How Do I Avoid Offending People From Other Cultures while Delivering Presentations?
Much of the public speaking that I did in my 20s was in Africa. I was part of a team that did community building. We would travel to different places across the continent where targets had been identified, whether that was building or painting a school, or teaching people to dig wells.

Depending on the nature of the project and who was feeling fresh, different members of our team would give a talk. We would dig wells with people, but we also wanted to teach them to do it themselves, so there were detailed presentations too.

However, Africa is no different to any other continent, moving around means that you encounter many different cultures and languages, almost all of them different to your own. So every time you gave a presentation, you ran the risk of offending people.

Cultural Differences in Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication

One of my colleagues once decided to start a presentation with a joke, to break the ice. Unfortunately, he had not actually thought to ask anybody about it first, and his joke offended everybody in the audience His talk sank like a lead balloon, and it took more than a week of working side by side with people before they started to feel like we were really trying to help.

How to Avoid Offending Your Auidence

My advice in this case: if you do intend to use humour with a foreign audience, run the joke by somebody from that culture first. Explain that it is a joke, see how they respond privately. Better to get feedback from one person than alienate an entire audience.

While you can see from my picture now that I am balding, at university I had grown my hair down to my belt. When I first joined this group of community builders, I had been told that there might be the odd occasion when we would be working with cultures that did not accept men having overlong hair. In that scenario, would I be prepared to cut it? I had answered that I would, and just really hoped that we would not get to a group that required this sacrifice from me. Alas, 6 months in, and I was told a trip involved a group that the previous year there had been problems with a man that had long hair, but shorter than mine.

After a very unhappy two weeks, I had my hair cut. It was a good thing too, as I ended up doing the main presentations for this group. Not only did I successfully avoid offending them, but I made friendships with people that exist to this day, over 20 years later! Now that I know them really well, I do understand what an issue my long hair would have been. I certainly would not have been able to repeatedly go back and do further work with them.

Things You Should Be Aware Of

1. Your verbal message

This can include the use of jokes, but also certain words. If you are going to be speaking in a language that is not your mother tongue, check your pronunciation. I had a Zulu colleague on one team that when speaking English pronounced “important” as “impotent”. After confusing his own team, let alone the audience, we eventually asked him to select a synonym so that he did not have to use that particular word.

2. Your body language

Do you use gestures that could offend? Giving somebody the thumbs up does not mean the same thing in every culture.

hand gestures

3. Your appearance and dress, and physical icons

As I leant with my hair, are there things about the way that you look that could cause offence? Do you need to cover your head? Or remove body piercings? Cover a tattoo?

While working through university, I had worked in a pub. I had received shirts with the logos of alcohol on them. At one presentation, I realised too late that my T-shirt had a logo that would cause offence, and had to sweat through a 45 minute presentation with a jumper on to hide the shirt. I had to then keep saying that I was slightly ill, or they would have wondered why I insisted on keeping the extra warm layer on.

4. Your culture

Would you flaunt material success when presenting to a very disadvantaged community? Be sensitive in the use of what props you use. You might lose your audience as they spend more time wondering about the props that you have, or if you use an example that they just cannot relate to.

If you are going to use metaphors, make sure that they are understood by your audience. I once struggled trying to get people to understand an example that I was using about copying something with a fax machine. Many of the audience in the village had not ever seen a fax machine in the 1990s, let alone know what it was for.

5. Your audience

Do you need to split your audience? Do you need to separate the men and women, and present to them separately? If you do, do you need to ensure that you have a presenter that is the same gender as the audience?


If you think about these 5 elements before presenting to an audience from a foreign culture, you will certainly have gone a long way in avoiding offending them. It will get you 99% of the way there. That last 1% is about being vigilant. Always have in mind that you need to be taking care, and you will not make a mistake by taking something for granted.

So, in summary, if you are going to have to present before people from a different culture, make sure you do not offend them. See if by any research possible, or asking your contacts within the community, if there are any things that will offend, and need to be avoided. That way you will not have lost your audience even before you started.

If you would like to do further reading on being aware of cultural non-verbal differences, Andrews University has some excellent tips on non-verbal communication and what errors to avoid.

What do you think? Let us know what you think in the comments below.


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