I was recently coaching a German client on how to communicate across cultures, and we got onto the topic of DIRECT versus INDIRECT communication styles. She told me that she was so shocked about her partner’s direct English that she’d overheard him using on his Zoom calls. I then told her about my British partner’s diplomatic English on his Zoom calls with international stakeholders. She was convinced her partner was in the wrong and needed to use a few more “pleases”, “coulds” and “would you minds”. I was convinced my partner needed to drop the business jargon, idioms and speak plain English!
The truth is we are all humans, right? We are all different and many of us are finding online work hard – people are having to do difficult tasks online and body language is zero. You can’t read between the lines and there’s no beer in a pub or café to get the banter (light conversation) going and build trust after a day of cross-cultural negotiations.
In effect it’s all in the words.
So, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it’s how you say it.
Personally, I am also trying to reduce the number of words I use in emails, intercultural program concepts and blogs. I’m becoming more concise. Just because it makes international communication easier. And we are currently reading a lot more than we did 18 months ago, so maybe our appetite for long-winded pieces of copy has diminished. If I want to read something lengthy, I want to get offline and stick my nose in a book and I don’t think I’m alone there.
So, in this article I’ve put together a few tips on how to communicate concisely and courteously in English (or any other language for that matter) when working across cultures:
For those whose first language is English – speak plain English please!
“Hello, I’m awfully sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you might be able to quickly forward me the link you mentioned earlier, if it’s not too much bother?”
This may be a little over the top, but the British tend to express themselves in a very polite way. And this means lots of words, idioms and niceties! Some people love this! And some people just get confused as they can’t read between the lines – is this a reminder, is it a request or is it an order?!
The solution here is to speak plain English! Plain English is the winning ticket to international success. Or knowing when you can roll out the business jargon, idioms and euphemisms – you should be looking around the table or scanning the Zoom call to see where are your colleagues dialling in from and what kind of English are they used to? Try to limit the use of phrases such as ‘you know what I mean’ which belittle the impact of your message. Keeping it short and simple, means less clarification at the end of the day.
Speaking clearly is the biggest thing you can do to create an inclusive communication environment when working across cultures. It’s not about dumbing down your English it’s about creating a space for open communication that includes everyone.
For speakers of English as a second, third or even fourth language – focus on your key message and don’t forget to be yourself!
Your English may not be perfect, but you are good at your job and you are doing it in a foreign language. Please remind yourself of this! Remember to be yourself when you speak English. Listening is also key – try and focus on the key message that your counterpart is saying and if it’s not clear – don’t be shy to ask for clarification.
Common Team Language
When you join a team, make sure you have someone you can speak to after a meeting to summarise any details you may have missed out on. It’s good for new international teams to establish a common team language and terminology as English is spoken differently around the world. This helps to avoid misunderstandings.
Working in English is a free and effective Business English course
I often get clients to turn working in English as a second language into a positive experience – this is half of learning a language. If you are working in the language, you save a fortune on language lessons! My clients bring their work into their language classes, and this is a win-win. Just think of your audience as you speak – what do they need to know? Be warm and clear in your communication – a smile goes a long way! And focus on one key message in a contribution (could be a point in a meeting or a slide in a presentation) and finally, ask questions to get input, clarifications.
Of course, you rarely have the vocabulary in a second language that you have in your first so sometimes you may come across as direct or “short”. There are easy ways to get around this such as remembering “pleases”, “thank yous” and asking questions. And ask for support if you really feel your English needs a refresher course. A few hours may just boost your confidence and give you a feeling of security.
To sum up
Finally, I think there is a time and place for idiomatic language, poetic verse and clever wit, puns and irony in communication. We need to keep the localness of our dialects and accents otherwise we face the danger of blending into one watered down global culture. However, when we work across cultures we need to stop and think – who are we talking to? What’s their level of English? Knowledge of the subject? Being able to flex our communication style will in the end be the winning ticket to effective communication.
If you have a team that would like to improve their communication, get in touch.
I have a webinar coming up on this very topic. It will be aimed at professionals who speak English as a second language and it will be entitled “It’s not what you say – It’s how you say it”. So schedule a call or send me a message if you want to find out more!
And please share this article with anyone you think may benefit from reading it!