Why Cross-Cultural Communication Is So Hard


We used to call it a melting pot

When I went to school as a young boy, I often heard people use the term ‘Melting Pot’ to describe North America. The concept refers to the blending of many cultures into one. The risk is that people will give up their uniqueness in an attempt to fit in. In other words, we mix everyone together so they sound and act the same. It reminds me of the famous line from Star Trek Next Generation: “We are the Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile”. But the beauty of a diverse culture is found in the very differences that set us apart. Instead of trying to melt all the crayons into a big amorphous blob of wax, we should be celebrating what each culture brings to the table. But all too often, our false assumptions and prejudices get in the way.

This is the first in a series that unpacks some of the challenges we face. My hope is that a higher level of cultural awareness will make you a stronger communicator.

Challenge #1: You see the world from your perspective

We’re not always selfish on purpose, but we’re all good at protecting our own interests. This video clip from the classic comedy The Honeymooners (cue to 11:30) shows Ralph Kramden cheating at a coin toss with his best friend Ed Norton. The winner gets to keep the new TV set. The scene is only about a minute long – it’s good for a laugh, but it also reveals a deep truth.


We all want to win the coin toss.

I’m not judging – we can’t help it. Think of the typical disconnect between Men and Women, Boomers and Gen Y’s, Executives and Hourly Employees, etc. When you put two or more groups of people together, communication can easily break down. And it gets even more complicated when we compare the communication styles of native English speakers with the habits of people who have learned English as a second language. It’s a huge gap, and we don’t talk about it much, probably because we don’t understand it. Here’s the starting point:

It’s not about you!

Communication is ALWAYS about the other person…their needs, their style, their preferences. Take a look at some of the recent messages you’ve sent to others. Have you been writing for them, or for yourself? Did you consider their needs, or yours? Did you speak a common language, or did you throw in the same old jargon? To break down cultural barriers, we need to be willing to give up our own positions. This is the first step, and you won’t make it very far if you keep pushing your own agenda. You need to have an open mind to jump into someone else’s reality.


Next time we’ll tackle challenge #2, which looks at the very different ways cultures view and handle conflict.

Geoff Weinstein






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