What is meta-communication? Can it benefit virtual and international teams?

  • What is meta-communication? Can it benefit virtual and international teams?

    What is meta-communication? Can it benefit virtual and international teams?

    Meta-communication describes the problem and the solution for better communication, relationships, and performance within virtual and international teams.

    So, what is meta-communication?

    Let’s explore two definitions:

    Definition of meta-communicationMeta-communication refers to a broad definition of communication.  The prefix, meta, means “with,” in the sense that there is something more, something “beyond” or “in addition to”(1).  So, meta-communication implies a wide definition of  communication; including body language, tone, and the underlying concept or message.  It includes reading the meaning above and beyond the words.  Meta-communication considers the differences in the speaker’s and the listener’s personalities, cultures, and communication styles(3).  In other words, meta-communication acknowledges the complicated nature of communication, with its many sources for potential miscommunications.  Clarifying the sources of communication errors helps us find ways to address them.


    Other definition of meta-communicationsMeta-communication also means “the communication about communication”(3).  Initially coined by philosophers, meta- also describes activity related to itself.  For example, thinking about thinking is meta-cognition; data that describes data is meta-data(2); and, strategies that help us develop strategies are meta-strategies(2).

    As it relates to virtual teams, meta-communication is used to describe virtual team’s communication around how they should communicate within and outside of the team.  The team develops norms and preferences so team members know whether it’s acceptable to send emails on the weekend or send a SMS to the team leader.  A team may take this further by aligning on words and definitions.  For example, the teInam may decide to designate the word “urgent” (in small letters) to mean by the end of the week, but the word “URGENT” (in all caps) to mean within 24 hours of sending this email.  Developing definitions aligns expectations and reduces misunderstandings.

    Considering these definitions, meta-communication is both, the problem and the solution.  Let’s take a closer look at how we can use these concepts to help virtual and international teams.


    How can meta-communication benefit virtual and international teams?

    Broad communication training for teamMeta-communication defines communication comprehensively, as described in the first definition above.  For teams, this detailed definition provides clear sources of communication errors and misunderstandings.  One tends to assume that everyone on the team has the same basis for communication and doing business, but this isn’t the case.  There are numerous differences related to set-up, personality, company culture, and national culture.  For example native-English speakers expect non-native speakers to use English in the same way that they do, but each nationality uses language differently, often without an understanding of these differences.  Common problems include –

    • Word definitions and vocabulary
    • Confusion due to static and accents on the line
    • Differences in underlying meaning due to direct versus indirect communication styles
    • Politeness and formality causing offences
    • Appropriateness of certain communications within a company structure, like speaking up during a meeting without being asked

    And, there are many more.  These differences lead to work-related conflict, distrust, and lack of engagement.  However, when teams understand and accept their differences, they interpret communications more accurately and develop realistic expectations.

    Let’s take a typical situation.  Mr. Schmidt, a German sales engineer, interprets “yes, I will try” to mean there is a high likelihood that a part will be delivered on-time.  Mr. Schmidt conveys the good news to his customer.  However, Kim-san, a Japanese factory manager said “yes,” to imply that that he understood the urgency for a delivery.  Kim-san said, “We will try” as a polite way of saying that there is a problem to save-face.  When the part isn’t delivered to his customer on-time, Mr. Schmidt judges Kim-san as unreliable.  The relationship with the factory and the customer are damaged.  If the process repeats, the conflict grows deeper. It may grow into a personal conflict and an issue between the Japanese and German sites.

    On the other hand, if Mr. Schmidt and Kim-san understand the broader definition of communication and communication differences, their interpretations become more accurate.  Mr. Schmidt could request a change in the manufacturing schedule or inform his customer that the shipment may be late.  With training and skills related to the broad definition of communication, the relationship and trust builds between Mr. Schmidt and Kim-san.

    Training in this broad definition of communication is often called cross-cultural communication.  It provides an enormous benefits for with virtual and international teams in building trust and enhanced performance.

    Communication norms and tools

    We can also employ the second definition of meta-communication by communicating about communication.  Rather than just learning to interpret others’ communication, teams can create their own norms, preferences, and shared definition(4).  By discussing their communication process and creating custom communication rules, teams develop their team culture and communication style.  For this to be successful, with everyone on the team buying-in to the new set of guidelines, the team should develop its own rules.

    In summary, meta-communication offers powerful insight and tools for virtual and international teams.  Training teams on the complicated nature of communication, talking through communication differences, and developing shared tools enables virtual teams to innovate, collaborate by connect your sites around the world.


    Kimberly VanLandingham is the CEO, strategist and trainer for European Market Link Sarl.  She focuses on international communication training for business and techies.  European Market Link offers live and virtual training courses for international presenters, cross-cultural teams and leaders, and cross-border growth.  Kimberly has over 20 years experience at the DuPont company, leading international teams and businesses.  She has a masters in Cross-Cultural Communications and a BS in engineering, and is also on the board of  Switzerland (Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research).



    (1) “Meta-” in Dictionary.com. (n.d.) Retrieved on July 26, 2020 from  https://www.dictionary.com/browse/meta-

    (2) “META” in www.merriam-webster.com Retrieved on July 26, 2020 from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/meta

    (3) Gregory Bateson. (1973)  Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution and epistemology. London: Granada.

    (4) Brewer, Pam Estes. (2015.) International Virtual Teams: Engineering Global Success. John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken: NJ. p. 96.


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