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Cultural Sensitivity

Written by: Morgan Rinker, CIE Student Worker


First let's define intercultural communication and what it entails:

  • Intercultural Communication, most people may think, includes speaking with those from a different race or country but there is more to it than that. Intercultural communication also includes those with different gender, socioeconomic status, age, sexual orientation, religion and several other factors.
  • We will focus on communication with those from a different country...
  • Some general tips to speaking with those from a different country:

  • Be Patient with them. They may not feel comfortable with their language skills in the given context so let them warm up to you. You may have to talk slower and limit your slang to understand them better.
  • Ask questions if you do not understand. Do not feel bad asking them to clarify or explain what they meant, even if it takes a couple tries. By asking questions, it helps to avoid assumptions and shows them that you genuinely care to understand them.
  • Be careful with your humor. In an intercultural setting, humor can be misconstrued or misinterpreted. One person's culture may find something you unintentionally joked of as offensive, so be respectful of that.
  • Work on self-improvement: A good communicator looks inward to improve what they can do better in regards to their own communication as an individual. Don't think that your communication style is the only way because that may lead to conflict.
  • Remember when communicating to:

  • Remove all stereotypes
  • Don't assume the other person is mad at you or does not like you. This may be the way they communicate with others. Try to observe how they communicate with others if you think such.
  • Listen and mirror the other person's body language as this may help them feel at ease.
  • Four Areas to focus on with Intercultural Communication:

  • Proxemics: includes nonverbal communication that deals with space and proximity. Every culture has different norms for what is acceptable so be mindful of this. The consequences of not being mindful of differences could result in discomfort or disrespect from one or both parties. For example in Chinese cultures, or the Eastern world in general, they have a greater sense of unity and protecting group privacy. In Western Cultures, we pay more attention to our individual privacy. In Southern Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America, much more physical contact usually is expected and desired. It is good to be self-aware in situations to know what behavior is respectful in regards to space and other people's territories. If you know you will be spending long periods of time with someone from another culture, you can conduct research on their norms so you do not take their behavior as socially awkward or what have you.
  • Haptics: is any form of nonverbal communication involving touch. Haptics varies drastically across cultures. In America most people hug their friends, and in parts of Europe typically a kiss (or more!) on the cheek is commonplace. Communication can be misinterpreted if one does not know the cultural norms for haptics before they encounter a situation. Some cultures do not use handshakes as well. Do not be frustrated if you hold out your hand and they do not shake it. They frankly may be unaware of your gesture and have no idea what you are doing. Lastly, some cultures simply do not use a lot of touch at all. Chinese cultures do not typically touch a lot.
  • Paralanguage: includes tone of voice, inflation, laughter, and facial expressions. Paralanguage has more influence than words. One problem with cross-cultural communication and paralanguage is that sometimes we cannot read other people accurately. For example, in America we can easily tell if a friend or someone is upset or unhappy with us. Other cultures have different ways of expressing emotion and using tone of voice to convey a message. Be extremely mindful to not assume you know how someone is feeling as a result. It is always best to clarify with the other person to make sure you are understanding them correctly. Remember also that not all cultures smile a lot at strangers even. For example in Sweden, it is completely normal to walk past your neighbor and not say hello. That does not mean that they are upset or do not like their neighbor. It is a cultural norm. If we did that in America, it could be awkward potentially.
  • Chronemics: is the study of the use of time in nonverbal communication. Time perception varies across cultures. For example the way one perceives, structures and views use of time is not the same throughout the world. In some countries it may be a norm to show up "fashionably late," whereas in others this is simply not acceptable. For example, North-Western European cultures in general are extremely punctual. If there is a meeting at 2:15pm they expect you to be ready and be there. In many cultures, including Latin America and Africa, generally meeting times are not as specific. They may say something like, "Let's meet sometime this afternoon." As a takeaway, it is best to always be early and on time to respect others even if someone from another culture does not view time similarly. If you are unsure, ask your meeting partner to elaborate on your meeting time. Do not assume someone from another culture is disrespectful, lazy, uptight, or rude, if someone experiences time in a different way.