Working internationally means communicating with and managing multicultural employees. It can be complex and you need to be culturally and linguistically fit.

Sometimes it is said that the native speakers of English are at an advantage in international environments as they are able to communicate in their mother tongue. This can mean that non-native speakers of English feel less comfortable around them and participate less because of a lack of confidence and fear of making grammatical mistakes.

And yet, I often hear from the native speakers of English that they feel uncomfortable and inferior as everyone else is speaking a foreign language in meetings. The fact that they are the only native speaker in the room and very often don’t speak any other language makes them feel stupid.

As in all things cultural, it is good to see the situation from both perspectives, right? Everyone around the table has a different issue, context is never one dimensional.

Copyright 2021, Tayo Rockson

Tayo Rockson on language, culture and identity

This month I was so happy to be able to interview Tayo Rockson, a diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism consultant based in the States. He calls himself “a cultural translator, storyteller, and activist, empowering the next set of global leaders by helping people communicate across cultures with impact”. His book “Use your Difference to make a Difference” is one of the most refreshing books in the field of Intercultural Communication that I have read in a while, highly accessible to a wider audience and full of practical exercises that can be used in the classroom, in training and by individuals who are interested in making a difference to the next generation of global leaders and corporations.

Tayo has worked in teams where there has been a mixture of native and non-native speakers of English. I asked him about culture, language and identity when working in multicultural companies and teams:

1. Did you grow up speaking more than one language? 

I primarily grew up learning English. I picked up French during my middle school years and I have some understanding of Yoruba which is my tribal language.

2. Do you feel different when you speak another language? If yes, how? 

I do. I notice that I am highly aware of mistakes. I get more self-conscious and I start paying attention to accents and phonetics.

3. Some native speakers of English feel insecure as they don’t speak any other languages. Do you ever witness this? 

I absolutely do I am also one of them, haha!

4. Team members whose mother tongue is not English are often quiet in meetings as they feel they might say something wrong – what would you say to empower them? 

I would address potential insecurities upfront. In many situations, accent bias exists and is often used to determine one’s intelligence. I would say something like “I know how intimidating it can feel to speak a language that is not your mother tongue. In this environment, I want you to know that we welcome all accents and your ability to speak English will not be an indicator of your success on this team.”

5. What is required for companies to get more out of their international workforce – how can they get employees to bring their full identity to the table? 

Something I call the ACE model which stands for Awareness and Accessibility, Clarity in Communication and Equity with Empowerment. In the first step, it’s important to be aware of three things; stress & anxiety, cultural differences & gaps, privileges & power dynamics. Then you want to understand the accessibility in the workforce. What does accessibility to resources, information & leadership look like? This leads to belonging. With the second step, you want to be an active listening and provide effective feedback. This takes a commitment to understanding the different communication styles that exist in your organization and being able to open dialogue. This leads to inclusion.With the third step, you understand that different people need different things to succeed. You do this by understanding that different people need different things to succeed. so what you want to do is creating opportunities to collaborate, innovate & teach; creating opportunities to develop; and having an effective system of recognition and rewards.

Don’t run away from what you don’t understand; rather, seek to give everyone a voice and work out a solution from there.

Tayo Rockson

7. In your book “Use Your Difference to Make a Difference”, you talk about communicating like an architect. What does this mean exactly?

This is another way of opening dialogue. I am fascinated by architecture and how buildings come to be what they are. So I did some research and process is involves the following steps. Client calls architect about a project. They discuss this project and architect comes up with a design. After the client and architect agree on a design, the architect does some research to see if this building will be possible given the parameters. (zoning laws, environmental laws, etc.). The research almost always leads to some adjustment. After the adjustment as the architect helps with the project management, it’s important to consistently communicate. This same concept can be applied when opening dialogue. So in summary, the Architecture of Communications model or AOC model is design, research, adjust and consistently, communicate. We might initially go into conversations with one idea (design), as we gather more information (research), your worldview and mindset could change (adjust). To make this a lifestyle, we need to (consistently) communicate.

Last words

Successful intercultural communication means understanding the context of the person we are communicating with and addressing any issues that are limiting our understanding of what is happening in the workplace. Tayo’s AOC model helps to clear up misunderstandings very quickly and lead to better outcomes. And if something goes wrong one day, we all need to show up and address any issues the next. By putting in this constant effort, we will open more dialogues and can consistently communicate our dilemmas and disappointments. Instead of just identifying differences and seeing difference as a bad thing, we can adjust our mindsets, growing our teams/organisations in terms of mindset too. And we all know that growth mindset leads to more creativity.

Thanks to Tayo Rockson for sharing with me his insights into connecting with others in a meaningful way. Please read his book and put it on your reading lists for all students of Intercultural Communication. It brings the subject of cultural intelligence alive and has plenty of ideas of how to take learning beyond the textbook.

“How are you supposed to manage in a global world if you know nothing about it?”

Tayo Rockson

Did you know cultural fluency covers many of the top 25 skills required in the workplace according to Forbes in 2021? Cultural fluency incorporates emotional intelligence, critical thinking, perspective and relationship management.

If you are interested in growing your cultural fluency and improving your English, get in touch – I have just the course for you – English & Intercultural Skills.

With my training (1-1 or group) you can improve your language and communication skills at the same time. After all, they are connected.

Let’s communicate!

Vanessa Paisley

+44 7514 218083