Top tips for communicating online across cultures

When it comes to cross-cultural communications, there are no hard and fast rules for selecting an appropriate channel, but here are some considerations to point you in the right direction:

Understanding the various channels – here’s the line up

Asynchronous: delayed time communication channels, e.g. email, threaded discussions, wikis, recorded webcasts.

Synchronous: real time communication channels, e.g. instant messaging, live webinars, live audio-, video-, and web-conferencing.

Lean: channels with a limited capacity for communicating visual, auditory (e.g. voice intonation and tone), and social cues (e.g. body language like facial expressions, gestures).

Lean-back: channels that only allow user to be passive listener and/or observer, e.g. most TV and radio.

Lean-forward: channels actively engaging the user in scanning for content, making choices, even contributing and editing content, e.g. Internet, wikis, web-conferencing.

Rich: channels able to communicate large quantities of visual, auditory, and social cue information, e.g. video-conferencing.

Essential factors to consider


  • Do the other people you’re going to communicate with across borders have access to the same or compatible channels and tools?  You may take it for granted that they do, but never assume.
  • Does everyone have the same level of proficiency in using them?  Those who are more proficient can easily become frustrated and lose their motivation if they feel held back by the less skilled.


  • In cross-cultural communications, so-called lean media channels are often more productive.  E-mail, for example, gives non-native speaking users time to compose and interpret messages accurately.
  • The use of richer media across cultures often overloads users with verbal, auditory and social cue information that creates confusion.
  • In complex projects, increase the chances of success by using a mix of channels that accommodate the different needs of different people for visuals, text, and speech.

Cultural orientations

  • Group-oriented cultures often don’t like media that can zoom-in on individuals.  It increases the danger of the individual losing face.
  • Also important to understand is how a culture perceives different channels, e.g. when status and hierarchy are important in a culture it may be that an e-mail is perceived as more formal, and, therefore, a more appropriate introduction than a telephone call.
  • In cultures where the establishment of a personal relationship is important, an email might be considered to be too impersonal (and rude).

Geography and time zones

  • When geographical distances are large and multiple time zones need to be crossed it is better to rely on asynchronous communication for most coordination.
  • Synchronous channels could be used periodically to help foster relationships.
  • A mix of technologies can be most powerful; a detailed email followed by a synchronous web-conference can be more productive than either channel alone.

Social presence and touch

  • Technology can be very impersonal, but research shows that online relationships can exceed face-to-face levels of intimacy, likeability, and sense of belonging over time.
  • Virtual teams have been proven to be more productive and deliver better results than co-located teams.  The challenge is to choose the right technologies for the right jobs.
  • When relationship or performance issues need to be addressed a channel enabling a high level of personal connection and high touch is most beneficial.  Never give personal feedback via email.
  • A relatively straightforward exchange of information doesn’t require a multimedia show.
  • If a decision is to be made, use channels that allow discussion but be clear upfront about decision rights and accountability online discussions can spin out of control. On the other hand, don’t use emails for making decisions; emails usually raise more questions than they answer.

About the Author

Terence Brake

Terence Brake is an author in the global learning & development field and has over 20 years experience helping executives to work better across cultures.

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