An internal communicator’s guide to cultural diversity

by Alissa Burn |

What does culture mean to you?

If you work in internal communications or HR, there’s a good chance you talk about your company culture and values regularly. A key part of your strategy might be embedding them into your day-to-day communications channels.

However, if you work for a diverse or multinational company, it’s important to consider whether the language you’re using will resonate with all your employees. Great employee engagement is often focused on emotive ‘hearts and minds’ messaging, but people who come from a different culture from your own may not respond the same way.

I attended a great event at the start of 2020 (image above), with the East Midlands Internal Communications Networking Group and PAB Languages Centre. One of the best parts was the group discussion and hearing about all the different cultural influences in the room.

The speaker defined culture as ‘a set of values, behaviours and associations’. It’s the way that you both experience and interact with the world around you. Examples we heard in the room were:

  • In more formal cultures, you need to pay attention to the greetings you use in your emails and always address colleagues by their titles.
  • There are countries where it’s considered an insult if you don’t bring a gift to a business meeting.
  • Body language can be a minefield for misunderstanding – for instance nodding doesn’t always mean agreement, they may just be signalling that they can hear you.
  • Cultures can be ‘rigid’ or ‘fluid’ – knowing which one you’re in will inform whether you should turn up early for your meeting, or not bat an eyelid if your host is 20 minutes late.

It’s extremely important not to make assumptions about someone’s culture and the way they might react to messages. Before I arrived in the Midlands I’ve come by way of Manchester, London, Hong Kong, Blantyre and Bangkok (see the image above for me onstage at my school’s International Day).

You probably wouldn’t realise just by speaking to me. But I remember being baffled the first time someone referred to a document as ‘A starter for ten’ (I still don’t watch University Challenge!)

The English language is wonderfully varied, complex and ever changing. Which can make it tricky to communicate effectively, but there are steps you can take.

For instance, try and keep your language free of acronyms, jargon and colloquialisms, which may not mean anything to other people. Here’s a classic example: what would you eat a burger on? A bap? A bread roll? A cob? Or maybe, as our spottydog Hullensian Matt calls them, a breadcake?

I also recommend using the resources available from the Plain English Campaign, which is a great way to help keep your messages clear and simple to understand.


Want to talk about internal communications or culture workshops? Please get in touch.