Communicating in a Diverse World

Most of what we do in business involves communication, from marketing and sales to HR, planning and collaborating on projects. We need people to understand what we mean (not to mention us understanding what they mean) and that obviously requires clarity.

It needs something else, though, as well. It’s needs empathy — understanding that other people’s communication needs may be different from yours, and then being willing and able to adapt.

There could be various reasons why someone else might need different types of communication. There may be cultural issues, or there may be neurodiversity involved. Sometimes, though, it’s simply because we’re all wired a little differently.


We’re All Individuals

For some of the jobs I do, the client needs to supply information I need in order to understand what I have to write. After all, it’s all very well to google “what are the three most common reasons for a roof needing repair” or “what’s the government’s economic forecast for the next year”. That doesn’t help if they want me to write about the new venture they’ve spent the last six months preparing, or what they as an expert think about issues in their sector.

For that, I need information from them. Some clients send a Word file with bullet points, or a link to a website with all the vital information, and those are fine. Some, though, try to be helpful by sending a link to a video that I can get all the information from.

I hate it when that happens. I find videos difficult to concentrate on, and I have to watch them several times, making notes — and then have to keep going back, trying to find the point I want to check. It’s so much easier to have it written down.

The problem is, of course, that not everyone’s like me. Most likely, the people who send me those links prefer watching videos and think they’re doing me a favour. Some people retain information best from written form, some from hearing it, some from visually transmitted data, or some conceptually (from diagrams, for instance).

That’s why it’s important that your business communication (on your website, in your social media and so on) offers a variety of ways your audience can understand you. I make videos in certain circumstances, even though I probably wouldn’t watched them myself.

That’s just one example of how you can lose your audience through lack of empathy. Another is by not thinking about the language and approach you use. Who is your audience? It’s no good using complex technical terms if you’re trying to attract customers because, by the nature of things, they won’t be experts in your sector. On the other hand, if you try to explain things in words of one syllable to an audience of specialists, they’re going to feel insulted.

There are more general variations, too. Are your audience business owners or consumers? Are they older or younger, male or female? Are they going to relate to you best if you speak to them in a sober, formal manner (a solicitor, for instance) or in a jokey, slangy style (if you’re targeting music fans, for example).


Speaking to Cultural Differences

These are just a few examples of how individuals need to be spoken to, written to or addressed in videos in the way they’ll relate to best, or you risk losing them. That gets even more critical when you’re dealing with different cultures.

A lot of business owners here in the UK do business with people from cultures that have very different styles of communication, but there can even be problems with cultures close to our own. If you’re trying to communicate with Americans, for instance, they might interpret British politeness as either weak or devious, while we might interpret American bluntness as rude. That can be avoided by applying a little empathy to the person you’re communicating with.

Words and phrases can mean different things to different cultures, too. I remember years ago getting into trouble on a predominantly American online forum when I referred casually to someone smoking a fag. I was simply referring to a cigarette, but the word has a very different meaning in the US. And some differences may be a lot more subtle, to do with how you phrase and emphasise what you’re saying.

There are other pitfalls when doing business with other cultures, besides language. For instance, trying to get straight down to business would be considered extremely rude in many cultures, and some apparently innocent gestures could also cause offence.

When I was born, my parents were living in Canada, having recently moved out there, and my mother found she’d insulted a number of people. When someone came to call, she immediately offered them a cup of tea — as you do. She eventually discovered that, to them, this was a polite hint that it was time to leave.


Communicating With Neurodiversity

Besides personal and cultural differences, though, there’s another major issue — neurodiversity. Now I’m not an expert in neurodiversity (though I could put you touch with people who know a lot more than I do) but I’ve lately been thinking about the issue of factoring neurodiversity into communication.

The term neurodiversity was coined in 1998 by Harvey Blume1 and popularised by social scientist Judy Singer2. It contrasts with neurotypical — what society regards as the normal way of thinking. Of course, even those of us classed as neurotypical don’t actually think alike, but neurodiverse thinking patterns can be more radically different.

The neurodiverse model began as a way of understanding the autistic spectrum in a non-medical way, but it’s now considered to include a wide range of conditions, from ADHD to dyslexia, dyspraxia and similar conditions. It represents a middle ground between the medical model, which sees these as diseases to be cured, and the extreme social model, which sees them as strengths to be celebrated.

The neurodiversity model is a social model, in that it regards neurodiverse ways of thought as valid, with the essential problem being society’s unwillingness to acknowledge that. However, it also acknowledges that individuals may suffer from being unable to fit in with a neurotypical world. People often try to mask their neurodiversity, but there’s evidence this can lead to stigma, poor mental health and suicidal thoughts.

So why is this important in business communication? Because at least one in seven people are neurodiverse. This depends on the exact definition, and more extreme estimates are as much as one in three.

And it’s also because many very successful business people are neurodiverse. It seems, for example, that the characteristics of ADHD can also drive the more dynamic entrepreneurs. These include Richard Branson, who has both ADHD3 and dyslexia4. On his last day at school, his headmaster told him he’d end up either in prison or a millionaire5.

People on the autistic spectrum, on the other hand, can do exceptionally well in more analytical, procedural positions. And, speaking of dyslexia, a surprising number of writers seem to be dyslexic, although I’m not aware of any study about this.


The Importance of Communicating With Neurodiverse People

None of this is really surprising, looking realistically at neurodiversity, since unusual mental approaches can often find unusual solutions. And, of course, it’s unusual solutions that often lead to the greatest success. Neurodiversity activist John Elder Robison has pointed out that

“When 99 neurologically identical people fail to solve a problem, it’s often the 1% fellow who’s different who holds the key. Yet that person may be disabled or disadvantaged most or all of the time. To neurodiversity proponents, people are disabled because they are at the edges of the bell curve, not because they are sick or broken.”6

An analogy could be with someone living in a country where they don’t speak the language very well. This obviously doesn’t mean they’re any less intelligent or have less to offer in finding solutions. It just means there’s a communication problem.

In the case of the language barrier, the normal solution is for the outsider to learn the majority language, but this doesn’t necessarily work for neurodiversity. There’s evidence that it’s easier and less traumatic for neurotypical people to make the effort to understand neurodiverse thought than vice versa.

There are many reasons for this, but an important one is that a neurodiverse person trying to “fit in” is likely to feel themselves stigmatised. This won’t be the case for a neurotypical person trying to empathise with neurodiverse thinking.

That means you may well need to communicate with someone who doesn’t communicate the way you do. Someone on the autistic spectrum, for instance, may need more than normal attention to detail, while someone with ADHD may need communication to be brief and with plenty to hold their interest.

Failure to take this into account, as well as ignoring the personal and cultural differences, is going to lock you out from many people who could be vital for you. Just imagine passing up the chance to impress Richard Branson. When you’re communicating with a particular person, try to understand who they are and what will be best received.

And what about your general communication? The best approach is to put your message out in a variety of ways, as well as to write and speak clearly and unambiguously. And don’t forget to be fascinating all the time.

That’s good advice in any situation.



1 Blume H (30 September 1998). “Neurodiversity”. The Atlantic.

2 “Meet Judy Singer Neurodiversity Pioneer”. My Spectrum Suite.

3 “Learn About the Stories of 8 of the World’s Most Successful People with ADHD”. University of the People. 22 January 2020

4 “Famous Dyslexics: Richard Branson (entrepreneur)”. Defeat Dyslexia. 9 July 2015

5 Richard Branson. “At school I was dyslexic and a dunce.”, The Times, London, 11 September 1998, p. 19

6 “What Is Neurodiversity?”. Psychology Today