Business & Finance Outsourcing

English Language Understanding Versus Speaking: Two Very Different Things

What if there were fewer English speaking people in the world, and we had to hear people speaking from a different platform than our own? If we had to "translate," we would be confronted by an obvious difference and prepare to accommodate it. We might even presume that other differences also lurk and raise our awareness of the whole situation.

Instead, we are often oblivious to culture differences. Americans are especially prone to this problem because we constantly hear our own language spoken by new Americans. Their heavy accents create an uncertain consistency in our language. There is no "right" way to say a word; instead, we have acceptable approaches, which are generally understood.

When Americans begin to work with international counterparts, we often see them as being the same as us but they are not. They are not like those who live in our neighborhoods or share a cube wall with us. We live in a true melting pot where the possibilities of having Indian, Brazilian, or Chinese colleagues working in our environments daily numbs us from seeing those across the table clearly.

Where you work, where you are from, your education, and other cultural factors determine that you will think differently than your international counterpart. You may value different types of communication. You will think differently about how to acknowledge power. You will think differently about your relationship with your manager. You will think differently about your relationship with your organization. This is not something people often discuss. Instead, we assume we are the same as others, and this often leads to problems with working in a cross-culture situation.

There is a saying that difference equals dangerous. In the United States, this is typically in reference to racism. As The Global Manager, try to realize that differences create danger when you do not consider them. Try thinking about this concept next time you have an international conference call or meeting.

The first consideration is that English will be a second language when working with Brazil, Russia, India, and China, or the BRIC countries. India uses English the most, but it is still a second language for them. Indians will often revert into Tamil, Hindi or other local language when they are in a hurry. This is their comfort zone--their safe language.

Consider how you phrase questions. Are you asking open-ended questions that require a simple yes or no answer? Do not make assumptions that the other side will feel a need to provide information that is more detailed. Americans would typically elaborate, but you may simply get a "yes" or "no" response from a worker in the BRIC countries. Ask questions in a way that require detailed data. Ask follow up questions to get specifics.

Are you using colloquial language and American euphuisms that other cultures do not understand? We fall into using certain phrases in the U.S. without realizing it. Remember that your international counterparts may not ask, "What do you mean?" when you say one of the following phrases:

We are in the end zone
Crossing the finish line
Tee this up
The whole nine yards
Slam Dunk
Playing hardball
Ball Park
Play Ball
Step up
Laugh all the way to the bank
Nail Down
New blood
Off your rocker
Pass Muster
Par for the course
Rhyme or reason
Tell it like it is
Up against a wall
See the forest through the trees
Can't fight city hall
Can of worms
Eat crow
Fall on deaf ears
Hands Down
If you can't beat them, join them
Jump the gun
Kill two birds with one stone

Think about tone. Americans speak very blunt English. Because our culture is so diverse, we need to provide great clarity to those around us who may not share the same experiences. Due to the diversity, we have flattened our communications and streamlined them into English. The problem is we use stressors that other cultures do not understand in the same way making us sound rude. A list of these is below:

Frankly speaking
Don't take this personally
It pains me to say
In my opinion
In reality
If the truth be told
Don't take this the wrong way

When you catch yourself saying these things, ask yourself if they are necessary to make your point. They are accepted in American speech, but when working across cultures they may be stronger words than necessary to make your point.

When using English across virtual communications, read over what you have written, or review what you have said and ask yourself if you are being clear. Remind yourself that the use of complex words will make it more difficult for your partners to understand your intention. When answers do not come back as expected ask the question in a different way or ask for clarity.

Do not assume that people who speak English understand the world in the same way you do. This is the biggest idea to take away for The Global Manager. Do not let your senses become numbed. It is helpful to remember that the number one expatriate failure is an American sent to the United Kingdom to work. The American assumes things are the same and often does quite poorly because things are not the same. As someone who has negotiated extensively in the UK, including with the UK government, the British use their language in a very different way than Americans do. This is a good lesson: if the British are different, imagine how differently those in the BRIC use their language. To learn more about communicating effectively with BRIC countries, visit

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