Mind what you say … to foreigners

Have you ever found yourself unconsciously matching the speaking style of the person you were speaking to? For example, if you were speaking to a foreigner with limited English, did you find yourself speaking less fluently than usual, perhaps even ungrammatically? And have you never adopted the accent of the other person … perhaps an American accent, or Cockney or North Country? Such adaptability is instinctive and entirely natural. It flows from a desire to communicate, and to find common ground. It is one of the keys to cross-cultural communication.

When we speak in English to foreigners, we look for the usual tiny signs of understanding, the brightness of the eyes, the almost imperceptible nods of agreement, the grunts that signify that they are following what we are saying. When those signs are absent, we assume that our words are not being understood, and we try harder. We speak louder and slower.

We all process information differently

However, the foreigner may have understood your words perfectly well. His blank look may be because he is weighing up the credibility of your message, or wondering why you are expressing the message so differently from the way he might have put it himself.

In some eastern cultures it is unsophisticated to show surprise. Someone raised that way will respond very coolly to dramatic news, let alone ordinary conversation. A westerner may well imagine that he is not getting through, or that the easterner has not understood. He is used to his listeners responding with “Really?” and “Oh ah!” and nods of agreement throughout the exchange, and he is put out when his oriental listener merely nods at the end to indicate, “Message received and understood”.

The English language can be used in more ways than one. Brits and Americans use the active voice, direct speech and action verbs. The people of Malawi tend to speak and write in the passive voice, third person, and indirect speech. The Arabs have a similar approach. Same language, different attitudes.

Traps for the unwary

Mind you, it can be baffling to hear some British broadcasters, and the way they mangle their own language. Here are a few gems:

They’re known by their Christian names in Turkey.

John Motson, BBC TV Football

Not only has the pace been constant, it’s been increasing.

Brendan Foster, BBC TV Athletics

That’s inches away from being millimetre perfect.

Ted Lowe, BBC TV Snooker

He went down like a sack of potatoes and made a meal of it.

Trevor Brooking

You can’t compare Lennox Lewis to Muhammad Ali. But he’s not dissimilar.

Gary Mason

Now the boot is on the other Schumacher.

Murray Walker

They came through absolutely together … with Alan Wells in first place.

David Coleman

10 Keys to Effective Cross-Cultural Communication

Right now, let’s consider 10 essential elements that form the right approach to communicating with people whose own language patterns are very different from your own. For effective cross-cultural communication, a person needs to:

  1. recognise his own dominant cultural assumptions
  2. become sensitive to ‘invisible’ cultural differences
  3. appreciate the value that differences can bring
  4. accept alternative means of achieving shared objectives
  5. avoid stereotyping and generalisations
  6. relate to the individual and develop respectful relationships
  7. demonstrate patience, tolerance, empathy, politeness and respect
  8. recognise non-verbal clues in communication (e.g. the Orientals’ inability to say ‘No’.)
  9. appreciate FACE – never belittling others or causing them discomfort
  10. listen actively – don’t just hear
  1. Own assumptions: Are you an action-oriented communicator? Do you expect your listeners to understand-agree-act? Do you expect them to signal that they are doing so? Be aware that people from some countries (a) do not communicate that way, and (b) might dislike being expected to respond like that.
  2. Invisible differences: Good manners may prevent others from letting you know when you have transgressed, so it’s not always easy to recognise when you are on the wrong track. A good approach is to adopt an attitude of wanting to learn about another person’s cultural expectations, and ask.
  3. Appreciate difference: Be prepared to set aside your habitual way of doing or saying things. Perhaps he doesn’t say “please” or “thank you” as often as you do – but is that rudeness on his part, or is he demonstrating that he feels comfortable and familiar with you, as a member of your family might do.
  4. Consider alternatives: For example, it may be your style to settle things over the telephone, but the other person may be used to agreeing things in writing. You may be used to making decisions unilaterally, whereas he may be a committee man. The question to ask yourself is, “What will get the result I want?” Be pragmatic and do what works.
  5. Stereotypes & Generalisations: There is an old saying that the moment an Englishman opens his mouth he is immediately condemned by another. This is because accent and vocabulary betray the speaker’s class, and the English are deeply class conscious. They are equally quick to judge foreigners according to the stereotypes and caricatures of common mythology.
  6. Respect and the individual: If your objective is to connect with the other person and communicate well with him, it would be useful to think of him as an individual, not as a representative of his company or his country. The key word is Respect. Build a relationship based on that.
  7. Patience and tolerance: First impressions linger forever. A person whose first language is not the same as yours may have difficulty in understanding what you are saying, and that may make them seem slow. The way you handle that will colour your relationship for all time. Remember that everyone has something to offer, and those from a different culture can help you to refine your communication skills.
  8. Non-verbal cues: Each nation has its own communication style. The British consider it impolite to interrupt, while the Latins interrupt all the time. Notice how an Oriental says ‘Yes’ – they find it hard to say ‘No’ and will often say ‘Yes’ even when it is hard for them to deliver. Avoid eye contact in the Far East, and do not reach out to help an Arab lady out of the car.
  9. ‘Face’: This is one of the least understood concepts. In simple terms, you should always avoid making the other person feel uncomfortable, especially in front of others. In a hierarchical society, if you are the boss you are expected to have certain symbols of your status, such as a posh car, because everyone below your ranks would have to have something less. Causing someone to lose face is the ultimate insult.
  10. Listen: Hearing is not the same as listening. You need to listen, not only for what is being said, but for what lies behind what is being said. Some cultures (e.g. northern European) communicate the salient facts. Others (e.g. Italian) value the process of communication more as a means of connecting the emotions, confirming status and reinforcing relationships. Others (e.g. Japanese) seek to promote harmony. What can you hear?

    Cross cultural communication is about understanding how people from other cultures process information, and what they expect from formal exchanges, especially at the start of a relationship. Speaking slower and louder is no longer acceptable as the right way to get through to Johnny Foreigner!

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