keys to effective communication—and business—are cultural awareness and respect. Although well intentioned, Nike’s initial fumble was making a slight modification in the air logo design without additional testing or review. Alerted (or confronted, depending on the point of view) to the offense by CAIR, Nike attempted to do damage control and divert the Air shoe stock from “sensitive” markets. CAIR issued a demand for a total recall, referring to the proposed diversion as a cost-benefit analysis proposition that didn’t show respect for Muslims and stating that the logo was offensive regardless of where the shoes were sold. Nike’s subsequent actions reflected its intent to work toward the cultural awareness and engagement end Agostino identified. Timeline excerpts:

  • NIKE apologized to the Islamic community for any unintentional offense to their sensibilities.
  • NIKE implemented organizational changes to their design department to tighten scrutiny of logo design. Responsibility has been centralized into one department, and all graphic designs must now be approved by a design review board.
  • NIKE has taken measures to raise their internal understanding of Islamic issues. Specifically:
    • Worked with CAIR to identify reference materials to include in their Design Library
    • Scheduled a discussion on Islamic imagery at their next Design Summit
    • Centralized the graphic design process to ensure those with familiarity in Islamic issues evaluate all graphic designs
    • Conducted a formal investigation into this issue, and CAIR is satisfied that no deliberate offense to the Islamic community was intended.[9]

Note: Although Nike was ultimately “cleared” of any ill intent by CAIR, twelve years later the perceived offense was still being heard in the court of the Internet, with agitators “calling into question the faith of people who do not then forward the email on to an x number of other Muslims.”[10] Perspective point: In the case of cultural relations, the sales adage “it is better to ask forgiveness than permission” does not apply.

Practice Question

  1. Conley, Dalton, John Cheng, David Freund, and Sumi Cho. "Ask the Experts: What Our Experts Say," RACE—The Power of Illusion, 2003. Web. 26 June 2018.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Challa, Janaki. "Why Being 'Gypped' Hurts The Roma More Than It Hurts You." NPR. December 30, 2013. Accessed July 17, 2019.
  4. Magloff, Lisa. "Cross-Cultural Business Etiquette," Chron. Web. 26 June 2018.
  5. Tullos, Jolie. Hand Gestures and Miscommunications, 13 Jan 2014. Web. 26 June 2018.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Murphy, Caryle. "Nike Pulls Shoes that Irked Muslims." The Washington Post, 25 Jun 1997. Web. 26 June 2018.
  8. Jury, Louise. "Nike to trash trainers that offended Islam." Independent, 25 Jun 1997. Web. 26 June 2018.
  9. Khan, Mas'ud Ahmed. "'Allah' on Nike Shoes," 20 Oct 2008. Web. 24 April 2018.
  10. Ibid.