How to Prevent Most Cross Cultural Miscommunication by Examining Your Own English Communication

By | February 25, 2017

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Miscommunication between people happens all the time, especially when one of the parties is using a second language. We often end up hearing miscommunication stories in the form of a joke: “You wouldn’t believe what happened to me…” But we don’t always hear all of the stories, especially we cause the miscommunication with international clients.

Native English speakers have the so called advantage of speaking the so-called world business language. If this is your case, it is likely your clients put up with the visible problems of miscommunication.

You may not even be aware there is any miscommunication, and your business can suffer from it. Misunderstandings lead to doubt about the real intent of others. This can have a very negative effect on a business’ bottom line.

Businesses operating in English and dealing with international clients need to pay special attention to any miscommunication.

Cultural Differences In Communication Styles

Every country has its own communication style and habits. These different styles do not translate well and businesses need to pay special attention to communication with foreign clients.

  • Americans like to use slang words and phrases that even other Americans don’t always understand. “I’m jazzed when that happens!”
  • Japanese people do not like to refuse something, so they say that it will be discussed “later”. Later meaning never.
  • French people can get easily offended. For example, every word has to have a French translation – e-mail, mail, and mèl are too English, so the word “courriel” was created.
  • Germans love details and Italians don’t.

And the list of generalized differences can go on and on.

How can cross cultural communication be easy?

Before trying to learn everything about all of the different cultures out there, it is important to look at your own communication styles first. How is our own English language perceived in different cultures?

Here are some of the main stumbling blocks for foreigners trying to understand what we have to say.

Metaphor Traps

In English we have the habit of using sport and military metaphors. We even use mixed metaphors and dead metaphors. Here are some examples of the metaphors we use:

  • We talk about “leveling the playing field” before we “charge straight in” to the “front line of operations”.
  • He can “step up to the plate and grab the bull by the horns”. “I gather you’ve understood” that “to grasp this concept” is a “touchdown for our team”.

These phrases actually mean something. And yet how many people would not follow their meaning? You might say: these metaphors are as subtle as a sledgehammer, everyone would understand them. But this is not the case.

Confusion Over Conditionals

Another area of miscommunication where native English speakers mislead foreigners is the use the conditional: could, should, would, and the hypothetical: if. We use these variations in English more than in many other cultures.

It is simple. To your international clients ‘could’ and ‘can’ mean ‘will’.

“If you pay on time, we can deliver on time” will be heard as “we will deliver on time”. Instead, try saying, we will begin manufacturing after your payment is received. Then make sure that your client has heard you, understood you, and is willing to act on your conversation.

Unknowing Lack Of Respect

English speakers can rapidly create bad impressions by being inappropriately informal. Many cultures have a different concept of respect and formality. In many cultures people will only address others using personal names after several months – or not at all.

Native English speakers from all countries generally address acquaintances on a first name basis faster than in some cultures. Americans being the champions with the general use of nick names added to the mix. Beginning your conversation informally in many cultures can be insulting.

English Guidelines To Avoid Miscommunication

You can eliminate many sources of cross cultural miscommunication simply by paying attention to your own use of English.

After looking at the above points, here are some guidelines:

  • Be aware of the metaphors you use, explain them clearly. Better yet, eliminate them.
  • Avoid making a conditional statement when possible. Clearly identify what you are saying, doing, promising. Better yet, simplify your communication and your offer.
  • Be aware of the other person’s cultural habits with regards to respect as much as possible. If you are not familiar with the other person’s habits, the least you can do is to ask for permission to call them by their first name. Better yet, ask them how people call them in their own country, and ask if you can call them in the same way.

The bottom line is this:

  • If you want to communicate effectively across cultures you must use simple English. The drawbacks of communicating effectively across cultures:
  • Your vocabulary will probably become severely reduced in size. The advantage is:
  • Your communication will be more pertinent, direct, and stronger.

Examining your own communication habits and their cross cultural implications is the best place to start. Your own communication will be the source of less stories of cultural communication blunders. And your own communication become a strong tool to get more international clients.

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