Fostering Effective Cross-Cultural Communication

by Jesi Sucku

From the moment we come into the world as infants, we are communicating with those around us. Each cry is a bid for attention, an attempt to meet a need or make someone aware of something. Even without language, it is our most basic instinct to communicate in order to survive. As we get older and we learn how to navigate the world around us we acquire various communication skills and techniques and our methods evolve, informed by our culture, language, values and belief systems.

In the book The Influence of Culture on Communication, several of these cultural differences are explored. From our choice of tone to our body language, we are sending messages that are both implicit and explicit to those we communicate with. People with cultural backgrounds from Greece, Japan and Arab nations are considered “high context”. This means they are likely to be less direct, more subtle and more sensitive in their approach to communication. On the other hand, those from the United States, Germany and Switzerland are “low context” cultures–they value more direct styles of communication that leave nothing to interpret. This can come off as blunt or rude to those from high context cultures, while the tendencies of low context cultures can appear meek or inscrutable to their high context conversation partners. Similarly, even things like eye contact and physical touch vary greatly from one culture to the next. In the United States, eye contact is an expectation and is seen as required to show respect. In Latin and South American cultures, however, it is seen as rude and disrespectful to maintain eye contact with someone. As Edward Hall said in his book The Silent Language, “We must never assume that we are fully aware of what we communicate to someone else.” (Hall, 1959).

Human beings do not exist within a vacuum, however, and eventually we all must coexist alongside other humans whose communication styles and methods have evolved to much different ends than our own. It can present conflict and it can present learning opportunities, but most importantly it can present an opportunity for reflection and self-awareness. It is important, especially as educators in a field that touches so many diverse lives, therefore, to ask the question “How do I, as a teacher, foster effective communication in the classroom” and for directors, coaches and supervisors, “How do I foster effective communication among the teachers I mentor or supervise?”.

This question came to mind after reading the article Wondering With Children: The Importance of Observation in Early Education by George Forman and Ellen Hall where they state “As teachers, it is important for us to know our children deeply.” (Forman & Hall, 2005). My original question around the area of inquiry of communication was “How do we ensure we know our children deeply?” I began to consider the differences between knowing someone on the most basic, surface level and knowing them deeply. The following week we had a guest speaker from Cultures Connecting in Seattle who presented us with the idea that our most basic, surface-level traits and behaviors are influenced by things that go far deeper than people can see at a glance. Our tone of voice, body language, even the words we choose are all made up of the history and experiences we have behind us.


In the learning activity presented to the participants, they were asked to refer to the “Iceberg Model of Culture” developed by anthropologists Selfridge and Sokolik (1975). It challenged them to consider how their communication styles were influenced by things “beneath the surface” and was intended to bring mindfulness into their interactions. One of them mentioned that after the activity, they had a new lens through which they could look at a trying relationship with a new co-teacher in their classroom. Another considered how her hidden traits influenced the “visible” part of the iceberg in relation to her new classmates as a child. Personally, I began to think about my approach to coaching with the teachers I mentor and how I might use such an activity for reflection with them as a way to gain insight into the best way to communicate with them during our coaching sessions. While many of the teachers I interact with are of very similar cultural backgrounds as me, there are a handful who come from a variety of places and backgrounds, and through practicing mindfulness using this tool, I believe I can improve my approach and better our communication without forcing them to code-switch or be the one to compromise themselves to reach an understanding.

This method can be useful for classroom teachers as well as they navigate how to individualize for their students and increase family engagement in their classrooms. Zalika Gardner stated in her TED Talk called “Listening Differently” that there are three traits that interrupt our listening: assumption, arrogance and fear (Gardner, 2014). These three things can all be overcome when we take into consideration how another person’s culture and background has created their “visible iceberg”. By being mindful of how we approach others and making an effort to understand and adapt to their communication styles, we are more likely to create a solid community within our classrooms.


Fay, R., & Spinthourakis, I. (2000). The Influence of Culture on Communication. In
Communicating in Another Language: The Influence of Culture (pp. 233-282). Athens and Patras, Metachmio. doi:

Forman, G., & Hall, E. (2005). Wondering With Children: The Importance of Observation in Early Education. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 7(2).

Gardner, Zalika. (2014). Zalika Gardner: Listening Differently [Video file]. Retrieved from:

Hall,E.T. (1959) The Silent Language. New York, USA: Doubleday (1990 re-issue by AnchorBooks, a division of Doubleday)


Selfridge, R., Sokolik, S. (1975) “A comprehensive view of organizational
management”. MSU Business Topics, 23(1), 46-61


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