‘They speak English so I’ll be okay.’ Not so fast

The English language on business assignment: Follies and foibles

How many Canadians put food on the barbie? Then again, Australians don’t sit on the chesterfield. In the United Kingdom, people wear jumpers, a rare occurrence in other parts of the world.

It’s a mistake to expect English vocabulary to have the same connotations and values internationally. And, English-speaking countries are certainly culturally diverse, ranging from Canada and the United States to the U.K., Australia and Malaysia, to name a few. With this in mind, it is easy to see why miscommunications occur so frequently among expatriates, business travellers and host nationals.

Often, the expectation for English-speaking individuals working and living in English-speaking countries is that the cultural transition will be relatively easy. Most of the time, this is simply not the case. In fact, many expats and short-term assignees experience long periods of cultural adjustment that lead to misunderstandings in business, personal anxiety and depression, and challenges to the family unit.

International human resources managers who put proactive measures in place can prevent these kinds of problems from occurring upfront and increase the likelihood international assignments will be a success.

Cultural implications of the spoken word

In many countries where English is spoken, it has different pronunciations, timing, connotations, and to some extent, vocabulary and grammar. One simple Web search produced a list of five sites translating British into American and vice versa, each put together by Americans who were bewildered when they went to the U.K. Even when a word seems to refer to the same object, the value that the word evokes could be very different. For example, an American working in England experienced repeated frustration trying to name the banking form required to make a withdrawal. “Withdrawal” was simply not understood.

For expatriates and business travellers, language differences often become a struggle during business transactions and bureaucratic procedures, where it is important to have clear communication. Confusion is often instigated when statements that are tentative or courteous rhetoric for one speaker imply solid commitments for the other. England, for instance, is a culture of a high-context communication, in which meanings may be implicit, and where relationships and trust precede business transactions. In the U.S., however, communication is very low context, and is expected to be to the point, factual and often task-oriented.

Similarly, the value of verbal language may vary depending on the country of origin. In many Asian cultures, verbal communication is generally not the most important form of communication and relationship building.

Relationships are crucial to business co-operation, including reaching agreements, and relationships are built over time through fulfillment of social roles and rituals, as well as activities such as sharing meals. Cross-cultural training programs help the international assignee or business traveller navigate the rules of a foreign culture with greater ease and success.

When everything seems to go wrong

The confusion for people moving between seemingly similar cultures where English is spoken usually arises because they are simply not prepared for the difference in culture and communication. Many expatriates, accompanying family members, and even business travellers, interpret miscommunications as a personal failing, as opposed to viewing them as cultural differences. This can lead to depression or a sense of disempowerment, as they discover that they are ineffective in achieving their goals, despite attempts to communicate verbally.

Non-verbal communication, such as body language and semantics, style, intonation and timing of speech, supersede the content message of speech. In addition, stereotypes frequently come into play based on how a person uses language. A Texan working in the U.K. had problems adapting because her speaking style was such that she spoke slowly and loudly. She was also prematurely too familiar with her host national colleagues, both verbally and in her use of body language. The host culture assumed that she was vulgar, even arrogant, and as a result she had difficulty fitting in to her workgroup.

Often, what is communicated may be received as inappropriate, leading to more misunderstandings and fractured business relationships. In terms of getting tasks done, for example, a Canadian may believe an agreement was reached, while a host national did not interpret it that way.

It’s unfortunate but true that people tend to make assumptions about an individual’s intelligence, personality and even social class, based on how a person communicates, verbally and otherwise. This can lead to serious misperceptions and misunderstandings — and in business — poor results.

How HR can help

The presumption that because people speak the same language they therefore understand each other can be disastrous to an international assignment or business trip. Cultural challenges, and the intense stresses of transition and relocation, exist no matter where employees will be working and living. Misinterpreting cultural challenges as one’s own inadequacy may exacerbate pre-existing vulnerabilities and emotional health problems, putting an employee or family members at greater risk for problems like depression and anxiety.

This, in turn, impacts on the ability to adapt to the host culture and perform optimally. The best solution is to prepare for those challenges upfront. HR can provide support and enhance awareness in a number of ways.

Internally, HR may choose to facilitate conversations and the exchange of cross-cultural information through buddy groups and formal or informal gatherings between pre-departing employees, their families and host nationals in the international office. Destination-specific workshops can be arranged to facilitate discussion in a group or one-on-one setting. Pre-departure preparation programs can be put in place to help expatriates and shorter-term assignees prepare for losing a sense of cultural identity — and with it — confidence.

These programs will help departing expats understand the stressors they are going to experience down the road, as well as identify their own strengths and vulnerabilities. Online cultural questionnaires are available to enhance an employee’s ability to understand her “fit” within a specific cultural context, and cross-cultural training programs can help close the gaps in terms of working and living more effectively in a certain culture.

While HR can support the issue at hand by creating awareness and providing training in advance, the host country has an equal responsibility to be tolerant and understanding of the language and cultural differences of new colleagues.

Rensia Melles is director, clinical products, global services for FGI, an international provider of employee and employer support programs, including cross-cultural training, pre-departure preparation programs and international EAPs. She can be reached at [email protected] or (905) 886-2157.

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