Cross-Cultural Business Communication: Do’s and Don’ts for Co-workers

In our ever-increasing global marketplace, it is more and more likely that you will encounter non-native speakers of English in your workplace. This can be a wonderful opportunity to get familiar with another culture, but the cultural differences in communication can be frustrating, particularly when the other person has limited English or a heavy accent. Don’t give up, though! Cross-cultural business communication does not have to be so hard.

You may not think that you can do anything about it, but actually there are several steps you can take. If the person has very limited English, you could offer to help him or her find ESL classes. If their knowledge of English is good, but their accent makes them hard to understand, suggest to management that they offer accent reduction training for those who need it. In the meantime, though, what do you do if you are working with this person and you just can’t understand each other?

Try these five tips to improve your ability to communicate:

1. DO NOT speak more loudly

Unless the person is wearing hearing aids or has a known hearing loss, please do not speak more loudly to him or her. He or she is not deaf, and shouting does not improve communication. It is a natural reaction for many people who are misunderstood to repeat their statement a little louder each time, as if the listener were a stubborn two year old willfully ignoring the request. Use a normal tone of voice. Your listener will thank you.

2. DO NOT over-enunciate

Another tendency many of us have when faced with awkward communication is to s-l-o-w- d-o-w-n and over-enunciate. Do you hear the words I am trying to say? we think to ourselves in an over-exaggerated fashion. But that is not how English really sounds, and it won’t increase the chances of being understood. It will only make the listener feel belittled.

3. DO speak more slowly

Try to think back to the foreign language class you took in high school. Whether it was French, Spanish, or German, I’ll bet that your reaction to hearing native speakers was something like this: Why do they talk so fast? Can’t they just slow down? I can’t even understand the words they are saying. Now the shoe is on the other foot. English sounds just as fast to a non-native speaker as those foreign languages did to you. I’m not suggesting that you slow down to an embarrassingly slow pace, but be conscious of how rapidly you are speaking. Particularly when communicating technical information, it is important to ensure that the other person has understood every piece of the communication. If you are hurried or stressed, work even harder to slow down. It is very natural when we are stressed to talk even faster, but most likely this is when it will be most critical to speak slowly enough to get your message across clearly. A few extra seconds on the front end can save an endless stream of headaches later on.

4. DO offer to explain unfamiliar words

Most non-native speakers are working hard to improve their English and are extremely intelligent. After all, they are performing their job in a foreign language; not everyone could do that! If you kindly offer to explain an unfamiliar word, you are not only helping your colleague to boost his English skills, but you are building trust and rapport as well.

5. DO ask if they would like your help with pronunciation

Have you ever had one of those embarrassing moments where you had a piece of spinach caught in your teeth, or your fly was down, or you had toilet paper caught on your shoe — and no one told you? Didn’t you wish someone had just said something to you sooner instead of letting you walk around like that? That is how most non-native speakers of English feel when they mispronounce a word and no one tells them it is wrong. Some people are very self- conscious and prefer not to be corrected, but many foreign-born professionals are very appreciative of a little English guidance. It is important to be polite and discreet, though. Correcting someone across the table in a meeting with the boss may not go over so well, but a casual comment afterward could be helpful.

In fact, if you develop a good rapport with the person, you could offer to be their resource contact whenever they are unsure of how to pronounce a word. You could help them avoid many of those embarrassing little moments – and you could become the office expert on effective cross-cultural business communication!

If cross-cultural communication is an issue in your business, please recommend that the non-native English speakers in your office download my FREE report How to Speak English Like an American: 6 Steps You Can Take Today