The typical Cercomela plumage is fairly plain grey or brown upperparts and paler underparts. The tail pattern is often distinctive, and may be useful in distinguishing the African species. The long legs and feet are black and the bill is short and straight. The sexes are similar in plumage.
These are terrestrial birds, most nesting on or near the ground, and laying up to four eggs in a cup nest; a few Cercomela species use rock crevices or walls as nest sites.
These birds are insectivores, and forage on the ground for their prey.
Most species have vocalisations including typical chat "chak-chak" or similar calls.
Most Cercomela chats are common within their ranges, but insufficient data exists to determine the status of the Sombre Chat in Ethiopia.