The challenges of cross-cultural communication have never been greater. Businesses are discovering its importance – not just because of increased globalization, but also because their domestic workforces are becoming more diverse, ethnically and culturally. This poses a particular challenge for those of us who work in communication, as Jennifer Olson has discovered first-hand.
English is considered the international language of business, but only about half of the 800 million people who speak English learned it as a first language, so all forms of communication should be as clear, simple and unambiguous as possible. Misunderstandings of culture-specific or non-standard English phrases can hamper the communication process.
I am an American working in The Netherlands. There have been a lot of challenges, ups and downs of living and working in a country where English is not the predominant language.
Crossing the line – or just crossed lines?
One way I have been able to cope with the stress of being in a different environment is keeping a sense of humor (or humour, in UK English), especially when mistakes are made. Misunderstandings around slang and regional expressions are frequent and usually good for a laugh.
When I worked for the Royal Bank of Scotland in Amsterdam our leadership team was made up of British and Dutch people (and me). During one of our leadership team meetings, the British team lead asked his Dutch business manager for a “starter for ten” on a certain project. The morning after the meeting, I asked the business manager why she was so stressed, and she said she could not talk as the leader needed the document by 10am. I tried to explain to her that he meant for her to make an initial attempt, but she was only convinced when she realized he wasn’t even in the office that day. If she had just asked, it would have saved her a lot of effort, but it wouldn’t have been as funny.
In the same team, an American consultant said we should start a “tickler file”. I saw a few eyebrows raise when that term was used, but it really means a file that is there to remind you or prompt you to do something. The Dutch colleagues were really hoping it meant something more interesting.
One of my favorite examples is when a German colleague tried to use an American slang term in a presentation, saying he was “stepping up to the plate with his knife and fork”. To Americans this would be either confusing or funny, because the “plate” actually refers to home plate in baseball and not a dinner plate. “Stepping up to the plate” means you are taking on responsibility or volunteering to work on something. Had he asked an American like me, I could have explained it to him before he presented, but I liked it that he was ready to eat a hardy meal.
Investigate and embrace the differences
All international communication is influenced by cultural differences. If a team is multi-cultural or has members who speak several languages, practice different religions, or live in varying time zones, these will influence how we communicate. Even the choice of medium or channel can have cultural overtones. What’s acceptable and correct in one culture may be ineffective or even offensive in another.
Plenty has been written on the subject – too much to cover here. But in reality, no culture is right or wrong, better or worse – just different.
Generally speaking, patience, courtesy and a bit of curiosity go a long way. My advice: if you find yourself living or working across cultures or in a foreign language, simply ask if you don’t understand something. And if you do make a mistake, try not to be embarrassed – rather find the fun in it.
About Jennifer Olson
Jennifer has worked in communications in a wide variety of companies such as Staples, Shell, the Royal Bank of Scotland and General Electric. She likes problem-solving and is passionate about improving the reputation of the communications profession. She earned a green belt in Lean Six Sigma in technology and is adept in areas of information and data management. Jennifer was also an actor for 20 years and uses her experience to coach, guide and mentor people to become better presenters and storytellers. She has served on the IABC Netherlands Board since 2014. She also has a passion for 16th Century European history and gives history tours in the Netherlands.
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