Digital communication doesn’t overcome cultural differences

Denise Hofmeister

26 February 2020

200226 gr rebelthinking international denise wp 1 2

Nowadays, due to globalisation and a rise in self-employed workers, teams have become more international. It can sometimes be a struggle for projects if team members are working from different countries and time zones simply using their computer. Not only do you have to adapt deadlines to the working hours of all countries involved, but cultural differences must also be taken into consideration. This can have quite an impact on the efficiency of a project. So how can you handle, or even benefit from, these differences if you only know your team from a screen?


The most important part is communication, which is no different from local or national teams. Communication not only refers to language, which nowadays has become less and less of an obstacle, but it also refers to the way in which we communicate. Depending on the country, you have to distinguish between direct and indirect communication or low and high context cultures. 

For instance, Germans are very direct in their way of communicating. “We have to work more efficiently. We have to stop spending hours on unnecessary tasks.” However, if you work with countries that might communicate in an indirect manner you will have to read between the lines. This can be even more complex if you have a screen in between as emoticons and exclamation marks can cause confusion and friction between team members. In the graph from Southeastern University, you can see the difference between the countries such as Germany in the low context area, Spain in the middle and China in the high context area.

ODw9oBHd4faG8Ob1eDCtNfle ZJPghMF12F6tiQwCbIzNDY6P2MXhp teOLkrE9m1IUrEstg8dmh6S0QxlQFkJw3crsZNGpEas9bL NKYdN 8CdPWdDM61z7Y2sDANv9Dewst nj
Illustration 1: Southeastern University, Intercultural Communication

To lead your team to success, make sure your communication is clear, everybody feels on board and they have the information needed to complete their tasks. Be aware of the differences between the countries and adapt your style of communication to their needs if necessary.


Another difference between international teams that work well and those that are struggling, is the level of emotional connection. Having a great connection within the team is the basis for trust and harmony. Usually team leaders create team building activities or invite the team for lunch so they can get to know each other and bond. Nonetheless in international projects often this is not possible. So how can you connect a team that has never seen each other? The answer is to find similarities. The easiest way for people to connect with others is when they are like-minded. For that reason, try to find similarities within the team. This you can do in many ways. Either with some sort of gamification with the objective of getting to know each other better or simply with a monthly coffee. There is a huge difference in just writing emails to each other or talking face to face.


Lastly, different cultures have different views on time. As a result, deadlines are the most common cause for conflicts and misunderstandings. To understand the behaviour of each culture we have to know their perception of time.

In western societies we see time as linearly in comparison with eastern cultures who see time as a cycle. Linear means that people think of time as a limited resource. Once the time is up the job has to be done. The cyclical view on time however, focuses more on keeping harmony rather than finishing tasks. Neither one is better or worse but to ensure that you keep up with your deadlines you might have to rethink.

With the graphics below we can see the differences between time perception. Most people would think if you schedule a meeting at 5:00 p.m., for both parties it means 5 p.m. such as illustrated in the graphic below.

wiTQHim2SEuPW2qQh05Q0VnK2q w6yY28BuCBGrKLW LlwKvR5Zza7703Y9IY KsbKFtbtVbwTWjzybSqoOsV6aHsyPPZp
Illustration 2: Based on “When Cultures Collide: Leading Across Cultures”, Richard Lewis, 2006

However, in Austria when I had a meeting scheduled at 5:00 p.m., usually everybody was there 5 minutes beforehand. They planned in buffer time in case there was a traffic jam or they had to prepare themselves for a presentation etc.

pMrWT UHyQdxcozgFq5429cRq8BT1bPiG3NiY0VsbLNlB7sopm jI7K26fOuYrsreS3G7Uocqu0ssmc1xSLxJdzrlraIpoDX BoDuCg5u3UKecj9SaUBued66pftXENN9MkeucPs
Illustration 3: Based on “When Cultures Collide: Leading Across Cultures”, Richard Lewis, 2006

On the other hand, when we face meetings scheduled with Mexico we might have to wait for a while for someone to show up.

MCwMF 79FuE9wSamu7QmszKnv4fVjkVLD6QhQAS6v51KCPMVo xTBeizpkeUNp8AKzqWiHJ1cjGTbHI9qijLZ8bh4x2isoLfN84LgfbOq2HuHGaC1EaitlAP484Jz24Bhr0cMZI
 Illustration 4: Based on “When Cultures Collide: Leading Across Cultures”, Richard Lewis, 2006

It’s not a matter of disrespect. It’s about different perceptions of time and the awareness of it. In general, when working with people from different countries it’s always a good idea to count in a buffer when dealing with strict deadlines and having a status about the progress of each task. Regarding meetings, it’s quite the same. Meetings can start later as planned or even take longer than expected. For that reason, having some back-up time can save you stress and prevent conflicts.

All in all, working in an international project can be quite challenging but being aware of the 3 main differences – communication, connection and time, can improve the teamwork and efficiency of the project. Moreover, it’s a great way to learn from each other and get inspired.