Category Archives: Intercultural Topics

The Lingua Franca

A recent BBC Radio 4 programme with German comedian Henning Wehn – This is me totally sausage –  explored the challenges that non-native, but also native speakers of the English language face. Listen to entertaining interviews with people from around the world and their experiences of miscommunication revolving around the meaning of words, implicitness, irony, accents, pronunciation, spelling etc.

Have you experienced any linguistic faux pas in English or another language, that you would like to share with us?


Small Talk or Straight to Business?

Imagine two German business visitors. They are in the UK for a business meeting and arrive ten minutes before their scheduled meeting at the offices. The meeting is due to start at 9am and finish at 10.30am and they come well prepared. The secretary welcomes them and offers some tea or coffee. They remain at reception until one of their hosts arrives, shakes hands and takes them through to the meeting room. They chat a little bit about their trip. Another colleague arrives as he got stuck in traffic on the way into work. They talk a little bit more about travelling, the weather on the day, where they last met and about joint acquaintances. At 9.30am, the formal part of the meeting begins ….

The German visitors had not planned in such a delay. They had originally prepared for a presentation with questions & answers to fill the 90 minutes of the meeting. Now they needed to rethink what was most important and drop some of the material and focus on the essentials. Some less important information was left with the client as part of the hand-outs. The two German visitors decide that next time they need to leave some time for small talk and not get caught out wrong footed again.

In a British subsidiary of a German company, the accountant works flat out for over a week on a major finance project for the management. Colleagues from other departments help out as it’s a time critical work. She receives an email from her German counterpart, simply saying that they cross-referenced certain figures and those highlighted are unclear and are to be checked. Written in the present tense, the email contains no acknowledgement that the British accountant may currently be under pressure nor does the German colleague offer any potential time window for the response.

People’s own preferences, the type of organisation you work in, or customs derived from your national culture can all impact how people communicate and what information they share at work. Do they get straight down to business to effectively use their limited time and focus on the task ahead? Or are they trying to get to know their counterparts better to build up relationships, goodwill and trust?

The German accountant focused on what she needed to communicate. She got her message clearly across. Her intention was not to put pressure on her colleague or be impolite – she just advised a status. Her British colleague felt that she was not appreciating the immense pressure her team was under and was unclear when her colleague needed the information by and reacted therefore initially defensively.

Direct communicators may want to re-read their email before sending it off to more implicit and relationship focused colleagues. Start off with your core message, then think of it as a sandwich and add some ‘niceties’ at the top and bottom. On the other hand, relationship focused people may sometimes cut down the length of their communication to focus on the essentials and communicate this without ambiguity. Otherwise, their direct counterpart may not be clear what is expected of them as the message may get lost in the ‘small talk’.

A direct American, who had previously successfully worked in Germany, is now extremely frustrated with, what he perceives, lack of focus in the UK. He tries to avoid the ‘time-wasting chit chat’ before meetings by simply arriving ten or fifteen minutes late when the actual business part starts. However, he misses out on building very important relationships with his British colleagues who often use small talk and informal meetings to clarify topics, sound people out and influence decision makers.

In a North East manufacturing company, the first hour of each Monday was dedicated to a rather work unrelated ‘meeting’ – the previous weekend’s football results. And considering the popularity of football hospitality, I assume football talk must considerably contribute to the bottom line in many companies around the globe.

When engaging in this ‘small talk’ in the meeting room, the evening dinner, the airport or the hospitality suite – the international business traveller may need to do some homework. How did the local/national team play last? What’s going on in the country that people may talk about? The impending Football World Cup in Brazil may not mean that much to an American who doesn’t follow soccer. Questions or comments about age, weight, money or marital status may not go down well in some countries, but are acceptable in others. What kind of humour is seen as funny and what’s unacceptable? And beware of those tv references – Butler James & Miss Sophie, Don Camillo & Peppone or Maya the Bee may be well-known characters in Germany, while Germans may struggle with references to Dr Who, Ant & Dec or the Magic Roundabout.

And even when visiting just one ‘country’, communication style and small talk topics may vary from region to region. The English broadcaster and journalist Simon Hoggart put it like that: “In Washington the first thing people tell you is what their job is. In Los Angeles you learn their star sign. In Houston you’re told how rich they are. And in New York they tell you what their rent is.”

What has just happened?

With some people, you don’t need a lot of explanations – you both just ‘get it’. Other people may appear very strange to you, and we may not particularly enjoy socialising or working with them. Tools such as NLP can help us to establish a rapport, or, alternatively we can find out more about our personality types through tools such as the Myers Briggs instrument, which may explain why some relationships and others are harder to make work.

If people from the same culture suffer from misunderstandings and communication conflicts, to the extent that they require tools to support the relationship, what happens when we engage with people who do not speak the same language, have an alternative set of learnt behaviours and a different educational background?

Following are five tips that may help you stop and pause before jumping to conclusions too quickly:

1) Know yourself

Who am I? What type of person am I?

Am I more of an extrovert or an introvert. Do I look at facts and figures or does my ‘intuition’ reign?

 How do I learn and how do I approach problem solving?

What was the acceptable way of learning at school? At school were we trained to memorise facts and figures or develop a more creative approach to thinking? What’s my own preference? If I get IKEA furniture, do I just have a go or do I follow the instructions? What is learnt and what comes ‘naturally’ to me?

What values do I have personally?

Do I like to be independent or is it normal to depend on the state, family and other external agencies? Do I enjoy taking responsibility for my actions? If I have a family emergency, do I put the job before family? Do I live to work or work to live? Do I plan long-term or short-term?

And how has my national/regional culture influenced my thinking, behaviour and communication style?

People grow up in a community that generally has a shared history and language. They are influenced by the local climate, geographic location and economic circumstances. If you live in a first world country, with high employment, a social network provided by the state and a high per capita income, this gives an individual economic freedom and choices, but they may also spend time and resources to maintain a certain social status and loose some of the family network.

2) Direct / indirect communication

Some countries, like Germany, the US or Scandinavia prefer a more direct communication style. To be straight and get to the point is appreciated, whereas in other countries this may be seen as impolite. However, even within these very direct countries, some people may not appreciate this style – in Germany they use the term ‘Mit der Tür ins Haus fallen’. (To tall with the door into the house)

So what does it mean to be direct in a country like Germany? It may mean that you are open and honest, trustworthy and are not wasting the other person’s time by ‘beating around the bush’. However, in a country that favours indirect communication, the same communication style may be viewed as rude, rushed and lacking the accepted social ‘niceties’.

Some people may also want to have more context first and see the bigger picture before they can move on to make a decision or take action. They may want to view things from all angles, rather than ‘rushing into something’.

When dealing with people who favour indirect communications, their direct counterparts may have to pay a lot more attention to what was meant rather than what was said. Does the yes mean a no, packaged in a way that should not be construed as rude. If you give an instruction, was it really understood? And when you receive feedback, was there something else hidden in that positive sounding message?

3) Humour & Self-Deprecation

In Britain, there’s humour everywhere. I often wonder, as I didn’t attend  school here, if it was a compulsory subject! Not English grammar, but how to use double entendres and how to make fun of things.

Humour is also used in situations where British people don’t feel comfortable – a quick joke can diffuse a situation. This can be misunderstood by people from other cultures, where it isn’t ‘normal’ to use humour in a business environment. They may view the person making a joke as somebody who is not serious about the task at hand. That doesn’t mean that they have no sense of humour, they’re just too tasked focused to get side tracked by humour.

If you’re using double entendres in English, you also need to have quite a sophisticated understanding of the language to quickly spot the opportunity for a witty remark.

Modesty in Britain is often expressed through self-deprecation. This may be problematic in countries such as the US, where it’s appreciated when people can sell themselves and their achievements. An understated and witty way to talk about ones experiences and track record may be completely misunderstood there.

Also beware that in some cultures they do not use irony, so they could both totally miss the message and the humour in it.

4) Language & Grammar

English is the recognised language of business, but as already outlined above – even between native English speakers there may be communication breakdowns. This could also be down to accents, slang or typical sayings. Does an American understand when a Brit wants to ‘discount a business opportunity’? Or what do both sides understand when we ‘table a topic’? And what is it with Americans wanting to ‘reach out’?

Then you have other countries embracing the English language and ‘tailoring’ it – the Germans made a ‘Handy’ out of a mobile phone and I recently came across the term ‘body leasing’ – you try and guess what’s meant with that one!

When doing business with non-native English speakers, the whole communication process becomes even more complicated. Non native English speakers learn English and reference it back to their own language. The structure and order is usually different. Some nationalities may sound extremely rude talking in English – but it may just be down to the grammatical structure of their own language and subsequent translation into English.

A recent study by Keith Chen of Yale University found that the German language and our ability to talk about the future in the present tense, enables us to save better as it’s a more immediate statement.

People may have a strong foreign accent. Even within Britain, a Londoner may not understand a Glaswegian. What if certain words don’t exist in your own languages and for example the sentence structure already communicates that you’re polite and therefore you don’t have a word for ‘please’. Does that mean that people have no manners? Even if English is the language of business, for some people it may be the fourth or fifth language that they learn..

How do you address your counterparts? In English, people are very informal – they use ‘you’ and first names. However, this may be considered rude in other countries where there is much more emphasis on formality and hierarchy. Another minefield is ‘politically correct’ language. Is something that’s politically correct in the UK the same as in Britain or South Africa or Australia?

5) Non-Verbal Communication

Just as you get to grips with indirectness, grammar and foreign languages, then there’s the all so important non-verbal communication. You just have to look at your pets to see how wrong they can get it – the dog wagging its tail will hardly get a similar response from a cat.

If somebody nods their head, do they mean they agree or that they have ‘heard you’? Does a smile mean somebody is friendly? Or are they embarrassed and don’t want to loose face?

Do you judge somebody by their handshake? How is a ‘proper’ handshake supposed to be? And do you kiss? Who do you kiss? And how many times? Where do you start? If you look somebody straight into the eyes, does that mean that you’re open and transparent or aggressive and disrespectful?

Some cultures are used to physical space between them, others don’t mind touching and being close. Are their differences between men and women in relation to how we can interact and where is body contact acceptable.

In some countries, it’s perfectly acceptable to speak very loudly. This may be seen as a nuisance somewhere else. If you’re upset or annoyed about something, should you show this and raise your voice or control your emotions? The sentence ‘This is an interesting proposal’ may have different meanings, dependent on the tone of your voice.

And last but not least, there’s silence. What does silence mean? Somebody has nothing more to say/contribute or are they reflecting on what’s been said, are they in agreement/disagreement?

Some more reading:
Edward T. Hall’s Beyond Culture

Time to Think about Time

Train clock_ExtraSmallBeing on time is not always easy for me. This may sound strange as I am German and therefore punctuality should come natural to me. From a young age, we are taught in Germany that being on time is the right way to be – it means you are reliable and respectful of other people’s time.

Even when running just a few minutes late, I do still feel bad about this due to my German cultural values. When standing in a queue, I immediately wonder why there is one in the first place and if there’s a process that needs to be improved. Even when it is only minutes, the waiting time immediately feels like ages and as ‘wasting’ valuable time. However, somebody else in the same queue might think it’s great to have a little break or use the opportunity to chat with the other people in the queue.

In a task focused and time critical business environment, we use agendas that are usually followed. We aim to stick to deadlines and key milestones. When there’s silence in a meeting, it may feel uncomfortable and somebody generally makes a comment just to break it. Decisions are made quickly to ‘save time’, not to ‘miss the boat’ or appear indecisive.

So what does time actually mean and does it mean the same to everybody? You probably have friends that are generally on time and others that always make you wait. Elizabeth Taylor even made a point of arriving late for her own funeral.

In some professions that deal with hard data – such as accountancy – it is important that people stick to deadlines and do one job at a time. In others – such as creative positions or when working with people – time pressures are taken away so that issues can be looked at from all angles and relationships become more important.

The time we can measure by seconds, minutes or hours is called ‘clock time’. But there’s also ‘nature time’ – the seasons, day and night, the lunar calendar – more important to those working in agriculture, farming or fishing. We also adjust our clock time twice a year to nature time to get the most out of the summer’s daylight hours.

And then there’s our ‘internal clock’ – but internal clocks are not the same for everybody – some people may be so called larks who prefer to get up early, while others – the so called owls – would rather have a lie in and stay up later. If you have young children or teenagers, you may notice the differences in how easy or not it is to get them out of bed in the morning. And our internal clock can, of course, get disturbed by travel jet lag or shift work.

Our attitude to time is both very personal, but also deeply ingrained culturally. We may not be aware of how we have been taught through generations, at school and at work how to approach time. This influences our view of what’s ‘normal’ and the ‘right way to be’.

As a country and as individuals, do we plan long-term or short-term? How do we look at and talk about the past, present and future? When working internationally and with multi-cultural teams, those differences in views can make an impact on expectations, leading to miscommunication, frustration and in a worst case to a breakdown of trust and relationships.

An Italian may find the Swiss very impatient and inflexible. A Mexican may find Germans rather cold and unfriendly. And even Americans in Britain get sometimes frustrated with the small talk when they just want to get down to business.

In western cultures, such as the US, Canada, Germany, Switzerland and Northern Europe, it is important to be on time and on schedule. They are the countries of the clock makers and fully integrated transport systems, where manufacturing and service operations are planned to be as efficient as possible and everything is expected to run like a perfectly oiled machine. These are countries where time can be made, saved, spent, wasted, won and lost.

The anthropologist Edward T Hall described this in his concept of monochronic and polychromic cultures. In our western, monochronic culture, time is tangible as it can be scientifically measured. We have a linear vision of time and as a consequence we generally do one thing at a time – sequentially. Our focus is on the task ahead and therefore we do not appreciate interruptions. This depends upon your ‘type’, but also how you were taught to best manage your time.

However, in polychronic cultures, there is always plenty of time available and people therefore have more of a focus on building relationships, they don’t mind being disturbed and are used to doing various activities simultaneously.

The linguist Richard D. Lewis developed three concepts of time: Linear-active time which could be compared to the monochronic approach. His multi-active time (or also described as‘event time’) is prevalent in Arab and Latin cultures and has at its core relationships and transactions between humans. The right moment or the actual meeting is more important, not the time an event starts and finishes.

I recently chatted with a Brazilian friend about time. She lived in the UK for a number of years and returned to her home town of Sao Paulo. I would describe her as very punctual and reliable and I wanted to find out what in her view was an acceptable time for friends wait for each other. She said it depended on the situation. If you were to meet up with one friend, you should try and meet around the agreed time. However, if there’s a group of you out and you meet at 8pm and some are busy with other things, it’s perfectly fine to catch up even hours later.

According to Lewis, cyclic time is prevalent in Asian cultures and he writes: “Americans see time passing without decisions being made or actions performed as having been ‘wasted’. Asians do not see time as racing away unutilised in a linear future, but coming around again in a circle, where the same opportunities, risks and dangers will represent themselves when people are so many days, weeks or months wiser”.

Does that mean that in Asian cultures people do not value punctuality? In China or Singapore punctuality is also valued. Production is managed in a linear way, with the terms ‘Lean Manufacturing’ or ‘Total Quality Management’ championed by Japanese companies.

The cyclic time view, however, will still comes into play when building relationships or during a decision making process, as the focus is on reflection rather than action. Hierarchy may also play a part as it may depend on the person and their status, which will decide who waits for whom.

So what influences our perception of ‘time’? We may seek origins in different cultures’ approach dependent on the region’s climate, the country’s religion, history or industrial/economic development.

The American psychologist Robert V. Levine dedicated a whole book to ‘A Geography of Time’, in which he described how he measured the pace of life in 31 countries.  By comparing walking speeds, postal times and clock accuracy in similar cities, he found that the fastest three were Switzerland, Ireland and Germany, with the most relaxed life found in Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico (England came 6th, the USA 16th).

But even within countries, we can find different paces – life varies in the countryside to urban environments or regionally such as New York or Massachusetts in the north east of the United States to southern states like Florida or Texas.

In 2002, the Morgenroth Zeit-Project measured the walking speed in various German cities. They identified the ‘protestant’ cities of Hannover, Dresden and Stuttgart as the fastest cities, while the more relaxed walkers lived in the ‘catholic’ cities of Trier, Saarbrücken and Passau. The walking speed results also correlated with the response time of emails sent to local job centres and overall the ‘faster cities’ also had a higher GDP per capita and higher average earnings of their citizens.

Are you experiencing challenges because of somebody’s personal attitude to time? Or is it a totally different cultural appreciation of time that you’re finding very hard to work with. Or is everybody just struggling as nothing can be planned time perfectly due to external influences such as traffic or weather?

I hope this has given you an alternative perspective on time and maybe a more relaxed attitude to your ‘late’ friends and colleagues.

We would love to hear about your own experiences and practical tips of how to make the best out of tricky time situations!