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Building Cultural Awareness with Lisa Velázquez

Feature Article: Cross-Cultural Awareness – How to Effectively Communicate Across Cultures

By Lisa Velázquez, Cultural Transition Coach

If you are a good communicator in your own culture, does that automatically make you competent in another culture? The answer is no, if you only interpret through your own cultural glasses and don’t take cultural differences into account.

Since communication happens on both a verbal and on a non-verbal level, understanding non-verbal signals in a conversation is just as important as understanding what is said. To be able to interpret non-verbal signals from another culture accurately it is first necessary to become aware of your own non-verbal signals.

To improve your cross-cultural communication skills, compare and contrast your personal preferences in the following areas of non-verbal communication. To know what the norm in your host culture is and how it differs from your own will help you to feel much more comfortable in social situations and become a more effective cross-cultural communicator.  


All cultures have rules about touching in regard to communication. What are the rules in your culture? Do people greet each other with a handshake, an embrace or kiss on one or both cheeks? Is there patting on the back? Is there touching in public or would that be frowned on? Now compare with your host culture.

Eye contact

How do you use eye contact in communication? Do you interpret direct eye contact as a sign of active listening, honesty, a sign of respect, or does direct eye contact make you feel uncomfortable? Do you see it as a sign of aggression? Once you are clear about your own interpretation, compare with the local culture.


We all use our body to contribute to communication – our hands, face, head, torso, etc. What gestures are commonly used in your country? Which ones mean the same in your host cultures, which ones differ? To realize that many gestures are very localized, and what might be understood positively in one culture might be negative or an insult in another culture can save you from a lot of embarrassment and misunderstandings.

Personal Space

Do you know what your “personal space” is? What distance feels most comfortable to you during a conversation? This “comfort zone” will vary from person to person but there are norms within cultural groups and your personal space is most likely influenced by your culture. If you know the general rule of thumb in your host country, this will make it easier for you to understand your discomfort if the space in the host culture differs from your culture. With this new understanding and insight you can now practice to get more comfortable with the norm of the host country.

Becoming aware of your own way of communicating and learning as much as you can about the communication style of your host country will help you to be understood and to understand another culture more fully.

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Lisa Velazquez is a certified personal coach specializing in Cultural Transition who helps individuals and families adjust to a new culture through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, and presentations on cultural topics to interested groups. For more information visit lisavel.com and sign up for your free "Three Simple Techniques for a Successful Adjustment to a New Culture" PDF and for the free monthly newsletter "Building Cultural Awareness".

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