When Chickens Talk to Ducks: Mitigating Culture-Based Miscommunication

To realize the benefit of diversity, workplaces must also recognize and embrace diversity of expression. In this article, Ana Diaz, Head of Operations at Henderson Rowe, shares ideas on how firms can reduce misunderstandings and ensure every voice is heard.

Countless articles have been written about the challenges of communicating across cultures. In China, this is captured by the idiom 鸡同鸭讲, which is usually translated into English as, “It’s like a chicken talking to a duck.” For me, this idiom strikes close to home.

The employees at Henderson Rowe and its parent firm are a melting pot of nationalities. Our young firm has employed people from China, Spain, Mexico, Singapore, Nicaragua, Taiwan, Columbia, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Honduras, Brazil, Hong Kong, Argentina, the Philippines, the UK, and the US – and that’s just off the top of my head. We have additional diversity within these regions on a state, provincial or district level. Our global firm’s national and ethnic diversity ensures we are a modern, agile and compassionate firm that reflects the diversity of the people we serve.

It also means we have lots of chickens talking to ducks.

We aspire to bridge this communication gap, but our efforts often fail. Sometimes we fail even when we speak the same language, live in the same region, or communicate with deliberate care and consciousness. What we’ve come to understand is that these failures are okay. In fact, they’re even expected. You can’t turn a chicken into a duck—nor should you want to.

Accordingly, this brief article isn’t about how to reduce or eliminate culture-based miscommunications. (For those interested, there is already much excellent research on this topic. My introduction was Erin Meyer’s book The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures; as well as her recent article in Harvard Business Review, “Being the Boss in Brussels, Boston, and Beijing”). Instead, this article is meant to stress the value of simply recognizing when culture-based miscommunications are occurring.

I was born and raised in Mexico, and I’ve lived in China, France and the UK. I’ve experienced enough multiculturalism to know that no company can eliminate culture-based miscommunication altogether. However, I do believe employees can become experts at recognizing in real-time when miscommunications are occurring. This recognition alone mitigates much potential damage. In fact, the only major risk in a chicken-duck conversation comes from assuming you’re both chickens.

Based on my experience, you might be experiencing a “chicken-duck” moment if you feel any of the following in real-time when working with a colleague from a different culture:

  • You’re offended by language, tone, attire, body language, etc. (“offense”);
  • You’re receiving deliverables that are different from what you expected (“poor deliverables”);
  • You feel betrayed or treated unfairly (“unfairness”);
  • Your colleague has had a radical change in opinion, assessment, etc. (“inconsistent reviews”)
  • Your colleague provides different input in public and private discussions (“inconsistent input”);
  • Your colleague’s answers don’t seem responsive to your questions (“non-responsiveness”);
  • Your colleague’s requests seem unrealistic or unreasonable (“unreasonableness”);
  • You only want to communicate with your colleague using a specific medium or when others are present (“paranoia”);
  • You are communicating disproportionately to your colleague (“inequitable airtime”);
  • You and your colleague have mutually negative performance assessments (“blame”);
  • You don’t want a colleague communicating to others if you’re not present (“narrative control”); or
  • A colleague uses adjectives or adverbs that feel inappropriate (“exaggerations and understatements”).

This list is not exhaustive and, of course, these feelings aren’t always the result of cultural miscommunication. But in a culturally diverse organization, it’s imperative to pause before rushing to judgment. By learning to recognize and resolve culture-based miscommunications in real-time, you’ll build understanding, improve outcomes, and more efficiently capture the benefits of a multi-cultural organization.


Henderson Rowe is a registered trading name of Henderson Rowe Limited, which is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority under Firm Reference Number 401809.

The information contained in this article is the opinion of Henderson Rowe and does not represent investment advice. The value of investment may go up and down and investors may not get back what they invested. Past performance is not an indicator of future performance.