Connecting across cultures:
“His English was grammatically correct, but the way he said what he said nearly cost us our client!”
“You often don’t know you’ve been misunderstood until much later.”
“How do you know when ‘yes’ truly means ‘yes’ and not ‘no’?”
“His directness was so rude / Her indirectness left me completely confused as to where we stood in the project.”
Communication between cultures, whether it be with clients or between team members, can be challenging. Without cultural sensitivity and awareness, it could result in disastrous consequences. But when communication across cultures is done right, it can bring an expanded market, innovation and creativity, better performance, and cost-effectiveness.
Being a native speaker often isn’t enough
For most international business transactions and projects, English is the project language. While you might assume that speaking English as a native language makes things easier, you would be wrong if you believe that gives you the advantage in all areas of communication within the project. Disadvantages abound if you aren’t aware of potential problems, don’t develop strategies to overcome these problems, and don’t follow through with real actions.
As the adage goes “It’s not just what you say, but how you say it” – particularly when different cultural values drastically change the way your message is understood.
In one of the few studies done focusing purely on the connection between language and culture, entitled The importance of language in global teams: A linguistic perspective, Chen, Geluykens, and Choi (2006) wrote in the Management International Review that typical language problems such as pronunciation, grammar and the flow of language – areas that are most commonly taught in general language programs – rarely cause the greatest problems, as these can most easily be identified and addressed. Much more problematic are the areas related to language in context – areas where words and messages take on different meanings depending on the situation in which they are used.
Problems in areas such as:
- semantics (meaning coming from the context of usage)
- pragmatics (meaning, often ambiguous, coming from social, situational, and conversational context)
- sociolinguistics (meaning coming from all aspects of society or culture)
- diglossia (speaking different languages according to the social context)
- polite language (reflects face-saving concerns and power relationships)
- anthropological linguistics (meaning varies according to culture and society)
How language reflects culture can be ingrained and difficult to change or even clearly recognize. By improving cultural intelligence (CQ) along with language skills, internationally active individuals can prepare themselves for the diversity of communication across cultures. In combined language and CQ training, you learn how to successfully deliver your messages and understand those around you better.
Just as successful businesses know their markets and develop their strategies to succeed, heightened awareness of intercultural communication challenges and the integration of language strategies can help manage the language diversity in global teams and international business relationships, too. Language training for international work should go beyond grammar, vocabulary, and phonetics to involve:
1) the analysis of social behavior and communicative practices
2) the development of an awareness of one’s own language use
3) the recognition of language varieties and multiple interpretations of the same words
Through focused language and communication training, your team can develop the necessary communication strategies that will help bring clarity, more effectiveness, and more enjoyment into international work.
What cultural or communication challenges have you faced? How have you addressed them?
If you are encountering problems in intercultural communication now or want to be pro-active to avoid critical misunderstandings in the first place, contact me at CQ Lingo for help in developing a program specific to your company needs.