6 Communication and Culture

Learning Outcome

  • Demonstrate effective verbal and non-verbal communication strategies for the workplace.

Communication Skills

Communication skills are vital to success in the workplace. Many of us work and live in a multicultural areas, so the ability to communicate effectively with people from other cultures is paramount to success in the workplace. It’s important to recognize that there are differences in worldviews.


Take some time to review Indigenous Peoples Worldviews vs Western Worldviews from Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. to learn more.

Quite often our cultural differences extend into differences in communication. Rupert Ross said “until you understand that your own culture dictates how you translate everything you see and hear you will never be able to see or hear things in any other way (2006, pg. 4). It is therefore important to recognize how you communicate, and if you are understood by others.

Communication on the job site is essential. Your work will involve communicating with many different people from diverse professional and cultural backgrounds. You will be working with co-workers on site, and you might also work with architects, designers, or book keepers and accountants. You need to be able to effectively communicate with your colleagues in order to do your job well.

Active Listening

At work, you need to be able to show that you understand. A great way to demonstrate that you really heard someone is to employ Active Listening techniques:

  • wait for the speaker to finish
  • give the speaker your full attention and nod to show you are listening
  • engage with the speaker through eye contact
  • repeat back or summarize main points
  • ask clarifying questions

Eye Contact

Some of these practices, such as maintaining eye contact, are not as important during conversation for some Indigenous peoples as it is within Canada’s work culture. This can be a challenge for some Indigenous people in their work life.  In mainstream Canada, maintaining eye contact is linked to building trust and respect. If you feel uncomfortable maintaining eye contact, it is helpful for you to communicate this to your employer and/or work colleagues.  After all, most people want to build respectful relationships through understanding.


For information about the importance of direct eye contact within mainstream Canada, have a look at The Importance of Eye Contact and How to Improve It.

Many employers are open to and interested in becoming more aware and sensitive to Indigenous people and culture. If you believe your employer may be curious about your culture and/or why you behave differently in situations than your colleagues, consider asking. Many mainstream Canadians do not question or talk about Indigenous people/culture because they are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. You can help by being open to their questions about your culture, history, worldview, etc.

Personal Space

Respecting personal space is an important aspect of communication. Different cultures have different concepts of personal space. For example, Asian cultures typically have a different sense of personal space than European cultures. Be aware of this in your interactions with others and also recognize your personal space preferences. If you prefer to have a lot of space around you, be conscious of how this affects your communication in the workplace. Being either too close or too far away from someone can cause feelings of discomfort. Try to be sensitive to this aspect of communication, particularly as most workplaces in Canada are multicultural.

Advocating for Yourself

In our work lives we may come across situations where it’s important to have boundaries. Advocating for yourself in the workplace can be difficult because we are taught to follow direction at work. You may, however, come across a situation where you don’t agree with someone or where you need to stick up for yourself and your opinion or perspective. Learning how to effectively advocate for yourself can be tricky and there is often a fine line between advocating for yourself and being aggressive or insubordinate. What do these terms mean?

Insubordination is the act of refusing to obey orders and you can be fired for not following the direction of a superior at work. Using your assertiveness skills can help you if you are in a situation where you don’t agree with your boss. Be very careful when providing feedback to an employer and make sure you talk about the situation with someone you trust before taking any action!

Aggression takes the form of using force to get your perspective across. In extreme cases this can take the form of yelling, bullying, or even using physical force. Aggressive people tend to be inflexible and often insecure. They fight fire with fire.

Assertiveness is the ability to state your perspective and opinion in a way that is clear, calm and respectful to the listener.

Watch this video that elaborates on the difference between assertiveness and aggression in the workplace.

Practice being assertive by following the guidelines below:

  • Remain calm and take a deep breath if you need to
  • Use non-aggressive body language such as uncrossing your arms and using eye contact to demonstrate trust
  • Speak with clarity and precision. Be to the point and direct
  • Express your needs or perspective calmly and with confidence
  • Use ‘I’ statements to keep the focus on yourself rather than implying blame.


“When I arrived at work today, I was surprised to learn that the site was not locked”.

“I noticed that this cable is not connected properly, can you please have a look at it”?

“I’m feeling stressed because we are behind on this project. Can we sit down and go over the schedule again please”?


Exercise – Practice your assertiveness skills

What ‘I statements’ could you use in the following scenarios? Practice with a friend or partner.

  • Your colleague used your tools and didn’t return them to you on time. What do you say?
  • A sub-contractor arrived late to the job site and it has affected your schedule for the day, making you late.  How do you handle this?
  •  A sub-contractor makes a racist comment and it is directed at you. How do you react?
  • Your supervisor links you to an error at a job site but you actually weren’t connected to the error. What is your response?

These situations are uncomfortable, and they do happen. Be prepared so that you can react assertively, rather than with aggression or insubordination.


Key Takeaways

  • Eye contact, assertiveness and active listening are all skills that can help you to be a successful communicator in the workplace.


Ross, R. (2006). Dancing with a ghost: Exploring Aboriginal reality. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Penguin Canada.


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