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C.7 Language and Cultural Considerations

Culture is a way of identifying groups of people who share common characteristics and traditions such as language, social practices, attitudes and values. As communication styles are influenced by culture and may vary across communities, it is important to understand basic communication differences to be able to communicate effectively. 

A respectful way of communicating with someone (including body language, seating position and use of certain words) may vary from community to community and region to region and, especially, between urban, rural and remote areas. 

Social and cultural norms B.6 also influence hygiene practices. Norms are rules, beliefs, expectations and behaviours that are supported by the community. Social norms can make the adaptation of hygiene practices easier, but most people find it difficult to adopt recommendations that are inconsistent with their social beliefs and expectations. In these cases, influencers from the community can act as champions for the desired behaviour T.22. Norms that support risky hygiene behaviours should be identified and discussed with groups of people so that individuals do not feel targeted or become defensive. The creation of positive hygiene messages by community leaders who set a positive example can be effective. 

Language is often intertwined with culture. Hence phrases that may have different meanings in various cultural contexts must be used carefully. Communication material should be available in the local language and be translated with the support of community members. It is also important that communication materials use images and designs that are culturally appropriate. 

It may be necessary to communicate through interpreters during an emergency response - responders may come from different parts of the world to the affected community or even other regions in countries that speak multiple languages. It is vital that interpreters are well trained and adequately briefed on WASH terminology and ways of working.

Process & Good Practice

  • Culture:

  • Remember that a person’s culture will shape how they understand hygiene and learn about the specific cultural beliefs that surround hygiene and health in the person’s community.

  • Learn how hygiene practices are understood in the affected community as well as the words used for or about WASH-related diseases. 

  • Find out which concepts, behaviours or languages are taboo or unacceptable and which practices are misunderstood or cause shame. For example, Menstrual Health and Hygiene P.7 should always be treated sensitively and certain menstrual products, such as tampons or menstrual cups, may not always be acceptable.

  • Use simple, clear language when expressing concern and avoid asking questions in a patronising or judgemental way. 

  • Be aware of the impact that cultural norms have on communication. For example, some cultures dislike eye contact during communication and become uncomfortable if it is maintained.

  • Show sensitivity to non-verbal communication e.g. facial expressions, gestures, posture, or tone of voice as they play an important role in understanding the audience. 

  • Language:

  • Use the preferred language of the target audience wherever possible. 

  • Avoid technical jargon, abbreviations and complex words and provide a glossary of any unfamiliar terms used in written communications. Simple grammar, short sentences and an active voice should be used.

  • Ensure that language is gender-sensitive and appropriate for people with specific needs, such as children, people with disabilities and older people (e.g. influencing the vocabulary used, size and colour of chosen fonts and background contrast).

  • Ensure that trained and briefed interpreters are recruited and used whenever the preferred language of the affected population differs from that of the responders (even if they share a common language).

  • Communicate a maximum of three ideas at one time. Complex messages may not be understood or might be overwhelming for the audience.

  • Avoid communications and materials that reinforce cultural or gender stereotypes.



To communicate effectively in a way that is accessible to everyone, respectful and considerate of cultural differences, context and specific needs.


  • A person’s culture plays a very important role in the way they understand and talk about health and hygiene. Hence, the spiritual or cultural context of the person’s behaviours should be taken into consideration.

  • Do not assume that an acceptable way to communicate in one culture is universally applicable to all cultures. Being aware of one’s own culture and biases is important.

  • Actively incorporating an awareness of cultural practices into community interactions helps develop trust and makes the audience more willing to accept the content of the communication.

  • Using appropriate language can help to avoid awkward situations and reduce mistrust and feelings of shame among targeted audiences.

  • Different cultures understand and perceive a situation differently. Within each culture, gender, generational and socio-economic characteristics differ. Disabilities and special needs may be understood differently. Non-verbal communication can be interpreted in a variety of ways in each culture.

  • Cultural considerations influence the choice of oral, written and visual communications. Images and virtual interfaces have different meanings in different languages and cultures (e.g. some languages are written and read from right to left and images may follow suit).


Key principles for designing effective communication

Barrantes, S., Rodriguez, M. et al. (2009): Information Management and Communication in Emergencies and Disasters. Manual for Disaster Response Teams, PAHO, WHO

WHO (2017): WHO Strategic Communications Framework for Effective Communications

Cultural considerations for communication

Translators without Borders, Oxfam (2021): Six Tips for Humanitarians Working with Interpreters on Sensitive Topics

Mental Health First Aid Australia (2008): Cultural Considerations and Communication Techniques. Guidelines for Providing Mental Health First Aid to an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Person

Video guide on culture sensitive communication

Speak First (2009): Cultural Diversity – Tips for Communicating with Cultural Awareness