We live in a global society. We interact with people of diverse cultures, backgrounds and traditions at the workplace, in society and at play. Technology has made the world a smaller place and it has brought societies together. We engage in business with companies in many different countries. We employ people from different countries and hence, we need to know how to communicate well with them. We do not want to offend others, something which can be easily done, by communicating poorly. Poor communication with people of other nationalities has resulted in riots, violent attacks and general unhappiness. In this post I will provide you with some suggestions on how to communicate well.

Pace, Pronunciation and Questions

If the person you are talking to does not have as good a grasp of the language that you are using then it does not help to speak fast. Instead you should slow down and speak clearly. Pronounce your words well. Say “Cataract” and not “Catallact”. “Catallact” can sound like “Cadillac”. Avoid asking double questions in one question. An example of this is “Do you want to carry on or shall we stop here?” The person may answer “Yes” but yes for what? To carry on or to stop? Let the person answer one question at a time. This will ensure clarity and understanding.

Check Responses and Provide Encouragement

Effective communication means that you provide opportunities for the other person to respond. Do not dominate. When you make a point, wait for a response from the other person and listen carefully as the response is made. When the response is made, write it down so as to be clear about the point. Check it with the other person.

You will need to encourage and make the other person whose command of the language is weak to be comfortable. The other person will feel confident and will soon trust you. Trust is essential. Also, it helps also to ask the other person to repeat what has been said. This will check that understanding has taken place.

Idiomatic Expressions, Double Negatives and Acronyms

Avoid idiomatic expressions like, “Take the Bull by the Horns”, “Dead Duck” and slang expressions like “Mickey Mouse” and “Jam”. It is difficult for people from other cultures to understand these expressions. Do not use double negatives too, when you speak. An example of this is “Didn’t See Nothing”. Too often we like to use acronyms because we understand them. We forget that people from other countries may not know what these acronyms stand for. Some examples of popular acronyms used in our country are, HDB; PUB; IRAS; NUS; DBS; NTUC and POSB.

Humour and Sarcasm

Always remember that the humour that you are used to may not be clearly understood by someone from another country. Sometimes the humour which you accept may be viewed with embarrassment or disgust by other people. So be careful when you introduce humour into your speech. Avoid sarcasm too.

Giving Instructions

Instructions should be presented clearly and sequentially. To avoid mistakes do not explain step one and then move to step three, before coming back to step two. Be methodical and go from one step to another slowly. Make procedures very clear and write instructions down. It helps too, to demonstrate a process or procedures slowly and clearly. When you are working with people of different nationalities it is important to exercise patience. They may ask you to re-explain a step, a point or a statement as they may not have grasped it the first time.

Being Formal

When you are meeting and discussing business and other issues with foreigners be conscious that certain cultures prefer formality. Use the titles of the people you are with, for example, Mr/Mrs; Dr; Professor. Use their surnames too and avoid calling them by their first names.

Racial and Stereotypical References

Avoid using racial descriptions to identify people. It is better to say, “Jennifer, an extroverted person” than to say, “Jennifer, an extroverted Chinese.” It is best too, to leave out qualifiers that reinforce ethnic and racial stereotypes. When you use an expression like this one: “The hardworking Indian manager” implies that Indians are not hardworking. It is best to avoid using language which has questionable racial or ethnic connotations. When speaking to foreign staff, do not use expressions like “you people”. Avoid using stereotypical references.

If you are a supervisor working with foreign staff, it is wise to use simple words when you speak to them. Use simple, short sentences and if something is important put the emphasis on these words only.

Listen Well

Now when we are engaged in conversation or discussion with foreigners, learn to paraphrase what the other person is saying. Do not interrupt when the person is speaking. You should also show the person that you are giving him or her, your complete attention. Remain attentive from the minute the person says his or her first word, to the end. Watch your body language as any inappropriate gesture or movement can give offence. Focus on the words used, the pronunciation and accent of the speaker. Make every effort to grasp the viewpoint of the other person and demonstrate empathy.

Be Skilled In Cross-Cultural Communication

It is best to attend a training programme on Cross-Cultural Communication if your work involves communicating to people of different nationalities. Try to read as much as you can about Communication and practice different communication strategies. If you have to make a presentation to foreigners do spend time on your planning and practising your presentation. This will help to prevent any errors from being made.

I leave you with this quote by the 44th President of the United States, Barrack Obama,
“It’s important to make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”


  1. Gillian Checkley

    Hi Zaibun, As part of my Accounts Receivable / Credit Control work I have to ring companies in Fiji, where english is a second language. So much of our communication is done via email and sometimes it is difficult just to get the email address. The initial communication is via telephone and then I find it is best to spell out the email address to ensure it is correct. This in itself creates difficulties….whereas I might say ‘l’ for Larry, ‘v’ for Victor, but in fact should I simplify it even more ‘l’ for lady, ‘v’ for (?)!!! I find that whilst I talk slowly and try and be more articulate I seem to (without realising) talk louder. I also have to take into consideration what is referred to as ‘Fiji time”……and what might me a priority to me is not necessarily a priority to the person on the other end of my communication. Reading your comments has helped focus me, given me some tips as to where I can do better…….so I thank you for that.

    I am enjoying your blogs…..Gillian.

  2. Dear Zaibun,
    Thanks for your 2 postings on “Mutual Respect” and “Communication”. In my view, a deficiency in either or both of these qualities is accountable for the turmoil that we are witnessing in the world today. I especially appreciate your cautions regarding the use of double negatives, sarcasm and even a sense of humour that may have different implications in different settings.
    I also am particularly concerned by the direction communication is taking with the use of abbreviated electronic media. This brings me to a quote from Charles Dickens: “Electr(on)ic communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true”.
    Body language is an attribute that must be cultivated.
    Many thanks

    Osborn Viegas

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