“Say What?” – Cross-Cultural Communication

Paris France Hotel

Your boss tells you the good news: you’ve been selected to negotiate an important joint venture relationship with an overseas partner.  In a few days you will be getting on a plane to travel abroad, where you will interact with people who speak a language you don’t understand, in a culture you are not familiar with, in a country you’ve never been to.

A few days aren’t enough time to master a foreign language or learn all the subtleties of a foreign culture.  However, there are few pieces of advice you can put into practice right away:

Be humble. Because English is so widely spoken around the world, Americans are often used to others speaking their language abroad.  Indeed, it is often simply expected, rather than appreciated.  This does little to engender goodwill with the other side.  Instead, show humility and respect for the other side’s efforts at speaking English.

Example: I appreciate that this meeting is being conducted in English, which make things much easier for me. 

Expect miscommunication and overcompensate. When you are communicating across a cultural and linguistic divide, misunderstandings are extremely common.  Even when your counterpart speaks English, there are myriad social cues that can get missed or misinterpreted by non-native speakers.  Thus, expect that your words will not always be understood exactly as you intended them, and restate your message in alternate ways to make sure your point gets across.

Example: I can’t overstate how important this is to our company. — This phrase can easily be misunderstood by non-native speakers as meaning you don’t want to exaggerate the issue’s importance.  You should clarify — To put it another way, this is very, very important to our side.  It is one of the key terms in this deal for us. 

Make it discussable. Often it can help to explicitly acknowledge the language/culture gap.  Doing so not only relieves some of the tension, but can make it safe to discuss and ask questions about issues that would otherwise be taboo.  

Example: As an American who is unfamiliar with how things are done here, I am sure I will make mistakes without even noticing it.  So, I apologize in advance, and please let me know when what I am saying doesn’t fit with how you are used to doing things, so that we can talk about it.