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Communicate effectively with culturally diverse persons

Communicate effectively with culturally diverse persons


The communication process
Show respect for cultural diversity in all communication with clients, families, staff and others
Use communication constructively to develop and maintain effective relationships, mutual trust and confidence
Where language barriers exist, make efforts to communicate in the most effective way possible
Seek assistance from interpreters or other persons as required


You might be from an English-speaking background or you might be from a culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) background. Whatever your cultural and linguistic background, you will find this topic relevant. Note: the acronym CALD refers to people who are from diverse cultural and/or linguistic backgrounds (not English-speaking).

The first section of this topic focuses on people from a CALD background who are recent migrants to Australia. The latter part of the section covers communicating with Australian people of an English-speaking cultural and linguistic background.

In short, you will learn about communicating with people who are not from your own cultural and linguistic background.

On completion of this topic you will be able to:

The communication process

We will look at the communication process to introduce ways we can improve communication with the people you work with.

Being able to effectively communicate with clients and colleagues will make your work easier and more enjoyable.

Now let’s look more closely at all the elements of the communication process. An understanding of the factors involved in communicating provides a good base for improving communication between people who do not speak the same language.

As noted previously, while language is important to communication, especially for complex messages, it is possible to communicate without the use of speech. As the graph below indicates, actual words make up only a small proportion of the process.

Drawing of pie chart showing three elements of face-to-face communication: tone 30%, verbal 10%, body language 60%

Three elements of face-to-face communication

As the chart above illustrates, the communication process is 90% made up of non-verbal information. That is, language-specific words account for only 10% of communication. The rest of the communication process is made up of tone and body language.

Tone: the way we speak

  • fast or slow
  • gentle or aggressive
  • pauses.

Body language: our mannerisms and demeanour

  • facial expressions
  • gaze—looking at the other person or away from them; paying attention or not
  • gestures—arm and hand movements
  • posture—leaning forward or back; relaxed or stiff
  • distance from the other person—too close or too far

Activity 1

What things are included in the three elements of communication?

Click here for Activity 1.

Activity 2

In the following activity you will revise your understanding of the elements of communication.

Click here for Activity 2.

The essential nature of communication

Communication is essential in any workplace. Without communication it is not possible to know a client’s wants or needs or how best to offer care. However communicating effectively with people with whom you do not share a language can be very challenging.

Language is a very important component of the communication process, but not speaking the same language as another person does not mean that we cannot communicate with them.

There are many other factors that play a part in how we communicate. In fact, these other factors can be even more powerful than words. The way we go about communicating with another person—even when we do not speak the same language—can have an enormous impact on the way we make that person feel and the way they will respond to us.

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Show respect for cultural diversity in all communication with clients, families, staff and others

Why don’t they speak English?

A question on many English-speaking peoples’ minds is: ‘Why don’t they speak English?’ The following section answers this common question and aims to promote an appreciation and respect for cultural and linguistic diversity.

Learning a new language as an adult is not an easy task. Many factors can make it particularly difficult and, in some cases, almost impossible.

We look at some of those factors below:

A person’s level of literacy in their first language may have a strong impact on their ability to learn another language as an adult. This is particularly relevant to learning to read and write as well as to speak a new language.

For migrants who came to Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, there were not many opportunities for them to attend English classes. Where English classes were available, they were often inadequate and grouped people from many different language backgrounds and varying levels of formal education altogether. English classes were often unable to meet learners’ needs.

For many migrants the workplace did not offer the opportunity to learn or practise English skills. Consider that:

Outside working hours, most people spend their time with family and friends and these were usually people of the same background and speaking the same native language. Many migrants left behind close family and friends and a familiar cultural environment. Therefore, as a group they often re-created a cultural environment where they could feel more at home, speaking the same language.

Once retired, many migrants mix mostly with family and friends with whom they can share memories and cultural experiences in their own language. Much of the English learnt at work is often lost after retirement when retirees stop spending as much time around English-speaking people.

By the time they are in their 70s and 80s, most of the post World War II migrants would have been retired for at least 10–15 years. Once retired, they are likely to have been speaking almost exclusively in their native language.

Some migrants have said that they shielded themselves from the wider English-speaking community due to feelings of rejection, especially as prejudice against them was not uncommon.

English proficiency among older women migrants is often even lower than that of migrant men. Many women stay (or stayed) at home to raise children and look after the house which meant that they had very little opportunity to learn English.

Older people generally tend to go back to speaking their native language—even when they are quite proficient in English—because they find the native language easier to use. Some older people develop memory difficulties (such as Alzheimer’s disease) and the first language that they lose is the one that they had acquired last, ie English.

Further, a number of older migrants come to Australia late in life to join their children and grandchildren. These older people often have very limited exposure to the wider community and probably will not learn any English at all.

Younger migrants vary in their English-language abilities. Some will already have proficiency in English while others will come with very little English. With couples, sometimes one will speak more English than the other.

Activity 3

In this activity you will revise the reasons why many older migrants do not speak English very well.

Click here for Activity 3

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Use communication constructively to develop and maintain effective relationships, mutual trust and confidence

Communication strategies

If you are from an English-speaking background, here are a few strategies to adopt when working with people who are from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

If it is not necessary to identify a person’s cultural identity, simply use the term ‘Australian’. By mentioning people’s ethnic group, race, culture or religion, we are communicating that they are ‘different’—from the ‘norm’. If it is necessary to identify a person’s cultural identity, use terms such as ‘New Zealand-born’ or ‘Arabic-speaking’.

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Where language barriers exist, make efforts to communicate in the most effective way possible

Why do cultural misunderstandings happen?

Drawing of a woman with a head scarf and a young man in jeans. Around them are the words: use of silence; personal space; eye contact; cultural interpretations of social issues; cultural responses to emotions; non-verbal communication

There may be many cultural differences between people that can cause misunderstandings

Cultural misunderstandings can occur when people don’t share or understand the ‘rules’ of a particular culture. The ‘rules’ of how you behave are to do with what people expect you to do in certain situations. People can learn the rules of a new culture by watching people and through asking questions. It is cultural values that lead to expectations and ‘rules’ about how people behave.

Areas of misunderstanding

Whether we are from English-speaking background or from CALD background, you will find this next section relevant—as it is important for all of us to be aware of how misunderstanding can occur across cultures.

Some common areas of mis-understanding are:

Polite forms of language

In English when we ask people to do something, we don’t usually use the direct imperative form (an order). For example:

Close the window!

If we ask someone to close a window, we might say:

Would you mind closing the window?Could you please close the window? Can we close the window?Do you mind if I close the window?Close the window please.Sorry to interrupt you, but can you please close the window?

We usually soften the language or use idioms. This makes the request more indirect. How would you ask someone to close a window in your language? Do you use a more direct form of language?

Sometimes people with limited English language skills may translate a request or an expression literally from their native language. This might appear as a direct or imperative form.

Activity 4: Making requests

Consider the situation presented below and answer the questions.

Lily and Freda work together in the sterilising unit. Although they are friends, Freda thinks Lily is quite abrupt, especially when she wants her to do something. Frieda knows that Lily does not mean to sound rude.

Here are examples of what Lily might say:

Give me the tray.’

‘Don’t give this to me. Give it to Grace. It’s her job to check it.’






Slang and colloquial language is very hard to learn and may cause misunderstandings across cultures.

Colloquial language is everyday language that people speak at home or with their friends. It is informal and often includes slang.

Activity 5: Australian colloquial/slang

Check your understanding of some common Australian colloquial/slang language. Click here.


People ask different sorts of questions in different cultures. What may seem polite in one culture may be impolite in another culture. Some Australians may think it’s impolite to discuss money, age, religion, politics, their weight etc.

Sometimes new immigrants may ask questions about things that local people take for granted. This might cause discomfort and may lead to misunderstanding.

Activity 6: Asking questions

Think about the following two questions and write down your answers here.




Activity 7

Consider the situation below and answer the questions.

Erica, new to Australia, has been working at a hospital for about a week. Which of the following questions would be appropriate for her to ask if she was talking to her supervisor? Explain your answer.














We give and receive compliments differently in different cultures. In some cultures a student would deny a teacher’s compliment by looking down to show modesty. The teacher, however, expects the student to be pleased and show this by smiling and saying ‘thank you’.

Activity 8: A compliment gone wrong

Consider the scenario below and answer the question.

Maria teaches computer studies at TAFE. She compliments one of her students for doing well in his assignment. The student looks embarrassed. He looks down and says, ‘Oh no. I did it very badly.’




People have different expectations of what is appropriate (right) dress in various situations, based on their cultural experience.

Activity 9: What is appropriate dress?

You will now identify what is appropriate dress for men and women in various situations in Australia, and (if you grew up in another country), in your country. Click here for Activity 9. (.doc 109 KB)


Social customs

Social customs (the way people behave in social situations) may seem unusual in a new country. In Australia, if someone invites you to a party and asks you to bring a plate, this means bring some food to share.

If an invitation says BYO, this usually means bring your own alcohol — beer or wine. If you are at a pub (hotel) with friends and someone says, ‘It’s your shout’, this means it’s your turn to buy the drinks for everyone.

Responding to good and bad news

Misunderstandings sometimes happen when people respond to good or bad news by using inappropriate responses or body language.

Activity 10: Responding to bad news

Consider the situation below.

Anne’s father has just died. When she returns to work, one of her workmates, on hearing the news, shakes her hand.




Personal space is the distance that feels comfortable between people when they meet and talk. The distance varies depending on the relationship between people, how well they know each other. It also varies from culture to culture.

Activity 11: Personal space

Consider the situation below.

Jung is quite concerned that whenever he talks to his colleagues at work they tend to take one or two steps back.



Concept of time

How people think about and use time might depend to some extent on how their culture values time. These differences may cause some misunderstanding.

In some countries (eg Italy and in many Arab countries), it is normal for people to be half an hour late for a meeting. In some other countries (eg, USA or Britain), you can only be late for about five to 10 minutes. In Japan, being late may be perceived as insulting. In English, there are sayings such as, ‘He who hesitates is lost’; ‘Time is money’; ‘saving time’, ‘losing time’ etc. On the other hand, in Chines and Middle Eastern cultures, there are sayings such as, ‘Think three times before you act’.

If we are aware of how people perceive time differently, we can avoid mis-understanding them.

There are two main ways that people think about time:

  1. Monochronic: People who think about time in a monochronic way work out an order for doing things, deal with one thing at a time, make a sort of mental list and think that it’s important to be punctual (on time).
  2. Polychronic: People from some cultures think about time in a polychronic way. They do many things at once, change their plans often and think that people are more important than punctuality.

Remember though that while most people in a culture might be polychronic or monochronic, individuals within a culture can have a different notions about time.

Monochronic Polychronic

Time as a fixed entity.

Time is flexible.

Time is linear.

Necessary to complete one task so you can move on (forwards) to the next step.

Focus on planning

Time is cyclical.

May begin on other tasks before completing the first.

Planning is not emphasised.

Appointments and schedules are very important. Lateness is accepted only if it’s for a short time.

Appointments and schedules tend to flexible. People might be late to meetings.


Tends to live more in the present

Views the present and past as more important than the future (not so future-oriented).


Reflect on how your culture think of time? Would you say that it’s more monochronic or polychronic? Or is it different to these two concepts of time? How about you, as an individual? How do you think about time?

Activity 12: Making time

Giorgio received an invitation from Anna, his co-worker, for a lunch. Anna had said to come over to her section at 12:15pm and they will walk to the cafe next door to their workplace. Giorgio arrived at 12.45pm. He was surprised when Anna was angry with him. Giorgio couldn’t understand her problem. Both of them got upset. Their breakdown in communication started because of their different cultural attitudes to time.



Cultural behaviours

All the things we have been talking about so far — attitudes to time, social customs, forms of politeness, etc — are cultural behaviours.

Activity 13: Typical behaviour in Australia

It is now time for you identify what you think are ‘typical’ behaviours in Australia that can be open to mis-interpretation.

Click here for Activity 13 (.doc 115 KB)

Stereotyping and prejudice

Cultural behaviours may lead to stereotyping and prejudice which can lead to further breakdowns in communication.

Activity 14: Stereotyping



Activity 15: Have you experienced prejudice?



Activity 16

Here is another activity on barriers to communication.

Click here for Activity 16

Activity 17

In this activity you will revise your understanding of strategies for effective communication.

Click here for Activity 17

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Seek assistance from interpreters or other persons as required

You may be working with clients and may need to seek assistance from interpreters or other people. This section will be quite relevant to you.

If you do not work with clients, this section may not be directly relevant to your work. However, it would still be useful for you to work through it. You may, in the future, be in a role that requires interaction with clients and some of them would be from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

We will identify the circumstances and ways in which we can overcome communication difficulties across cultural and linguistic bounds.

The following are some simple strategies for effective cross-cultural communication:

  1. Speak slowly and clearly.
  2. Use short and simple sentences.
  3. Maintain normal volume.
  4. Use different words to express the same idea.
  5. Prioritise and sequence your instructions.
  6. Avoid jargon.
  7. Respond to expressed emotions.
  8. Be aware that residents from some cultural backgrounds may avoid disagreement at the expense of being honest.
  9. Allow time for questions and clarification.
  10. Use communication aids when necessary.

Communication aids and other strategies to assist communication between people who do not speak the same language are invaluable in any setting.

Use the following strategies to ensure that clients can communicate in their own language as much as possible:

Other strategies to improve communication may require specific training and authorisation. Your manager (or their delegate) is responsible for co-ordinating communication aids such as:

It is important that all staff be aware of the appropriate uses and restrictions regarding communication aid strategies so that the highest standard of care is maintained at all times. Inappropriate use of certain communication aids could cause more harm than good.

Communicating with assistance from a bilingual person

Being bilingual or multi-lingual does not mean that one is able to interpret. Professional interpreting is a specialised skill requiring extensive training.

Interpreters are not only highly trained professionals, they also specialise in specific fields, such as law or medicine.

A professional interpreter must be used in the following ways.

Medical consultations

  • treatment needs/options
  • test results
  • care plans

Legal advice / decision-making

  • financial arrangements
  • power of attorney
  • wills

Confidential information

  • any private/confidential information
Drawing of four circles: interpreter in the middle and medical, legal and confidential as co-joining circles

When you must use an interpreter

Why do we need interpreters?

This does not mean that bilingual staff should never be used to assist communication. They can be a great resource to your work, but it is vital to remember that bilingual relatives, friends and colleagues should only be asked to assist with communicating simple, practical messages. Bilingual staff can also be a great help with recreational activities such as bilingual bingo.

Remember that bilingual staff have their own busy workload and that assisting communication between others is additional work for them.

If ever you feel a client requires an interpreter, refer the matter on to a supervisor.

How to communicate effectively with the assistance of a bilingual person or interpreter

  1. Make sure the person you ask to help speaks the same language/dialect as the client!
  2. Check that the bilingual person can spare the time to help you or book a professional interpreter.
  3. Explain the questions you wish to ask the client and what assistance you’d like from the interpreter.
  4. Approach the client together.
  5. Always address the client directly.
  6. Let the bilingual person ask the client if they mind the bilingual person helping you to communicate.
  7. Speak to the client—NOT the bilingual person.
    1. use short, simple sentences
    2. speak slightly more slowly than usual
    3. use a normal volume.
  8. Pause after each sentence to allow the bilingual person to repeat what you have said.
  9. Allow time for questions and clarification.
  10. Don’t use jargon, slang or jokes—they will not translate effectively.
  11. Check regularly to ensure the client understands.
  12. Ask the client if they have any questions for you.
  13. Thank the bilingual person in front of the client.
  14. When you have moved away from the client ask the bilingual person if they would like to debrief or if they have any comments/suggestions. This will allow you to discuss any concerns.

Please note: It is important that the final step (step 14) never takes place in front of the client because this will allow the bilingual person to express things they may not wish to say in front of the client. The client will feel excluded and embarrassed if the conversation continues without including them.

Activity 18

Find out where, in your location you can obtain an interpreter service for the cultural group, other than your own that you are most likely to provide a service for. What are the costs?

Additional resources

There are many resources on cross-cultural communication and you might be able to find some in your TAFE library and on the internet. Below we have listed a few of the resources that you might be able to locate.


Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission: www.hreoc.gov.au

NSW Anti-Discrimination Board: www.lawlink.nsw.gov.au/adb

Australian Health Directory: www.healthdirectory.com.au/Special_care/Culture_specific/search

Queensland Government website. Includes Aboriginal history and cultural information as well as a guide to protocols for community visits. www.atsip.qld.gov.au/resources/cultures.cfm

Aboriginal Benchbook: www.aija.org.au/online/ICABenchbook/BenchbookChapter2.pdf

Aboriginal culture: www.aboriginalculture.com.au/index.shtml

Indigenous Australia, Australian Museum: www.dreamtime.net.au/indigenous/index.cfm

Northern Territory Public Health Bush Book. For those who work in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory: www.nt.gov.au/health/healthdev/health_promotion/bushbook/bushbook_toc.shtml

Department of Immigration and Citizenship: www.immi.gov.au/index.htm

NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS): www.startts.org.au/Default.aspx

Communication with the Deaf community. National Relay Service, including call options and TTY phones: www.relayservice.com.au


Multicultural, Cross-cultural & Intercultural Games and Activities: http://wilderdom.com/games/MulticulturalExperientialActivities.html


Gudykunst WB (2003) Cross-cultural and Intercultural Communication Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, California

Hamston J and Murdoch K (2004) Australia Kaleidoscope, Curriculum Corporation

Hemming P (1990) Cultural Awareness: Cross-cultural communications, Regency College of TAFE, Hotel School, Regency Park, SA

Pauwels A (1991) Cross-cultural Communication in Medical Encounters, Monash University, Community Languages in the Professions Unit, Language and Society Centre, National Languages Institute of Australia, Melbourne

Pauwels A (1995) Cross-cultural Communication in the Health Sciences: Communicating with migrant patients, Macmillan, South Melbourne

Pride JB (1985) Cross-cultural Encounters: Communication and mis-communication, River Seine Publications, Melbourne

Reynolds S (2004) Guide to Cross-cultural Communication, Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ

Wajnryb R (1991) Other Voices: A cross-cultural communication workbook, Thomas Nelson, South Melbourne

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