One of the biggest advantages of services like oDesk is that you get to tap into an international marketplace of freelancers. Many are highly skilled and charge rates that won’t break your budget. Freelancers in different time zones also provide a benefit because you can wake up in the morning with a full list of tasks completed.

But as cross-cultural managers have known for a long time, there are also important skills that come along with working internationally. And no skill is more important than that of communication.

Communication within your own culture can be challenging. Cross-cultural communication is laced with additional complex issues you may not even be aware of if you are accustomed to only speaking with people in your home culture.

Unfortunately, many international work relationships (from individual freelancer to multi-national corporations) break down as a result of bad communication. What could have been a great opportunity for both sides is ruined as a result of poor communication.

Here are three easy tips for communicating better with international freelancers:

1. Avoid Humor

As funny as your ironic wit and sarcasm are, these things don’t translate well across cultures. This holds true even if the freelancer is a native English speaker. Your joke is much more likely to offend or confuse someone rather than make them laugh. Stick to only business related discussions, especially when you are using written communication.

Along the same lines, avoid sports analogies (e.g. hit a homerun, ballpark figure) since these things don’t translate well without a better context.

2. Speak Directly, But Politely

Many cultures around the world rely on something called indirect communication, which means they rely on tone, body language, and implied meanings just as much as the actual words. Westerners interpret this as “beating around the bush.”

You don’t have to speak indirectly with your freelancers, but you should speak politely. Many Westerners come across as very pushy when they are unabashedly direct. Clearly communicate what you want to say, but also give the background and context to make it come across a little more sensitive.

3. Don’t Rely on Email Alone

While email makes for a nice asynchronous way to communicate across time zones, it is also a very limiting way to communicate. It is nearly impossible for someone from another culture to interpret your tone of voice or pick up on little innuendos.

Schedule times to talk on the phone or via video-conference with your freelancers at least monthly. If there is ever a heated discussion with a lot of emotion going on, get the person on the phone as soon as possible since emails will undoubtedly just make things more complex.

Once you’ve discovered the enormous benefit of working with international freelancers, it’s easy to see your business as an international operation. But before you look into hiring people from all around the world, take some time to learn the best practices for communicating across cultures.

Read more tips from Neil >


Neil Miller is the author of How to Avoid Dying in India, and writes weekly articles for professionals working with India on

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