Strategies for effective communication

When we talk about a cultural group, we are not just talking about an ethnic group of people who speak a different language or come from another country. A cultural group is any group in a society with a distinctive way of life.

It is not just the distinctive culture of each group that forms the culture of a place, but also the way these groups relate to each other.  Exploring the ways in which various groups within our society have related to one another may be the key to opening channels for communicating with diverse cultures.

Communication is a learned skill, which requires research and practice.  Knowing and understanding something about the other culture you are communicating with will help you develop your skills. The Internet can be a great resource for investigating different cultures. A genuine effort to communicate and understand another person is the first step to being an effective communicator.

Below are some examples of communication strategies:

CALD clients and co-workers

The key to communicating effectively with people from CALD is to be flexible.  According to the Office of Multicultural Affairs (1994), being flexible requires:

  • keeping an open mind in unfamiliar situations
  • being alert to the different ways people interact
  • being aware that gender roles may differ and that there may be a call for organising separate women-only groups
  • ensuring that women are adequately represented
  • seeking to understand the protocols of diverse ethnic community groups
  • developing an empathy with, and understanding of, others who may have experienced great traumas during their lives
  • being willing to provide information and to encourage and seek input from community groups and individuals
  • being aware that some CALD groups and individuals may mistrust the motives of some organisations
  • being willing to learn and adapt
  • demonstrating consistency and reliability.

I am originally from China. I speak English well; however, sometimes people think I am rude. Chinese people do not generally say please and thank you, and if they have to walk between two people who are having a conversation, they bow their heads when walking between, instead of saying ‘Excuse me please’.

At other times I am seen as too formal. I find it hard to call people by their first name, as Chinese people prefer to use the terms Mr, Mrs, Sir, Madam and even Aunt andUncle for children. When they introduce themselves, their surnames (family names) are often used first, followed by their own name.

Language groups

People who speak languages other than English form about 25% of the community.  In our day-to-day dealings with people in our Australian multicultural society, we are bound to come across people whose English is limited.

Each culture has its own verbal and written language for communication between its members. Regarding verbal language, each language has its own characteristics, such as:

  • intonation
  • pitch of voice
  • pronunciation
  • speed
  • grammar
  • sentence structure
  • tense.

(modified from QTMHC, 2002)

When using English as a second language, people may attempt to follow it in a similar way to their use of their first language. This may present a number of difficulties related to:

  • foreign accent
  • difference in sentence structure
  • differences in vocabulary and meaning
  • use of jargon and slang.


CALD clients and co-workers may follow the pitch of voice, intonation or speed of their first language when using English. This often results in the presence of an accent.

Accents vary from mild to strong; this sometimes hinders your ability to understand the speaker’s verbal language.  Therefore, to avoid misunderstandings, community and disability services workers need to be mindful of those clients who have a good grasp of English but who speak with a strong accent. Be aware that even people from fluent English-speaking communities may be difficult to understand, e.g. people from some parts of the USA or UK.

Audio case example

Gunter Schmidt from Munich in Germany is calling Heritage Lodge to make a booking. His English is reasonable; however, over the phone the receptionist finds it hard to understand him. She is not very tolerant and as she loses patience with him his English begins to falter.

Listen to Gunter's booking call

Ring... ring... (phone rings)

Receptionist: "Heritage."

Gunter: "Yea, uh, hello, uh, we need a uh umm, we need a room for tonight..."

Receptionist: "Say that again, what's ya, what's your name?"

Gunter: "My name is Gunter, Gunter Schmidt, Gunter Schmidt, aus, aus, from a, from a, Munchen err Munich..."

Receptionist: "Look, you better just come in, I'll see ya when ya get ere."

Clearly Gunter’s call could have been handled much better. It is important to listen actively when responding to telephone calls from people with accents. Be patient, reassure the caller and paraphrase for clarity.

Sentence structure

Another source of confusion is the disparity in sentence structure. CALD clients and co-workers may apply the principles of sentence structure of their first language to English.

Examples include:

  • placing the subject at the end of the sentence rather than at the front
  • different grammatical structures, e.g. different expression of tense (or no use of tense) than that used in English.

Sometimes they may switch between the structures; this will tend to cause further confusion. This is particularly noticeable with some Western European people, e.g. Italians and Germans.

Differences in vocabulary and meaning

The meaning of words being used by CALD clients and co-workers could vary from the meaning in a client’s or worker’s culture. Verbal communication is the basis of most assessment and it is important to seek clarification of a word or term when the meaning is unclear.

Different cultures may have a different vocabulary and other different ways of describing their emotions and feelings. All societies have their own jargon and slang that are shared within the culture. The communities and disability sectors have their own jargon and terminology that tends to only be understood by those working in the field.

In a cross-cultural communication, use of professional jargon and local slang or complex terminology with CALD clients and co-workers could cause misunderstandings. Likewise, where staff are working cross-culturally, they must also prepare for the terminology, jargon and slang that CALD speakers might use.

People who are hearing-impaired, or visually impaired

A few simple strategies can improve your communication with people who have restricted vision or hearing.

  • Be considerate to the needs of people with restricted hearing or vision.
  • Don’t shout at a person who is visually impaired. They can usually hear quite well. Be clear in any instructions you give, tell them what you are going to do next.  Always ask if it is OK to take their arm and guide them.
  • Make sure you are facing a person who is hearing-impaired so your face can be seen and your lips read. Use hand signals to direct if necessary.

(Adapted from Nulph 2002)

Age groups

People of every age group have something to contribute to others.

Young people have energy and vitality to drive their team and inspire co-workers and clients. For many youth workers, it is very important to understand the specific culture of young people they are working with ─ the way they look, the clothes and music they like, and what is important to them.

Older, more mature people have a great deal of experience and will be passionate about their work.  They will be loyal and committed to their employer.

Both groups, if they communicate well, can give balance to the organisation.


Over the past thirty years, more and more women have returned to the workforce to make a valuable contribution to our economy and society in general.  Many women have a break or only work part-time whilst their families are young.

Whatever their reasons, when they return to the workforce full-time, they are often unsure of their abilities or the expectations of the new work environment. They may have lost confidence after being out of the workforce for a while.

It is important as a co-worker and team-mate that you support and assist these colleagues. The fact that a woman has been out of the workforce for some time does not mean she has nothing to offer. She will probably have a wealth of practical knowledge and experience in managing her time and workspace efficiently.  Consideration should be given to ensure working parents’ needs are met when their families need their support.

These considerations should be extended to working parents and women of all cultures.


Mapping cultural groups in your community

Section 3 activities (Word Document 59KB)

Case study: Communicating with a CALD client

Read the case study below and answer the questions that follow. Enter your response into the text boxes provided.

Natasha, a middle-aged woman of Eastern European appearance, approached the receptionist of a community centre. She spoke with a very strong accent. The receptionist then asked for her name by speaking very slowly and in a loud voice. The receptionist repeated the request three times, drawing the attention of the whole centre. Natasha looked very unhappy and went away.

  1. Would speaking loudly and slowly help the communication problem? Why/why not?
  1. How might the client be feeling after being spoken to in this way?
  1. What would you do to break the communication barrier if you were the receptionist?

Case study: Communicating with a CALD co-worker

Read the case study below and answer the questions that follow. Enter your response into the text boxes provided.

Chi Ming is a new male assistant at your community respite care centre for people with a disability. You learned that Chi Ming is of Chinese descent and completed nursing training in Malaysia.  During the shift handover, you try to tell him about the situation of one of the clients and the need to give medication to the client. You found that Chi Ming speaks with a very strong accent which is hard to understand. After you have finished giving the information, you found that Chi Ming still seemed to be unsure about what to do.

What other methods of communication would you use with Chi Ming to ensure that he understands the administering of medication to the client?

Tips for Taking action

To ensure you are meeting the needs of your diverse range of colleagues and customers, look at the following action list and consider these actions when you are dealing with diversity.

  • Know what culture(s) you belong to.
  • Understand that culture is pervasive.  It influences the way you act, see, feel, do, interact, and behave.
  • Accept that quite a lot of your own behaviour is rule-governed and ritualised.  You are a member of a culture which regulates your behaviour.
  • Don’t make assumptions about other people’s culture based on their ethnicity or nationality.
  • Don’t draw conclusions about a person’s culture based on some aspect of their lifestyle.
  • Don’t assume that when you see something familiar in another culture that it has the same meaning and significance as in your own culture.
  • Accept cultural difference as a reality.  Underneath, the people of the world can be profoundly different.
  • Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your culture is more complex than others.
  • Allow yourself to like and dislike aspects of other cultures, but don’t condemn entire cultures.
  • Remember that when you judge another culture you are probably using your own culture’s standards as a measurement.
  • Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the people in your culture are diverse individuals, whereas the people in other cultures are indistinguishable.
  • Accept that, although goodwill and tolerance provide a reasonable start, they are not enough.  Look for the knowledge, awareness and skill needed to improve intercultural communication.
  • Don’t feel that you have to change your culture.
  • Remember that your aim is to become a more skilled communicator, not a ‘better’ person.
  • Remember that people have always succeeded in intercultural communication and always will.
  • Try to avoid ‘discounting’ (I don’t like those people, but I like Ekes, he’s different.) If you are reacting positively to one person from that culture, there will be many other people in that culture you will relate to.  He or she is not necessarily ‘different’.
  • If you meet someone from another culture whom you don’t like, don’t generalise.  Remember that this happens in your culture too (and you don’t generalise and dismiss all of the people in your own culture).
  • Don’t automatically assume that a person’s negative behaviour is due to and typical of their culture.  (‘They’re all like that.’) That person’s behaviour may be due to personality or to particular circumstances.
  • Accept that stereotyping is inevitable, but be aware that you are doing it, try to diminish it if possible, and don’t use it as the only basis for your attitudes and interpretations.
  • Finally, be realistic. Realise that, like all interpersonal matters, intercultural communication can be enjoyable, frustrating, puzzling, rewarding, irritating, fruitful, difficult and fascinating.

Source: Kerry O’Sullivan, Understanding Ways: Communication Between Cultures (1997) Southwest Press P/L, NSW.

Last modified: Wednesday, 5 December 2018, 4:27 PM