Challenges of International & Cross-Cultural Business Communications

Businesses have become global, and they require a new set of rules.
Businesses have become global, and they require a new set of rules. (Image: Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)

When communicators have significant cultural differences, miscommunication is likely. Changes such as internationalization, downsizing, mergers, acquisitions and joint ventures challenge the international business community. When cross-cultural communication is deficient, businesses have a lack of internal unity, and problems arise, such as loss of clients, staff retention, power struggles, stress, decreased productivity and lack of cooperation.

Lack of Communication

Communicating with staff not only relates to spoken dialogue but to information access as well. For example, a staff member may feel alienated and divided from management if he is not given appropriate feedback or if management fails to properly communicate expectations. When managers do not provide pertinent information, the staff may become suspicious and jealous among themselves, resulting in internal strife instead of cohesion. Lines of communication should move vertically both up and down the chain of command so that subordinates will not feel estranged, indifferent, or belligerent.


Companies need to broach the difficult areas of inappropriate language as well as foreign language. Speech has subliminal meanings and messages transmitted through vocabulary, stress and tone. The wrong use of words or emotions can send the wrong messages to staff and affect self-perception, confidence and attitude. Offices may have native speakers of many languages all under one roof. Establish a main language, whether it is English, French or Spanish, and insist that everyone converse in the main language. Make sure that all employees are fully conversant in the principal language by providing appropriate training.


International businesses usually have a highly diverse workforce in terms of nationality and cultural background. The businesses face challenges from differences in language, values, belief systems, business ethics, business practices, behavior, etiquette and expectations. These dissimilarities can have a negative impact on team cohesion or on staff productivity. Intermediaries who are familiar with both cultures can be helpful by translating both the substance and the manner of what is said. They can make adjustments in tone that would be considered appropriate in one culture but not in another, or they can adjust the timing of what is said and done.


Different cultures relate differently to polite space for conversations and negotiations. For example, North Americans prefer a large amount of space, whereas Europeans tend to stand closer. The problem arises when one culture sees another’s attempt to create more space as evidence of coldness, condescension or indifference. Those who are accustomed to more personal space may view attempts to get closer as disrespectful or aggressive.

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