DOs and DON’Ts of communicating social change

Feeling like I was doing a lot of pointing-out-all-the-ways-you-can-go-wrong in Communication for Development (and in life itself), so I decided to put together a (certainly non-exhaustive) list of dos and don’ts for those of us wanting to cultivate our empathy and be better at Communicating for Social Change.


First of all, Listen.
  • Listen to understand, rather than to respond. I first came across these words by author Stephen Covey years ago, and they radically changed the way I listen (although the Italian in me still often seeks to interrupt the speaker). This point is especially important when interacting with peoples other than your own, but is a good life-rule all around.
  • Listen to what isn’t said. We all know how important body language is, and in cross-cultural settings it’s particularly important to pay attention and tune in to the subtleties of what isn’t said directly, or at all. Of course, this implies you are immersing yourself in a culture for long enough that you have the time to pick up on often elusive nuances.
  • When you’re unsure of what something means, in a literal, cultural, or between-the-lines sense, ask. You may not be able to ask straight away, and perhaps you can’t ask the person whose words or behaviour you don’t understand, but do ask someone. You know what they say about assuming.
  • Ask for permission. This applies to writing someone’s story, taking someone’s picture,  or entering someone’s space. Being polite is inexpensive and invaluable. Also, be clear on your intentions – if you’re going to put it online, you lose control over where it might end up but you’re still responsible for it, so be careful.
  • Learn the language. If you’re going to live and work somewhere, there’s no better way to understand the place, the people, and a lot of the culture than to learn the lingo. Even if you’re not a polyglot and get things wrong, it shows you give a damn.
  • Learn from your mistakes. This goes for language mishaps and major cultural faux pas, to learning from your spelling mistakes (even in your native tongue!). I mean, why wouldn’t you?
  • Learn from your successes us just as important as learning from mistakes! When something works, keep it going. A special mention to humour, here: find the humour that works within your context and embrace it, it’ll get you out of many an awkward situation.
  • This one kind of speaks for itself, particularly when working with and for minority groups, look to ensure you’re not marginalising intersections and other groups.
  • Some things to consider are race and ethnicity, religion, gender and sexuality, power, privilege, and access (or lack thereof), and socio-economic and political status.


Do not assume.
  • Don’t assume you have all the answers. Even though you totally feel like you do! “Oh, if only this could be done, everything would be so. much. better!” No, it wouldn’t. Don’t be that guy.
  • Don’t assume you understand the needs and wants of others. This is a broad point; from toilet paper to income, different people have different ideas about what works for them, and while you can make suggestions (in the right setting), make sure you know there’s likely a system in place which won’t necessarily change because of you. For further information, ask, would you please?
  • Don’t assume that just because something worked elsewhere (geographically, or in a different workplace), it’ll be the same here. Yes, learn from successes, but always work within the context you’re in.
  • Don’t assume that just because you mean well, everything you do is justified. It’s absolutely not. Have I taken a picture with a bunch of unknown, unsupervised children in a foreign country? Of course I have. Was it at their request? Sure was! Has it ended up on social media? It totally did (and a friend said I looked like Mother Theresa). Would I have done the same thing with a bunch of Australian kids walking down the street in a Sydney suburb? Mmm, that’d be weird, right? While I cringe now and wouldn’t do it again, at the time I had no ill intention and actually thought it was a sweet moment. But there you go, I learnt something from my mistake.
  • Sure, it can be tempting at times. But you don’t need to impose your thoughts, beliefs, ways of doing things, your language on others. Hold on, aren’t we trying to affect social change? Doesn’t that mean we need to shake things up and do them our way now? No, it doesn’t. Context is everything.
  • Basically. don’t be a colonialist, (and I mean in none of the possible interpretations of the word).


Look, I didn’t say being a great Social Change Communicator/perfect Human was easy. We’ve all made mistakes, but yes, learn from them and keep striving to do better.

Have you got some crucial dos and don’ts from your time in the field, (or in the office, or from remote-working from your storage closet)? Let me know in the comments!