The impact of culture on communication

By April Scott-Clarke | April 27, 2011 | Last updated on April 27, 2011
3 min read

Do cultural biases have an impact on the decisions your clients make about their retirement savings? “Of course,” says Chad Lewis, founder of Boston-based Intercultural Focus. Culture is something advisors need to keep in mind not only in hen developing a financial plan, but in explaining it to the client as well.

Lewis was the keynote speaker at the Benefits & Pension Summit, hosted by’s sister publication, Benefits Canada, in Toronto today and tomorrow.

He kicked off the event with hard facts. According to Statistics Canada data, Canada has one of the highest foreign-born populations, with 19.6% born elsewhere. And, if trends continue as expected, by 2017 about 22% of the Canadian population will be foreign-born.

“Communication,” he says, “is the most important skill in life. It’s something we use everyday but we may not give a lot of thought to it.”

More than words Communication is more than just verbal, it’s non-verbal as well. Body language, presentation and even silence are all forms of communication.

Most people are aware that how they present themselves, their hand gestures and the way they stand can reveal a lot before they even say a word. The same can be said about how your communication material is packaged. Lewis uses wedding invitations as an example.

“How many people here sent their wedding invitations out on a napkin?” The audience’s light chuckle was all the answer he needed. He points out presentation of your materials is just as important as what they say. Obviously, there is no single style that suits all plans, but it’s something to consider when putting together a presentation.

How can silence be a form of communication? “Silence is not the absence of communication. When my wife gets mad at me, she gives me the silent treatment and I know exactly what that means,” he jokes.

Putting this into context (another important aspect of effective communication), when clients are silent—despite your communication efforts and opportunities for them to ask questions—could this mean they don’t understand? Or, do they fully understand and have no questions? More often than not, it’s likely the former.

Socially awkward When you greet a colleague in the morning with “How are you?” you expect the standard, “Good, thanks. Yourself?” This has become a social norm. Often times, you really just mean “Good morning.”

“Our culture has many things that, socially, you say one thing but mean something else,” explains Lewis. “If people don’t recognize this, they may think you are being insincere.”

Examples of this are common idioms and business jargon, such as “moving forward,” and “at the end of the day.” These are two items that could mean a number of different things and, when considering the diversity of our communities, need to be considered when communicating to your audience.

“Communication is difficult, even in homogenous environments,” he says.

Think it through So what can plan sponsors due better communicate to their diverse workforces? “Be aware that your employees may have different priorities,” Lewis says. “Be prepared to be able to adjust your offerings…[and have] better awareness of our own communication style and language.”

One small step toward improving communication is to examine the message being sent.

  • Could you be offering financial options that make sense to you but not your employees?
  • What in your materials might be open to interpretation?
  • Which words might have multiple meanings?

“A picture is worth a thousand words, but a word can be worth 1,000 pictures,” he said in summary, leaving the audience to contemplate one last item. “How can your literature be open to interpretation?”

The Benefits & Pension Summit is being held at the Westin Harbour Castle, in downtown Toronto on April 26 and April 27. For more coverage of the conference, visit

April Scott-Clarke