Multicultural communication – avoiding cultural faux pas

by Paula Moran in

You’re at a networking event and notice two men standing very close together talking.  One man takes an uncomfortable step backward.  The second man takes a persistent step forward.  The two continue this awkward tango all the way across the carpeted floor.


What you are watching is cultural miscommunication.  Both men are trying to impose the respect of their cultural communication patterns resulting in an awkward social dilemma.


This article is written for professionals who work with minority populations.  You need to be aware of differences in culture communication patterns to better connect with and avoid insulting people.  This is particularly important for those people doing out reach or teaching in such communities that require trust and respect.


The de facto communication style in America is that of the majority European American culture. Those of us who are part of this ethnic group may not think twice about how we communicate.  It is the standard business communication style with standing arms length away from another person and keeping your emotions restrained.


A full introductory guide to communication styles can be found in this

article.  I’ll summarize the information below and add some personal insights from my interactions with different ethnic groups.




So what is the “Mainstream” communication pattern that we should compare everything to?  In the United States the Anglo or European American communication pattern is the mainstream communication patter and the acceptable business communication style.  This pattern has its cultural origins in western and northern Europeans that immigrated to America during the earlier years of our country.  General Descriptors include:


  • Direct and non-emotional speech
  • Eye contact is important
  • The self is more important than the group
  • Stand arms length from the person you are speaking to
  • A medium range of gesture and tone are acceptable.
  • Time is linear and important.  Things happen according to clock time
  • Direct linear thought is prefered


Eye contact is so important in this communication style that you can be seen as untrustworthy if you do not maintain appropriate eye contact (not staring, but always attentive to the person).  For those who have trouble with, or do not like direct eye contact I recommend looking at the bridge of the other person’s nose.  I’ve also heard the recommendation to play a game with yourself and to find out what the other person’s eye color is to encourage you to make eye contact.  It will take 3-5 seconds to determine an eye color and that is about the length of direct eye contact that should be made before breaking for a moment.



Native American


This has some of the largest difference with mainstream culture.  While they make up a small percentage of the overall population, if you deal with this population on a regular basis taking into account their differences in communication style can mean the difference between success and distrust.  Communication features include:


  • Restraint in tone, pitch, gesture and vocal pattern. 
  • Touch is uncommon unless among family or intimates
  • Prolonged or “normal” eye contact is rude and invasive, especially with elders.
  • It is disrespectful to interrupt or speak to quickly after someone finishes.   Count a few seconds in your head before speaking.  Rushing to respond to someone in a formal setting displays disrespect and that you have not considered what he or she said.
  • Culturally things happen at the “right” time or general time of the day.  Imposing rigid clock time would be interpreted as overbearing and rude.
  • Connection with the greater group is very important


African American

This refers to people of African descent.  There will be differences between those families that have been in the United States for generations and those who recently immigrated within the last generation or two.  Communication patterns include:


  • More passionate speech than mainstream with body directly facing the conversation partner.
  • Urgency in reply gives status to the speaker so responses should be quick.
  • Large and frequent gestures are normal.
  • A wide range of tones and pitches are acceptable.
  • Often communication will take into account the group or family


A note from my experience with African-American teenagers:  the urgency in replies can result in loud impassioned outbursts.  When confronted do not respond in anger.  Some of my colleagues have reported success in calmly removing the teenagers from situation and keeping things non-verbal for a short while.


Asian American

This is one of the broadest ethnic terms in use.  These communication patterns in general reflect more of eastern Asian culture (China, Japan and Korea).  Communication patterns include:


  • No touch or emotion
  • Keep tones quiet and a narrow range
  • Do not make eye contact for more than a second, particularly if the person is of higher status than you
  • Use few and restrained gestures
  • Identity is determined within a group context so relevant groups should be referenced
  • Time is viewed to have a cyclic nature.  While clock time is important it is not viewed with the same urgency as with European American culture.


Because Asian American school children are often required to make direct eye contact with their American teachers there can be differences in communication styles between generations of a single family.


Hispanic or Latino


The phrase Hispanic is used by our government to categorize Americans who descended from Spanish speakers.  Within this ethnic population Hispanic is generally used to refer to people from the island nations (such as Puerto Rico, Cuba or the Dominican Republic).  While Latino is used to identify people from main land Latin America, including indigenous peoples.  If you would like to identify which group a person belongs to you can ask which country their family is from, or listen to their casual conversation.  Latinos will tend to self identify themselves.  Keep in mind that some Latinos resent being called Hispanics.  The phrase Latina is the feminized version of Latino.  Following the rules of the Spanish language Latina refers to an exclusively female group.  Communication styles will vary but in general:


  • The pitch for Spanish speakers is narrower than mainstream.  The normal range for a mainstream speaker often will be in the angry range for a Spanish speaker. Keep this in mind if you are supervising Hispanics.
  • Distance and pause time between speakers is less than mainstream.  They can cause discomfort to mainstream style communicators.
  • Gestures and emotion will vary depending on who is present. The more Hispanics or Latinos present the larger the range of gestures and emotion.
  • Direct eye contact is disrespectful, particularly with individuals older than you.
  • Spanish speakers can come across to a mainstream communicator as meek or shy.


Note: if you are communicating with an indigenous Latino you may observe communication patterns similar to that of Native Americans.


***Please remember that the above are generalized communication patterns and not all members of the ethnic group will follow them***


So what does this all mean?  Being aware of differences in communication styles will help you avoid miscommunication and increase success.


If you are doing outreach into a particular ethnic group or community it is especially important to learn the communication styles of that group.  Using the communication styles of that group will show them respect and increase your acceptance into the community.   Those who do not use the communication styles of a particular ethnic group can be excluded from the group itself.  For example, during President Obama’s Presidential campaign some people said he “wasn’t black enough.”  This exclusion from the community was due to his use of mainstream communication styles.


For a full version of the article please visit: