Navigating Language and Culture at Work

For anyone working at an international company with culturally and linguistically diverse teammates, a few basic intercultural skills can improve communication and productivity. In this article you’ll go beyond learning grammar and vocabulary and discover five ways of communicating more effectively in the workplace.
Navigating Language and Culture at Work

Milene Mendes de Oliveira, a linguist specializing in intercultural communication, offers practical advice for collaborating more effectively in diverse, international workplaces.

Making polite requests: it’s culturally and linguistically relative

“Can you…?” or “could you please…?” That’s probably how you learned to make a request in your English class, right? However, in real-life communication, your ability to form sentences in English alone won’t do the job. Non-native English speakers must evaluate the consequences of choosing between “can you send me that file?”, “could you please send me that file?” or simply “send me that file”.

My experience teaching English as a foreign language to business practitioners showed me how much more is at stake than learning perfect English grammar. While learning new structures, vocabulary and doing lots of exercises are necessary steps for anyone trying to acquire an additional language, developing communicative strategies to thrive in international business communication can be equally challenging. Knowing how to form a sentence in the imperative in English is important, but knowing the social consequences of using the imperative in a conversation is also paramount. 

What might sound like a straightforward request can come easily across as rude depending on use of the imperative, word order or inflection. For instance, as I’ve described elsewhere, in some communicative contexts in Brazil, the use of the imperative when making a request is very common. The speaker need only use a certain intonation that makes it clear to the listener that the speaker is issuing a polite request and not a command. This means that when you need a colleague to, say, send you a file, it is acceptable if you ask her “me manda o arquivo?” (lit. Send me the file?).  This sentence works perfectly well and does the job, that is, your colleague will probably send you the requested file while maintaining a high opinion of you. 

However, a common problem is that language learners typically transfer rules from their first language into a new language they are acquiring. Therefore, there is a tendency for Brazilians learning English to transfer rules from their native Portuguese when addressing non-Brazilian workmates: “Hey, buddy, send me the file?” When this comes across as impolite, the consequences can be disastrous.

Should I “du” or “Sie” them?

Personal pronouns are another case where language learners often struggle with the grammar and the underlying social rules of (in)formality. The personal pronoun “you” has many manifestations in different languages. If, for example, you are learning German as a second language– and if your first language only has one second-person pronoun–you might find it extremely difficult to choose between the informal “du” and “Sie” in certain interactional situations at work. This is especially challenging when you don’t have much time to think it over, and have to make a fast choice between pronouns. Murphy’s law has it that you’ll probably make the wrong choice. 

The bright side, one should add, is that you can learn from your mistake and are more likely to choose correctly the next time around. However, real life will be ruthless in showing you that this is not always the case. The grammatical rules and pragmatics you learned in your native language have a long lasting impact on the way you speak. If you never made the second-person pronoun distinction in the first, say, 18 years of your life, you cannot learn it after only one lesson in your language course or after only one real-life interaction. You’ll need lots of practice and open-mindedness. A bit of patience on the part of your interlocutors doesn’t hurt either.

Open-mindedness and consciously avoiding premature judgements

Being open-minded entails a willingness to listen to new ideas and consider other perspectives fairly. If you are an employee at an international company who has been working with a diverse group of colleagues, you already have a degree of open-mindedness. The question becomes how to use this quality to improve your communication skills in the context of an international and diverse workplace? The answer is to try to identify your counterparts’ actual goals in each specific interaction and also to understand that those goals might be weighed quite differently depending on their own cultural background. 

Let’s take the example of business meetings, where a set of tasks or action items typically must be addressed. In some cultures, “task-orientation” might surpass by far the need to reinforce personal relationships; in other cultures, establishing a positive social environment is the first step for gaining the necessary trust to move forwards with the tasks at hand. Keeping an eye on such issues helps fighting premature judgements such as “person X is just being rude” or “person Z is not being serious enough.” Such misconceptions often go unstated, causing a snowball effect until concrete consequences result, potentially even an abrupt end to negotiations. To avoid this, it’s always advisable to balance interactional goals with an informed knowledge about different cultures. This knowledge is important in developing ‘intercultural competence’.

Want to gain intercultural competence and impress your international colleagues? Here are 5 tips to help you:

1. Read up on the subject

Read materials about the culture(s) you are dealing with. However, always be careful when choosing materials. There are lots of writings that do nothing but reinforce bad cultural stereotypes. For the German business culture, I can recommend Schroll Machl’s Doing Business with Germans. A great read not only for non-Germans, but also for Germans who would like to know how their behavior is usually interpreted by others.

2. Listen carefully

Listening is an underrated skill in today’s world, where seemingly more attention is placed on speaking. It requires a lot of concentration and practice to understand your counterparts’ turns not as an interruption in your own speech flow, but as an important and overly meaningful contribution to the interaction at place. Therefore, you, as a listener, should take the time to go beyond hearing the words spoken to interpreting them in light of cultural specificities and other bits of context you are aware of.

3. Pay close attention to nonverbal communication

Attend to nonverbal clues such as posture, intonation, and eye contact. Observe how your business counterpart conducts interactions with people from the same cultural background. This can enable you to understand what those clues mean.

4. Avoid the pitfalls of ‘common sense’

As clear as a message or a piece of information may sound to you, avoid labelling it as ‘common sense’. There are so many ways of interpreting the same content that you are now aware of… So, ask for clarification and confirmation often. Ask questions to establish that your counterparts understand what you are saying. 

5. Learn about your own culture

Being exposed to cultures that contrast with yours in some aspects often brings about a magnified awareness of your own cultural values, and how these values might be perceived by others. Make sure to explore that reflexive state of mind and to question what was probably previously regarded as “the way things really are.” Even though it might be disturbing at first to realize that several of our beliefs are not (at all!) absolute truths, this can also lead to increased open-mindedness and to acceptance of other values, which, just like yours, are often the results of social and historical forces.

And then, when you hear that request “send me that file, buddy,” you’ll probably realize that your cultural ideas of “politeness” do not apply everywhere–and you’ll send the file just as requested.

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