Based on research for this project, communication between cultures was the biggest barrier in workplaces and daily living. If you are unable to recognize these barriers, it can lead to misunderstandings, assumptions and discrimination within our communities.

Culture has a profound impact on how we communicate. We also have learned behaviours that influence how we communicate.

Direct vs Indirect Communication

One influencing factor is whether communication is direct or indirect.

The speaker is responsible for clear communication. Problems are felt to be solved more rapidly if open and honest discussion is encouraged.

Direct communicators tend to:

● Expect communication to be clear and concise

● Arrive at their point quickly

● Prefer messages that are explicit and literal

● May find indirect speakers confusing

The listener is responsible to understand meaning. Meaning is conveyed through words, but also through context and nonverbal behaviours – pauses, silence, tone of voice; ideas are inferred, rather than explicit. Problems are felt to be solved more productively if they are handled with tact and discretion.

Indirect communicators tend to:

● Find meaning in the context and tone of delivery

● Express ideas carefully

● Prefer messages that are implicit and not literal

● May find direct speakers rude

Low vs High Context Culture

Another influencing factor is whether a communicators are from low or high context cultures.

Little time is spent on the context of a situation to add or convey meaning. The assumption is that the listener knows little of the topic and that all facets must be explained in a logical and analytical way, focusing on action that needs to be taken.

● Tend to prefer direct verbal interaction

● Tend to understand meaning at one level only

● Are generally less proficient in reading nonverbal cues

● Value individualism

● Rely more on logic

● Employ linear logic

● Say ‘no’ directly

● Communication in highly structured messages, provide details, stress literal meaning

The listener does not need much background information, as they already have it. These cultures tend to be more intuitive, contemplative, and concerned with the collective.

● Tend to prefer indirect verbal interaction

● Tend to understand meanings embedded at many sociocultural levels

● Are generally more proficient in reading nonverbal cues

● Value group membership

● Rely more on context and feeling

● Employ spiral logic

● Talk around point; avoid saying no

● Communication is simple, sometimes ambiguous messages; understand visual messages readily


Differences in communication styles may cause misunderstandings between cultures. Additional causes for miscommunication include using idioms rather than plain language. It is common for us to use idioms, but it can lead to misunderstanding.

Cat got your tongue?Can’t you speak?
Snug as a bug in a rugWarm and cozy
Go the extra mileMake an extra effort
Butterflies in my stomachFeeling nervous
To go down in flamesTo fail spectacularly
Once in a blue moonRarely

Common idioms in the workplace

Take the bull by the hornsFacing a difficult or risky situation bravely and decisively
Ahead of the curveDoing a good job of predicting trends, keeping up with current methods, and leading peers
Not going to flySomething won’t be effective, permissible, or well received
Hit the nail on the headTo do something with precision or say exactly the right thing
On the back burnerPausing work on one project or task to focus on another, more urgent one

Download the full Guide & Toolkit to learn more:

  • Explore communication factors that make it difficult for us to understand each other fully.
  • Learn more about differences in communication styles for direct and indirect communicators
  • Get tips to communicate more effectively with others when considering style and context of communication to avoid misunderstandings, assumptions, and discrimination when working with different cultures
  • Learn how to stop, consider your response, and work to develop intercultural communication and relationship competence.