The Surprising Communication Barrier - Lancaster Chamber of Commerce
The Surprising Communication Barrier
150th Anniversary, Chamber Updates

by Cathy Martin, Partner & Director of Operations at Workplace Talent Solutions

An employee says no one ever told them about the change. A supervisor is frustrated that an employee didn’t communicate sooner about a problem. A line leader is frustrated that he didn’t know about a change until the last minute. Two coworkers don’t get along because one often says things that offend the other.

Communication is a constant challenge in the workplace at every single level. As our communities continue to grow in their diversity, miscommunication becomes more of a challenge. Some companies send their supervisors and managers for training to improve their communication skills. They learn how to manage their emotions, listen better, ask more questions and be more direct. But one thing that is often missing from training is culture. And culture is one of the most important factors in communication.

In my experience working with companies that have very diverse workforces, I’ve seen many situations where disagreements or miscommunication was really rooted in cultural differences that were never recognized. In our local area, there are many cultural clashes between the Pennsylvania Dutch culture and Latino cultures.  There are some very crucial differences that have a remarkable impact on the way people communicate.

Direct vs. Indirect Communication

One of the most common differences is in the style of communication, direct vs. indirect communication. In typical U.S. culture, a high value is placed on direct communication. Have you ever heard someone say, “Honesty is the best policy?” Or maybe “It’s more important to speak the truth than to spare someone’s feelings.” Or “Time is money. Get to the point.” In the U.S. workplace, directness is considered the best way to communicate. However, this is a cultural perspective. In the U.S., time, efficiency, and productivity are some of the highest values. In many other cultures around the world, including most Latin American cultures and Asian cultures, relationships and connections are more valuable. In these cultures, you will hear phrases like, “Being polite is more important than being honest.” Or “If the truth might hurt, soften it.”

As you can imagine, when these two types of cultures are working together, there is a high probability of misunderstanding. If a boss, who typically uses a direct approach to communication, addresses an employee about a mistake, an employee may feel hurt by the direct approach. On the other hand, supervisors and leaders who have an indirect approach may frustrate employees because they fail to address issues quickly and clearly. Understanding that others may have a different approach to communication is important in improving interactions in the workplace.

Cultural differences are causing conflicts almost daily in workplaces where multiple cultures are represented. The key is to provide training to all levels of employees on these cultural differences. If employees understand differences, they can better accommodate diverse communication styles, and conflicts can be resolved more quickly. It’s important to talk to your employees about communication differences and normalize conversations about cultural differences.

At Workplace Talent Solutions, we help employers deal with challenges like this. We offer a Cultural Competency training for Leaders  to train leaders on the cultural differences that are most common in the workplace. The goal of the training is to help them become more aware of their own cultural values and perspectives.

We also offer on-site Workplace ESL classes, which focus on the language used in the workplace, like safety vocabulary and asking supervisors questions. We also have onboarding and training audits to help employers identify ways they can improve the ways they accommodate employees with limited language skills.

To chat with us about the challenges you are facing, set up a strategy call! You can learn more about us at

The Lancaster Chamber is proud to be celebrating its 150th Anniversary this year, alongside our business community. In the month of October, our content theme will be focused on Spanish Heritage Month – raising the voices and stories of our Hispanic business owners and community leaders and reflecting on the incredible impact our Hispanic heritage has had on our business and broader community. 

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