Leadership Crossroads Newsletter

In Focus:  Communicating
Across Language Barriers

One of my favorite humorous video clips is a Berlitz commercial for their language learning programs.

At a German Coast Guard radio station: a young guy gets a short briefing by an older colleague on how to operate the station and is then left on his own. Soon after, a voice comes in over the air, in English:

"Mayday! Mayday!"

"Hello, can you hear us? Can you hear us?"

"We're sinking! WE ARE SINKING!"

The young guy, little more than a kid and unsure what to do, eventually pushes his microphone button. He speaks with that 'classic' German accent:

    "Hallo!" ... "Zis is ze Djerman Coast Gard."


    "Wot are you zinking about?"

Funny.  (Thanks, Berlitz!)

To be fair, the Germans might not be the best targets for this kind of fun anymore, since the average command of English improved considerably in the country over the past 20 years. But is there anyone doing global business without a few similar experiences: of language barriers introducing sub­stantial misunderstandings into the communication?

Are you a native English speaker? Then you surely must know what I am talking about here. Oh, you aren't? Congratulations! You probably have an advantage, at least when communicating with other non-native users of the language. In my regular inquiries on the subject, many non-native speakers report that they find it easier to listen to a French, Brazilian, or Pakistani person speaking English than to an American or Brit. That's because native speakers tend to talk much faster, mumble syllables, and use lesser-known words and slang.

The following list shows a few suggestions that may be useful for both groups. These strategies help when communicating across language barriers, no matter whether it is theirs, yours, or both:

Speak slowly and pronounce word endings clearly..  Native speakers tend to find this harder than non-native ones since speaking slowly is often considered boring. Don't fall into this trap. Asking a counterpart to slow down may help make their accent less of an issue, by the way.

Keep it simple..  Avoid slang words, colloquialisms, and sports expressions. Use the simplest words and phrases you can think of. If you fear they might not exactly say what you are trying to convey, remind yourself that so much is lost in translation anyway that keeping your points simple is your best, and sometimes only, chance to get your message across.

Repeat yourself..  Studies show human communication being only 60 percent effective. That's face-to-face, between speakers of the same language! When communicating across languages, maybe without even seeing each other, the percentage goes down much further. In other words, it is smart to repeat what you already said (in different words; orally and in writing; etc.). Rule of thumb for important messages:  Three is a charm!

Visualize and ask others to visualize..  While our preferences may be different, most humans take in visual infor­mation much better than orally or in writing. Remote communica­tion benefits greatly from using graphs, flow charts, and other ways to visualize important concepts.

Use email or (better!) chat to clarify questions..  Most non-native speakers of English read and write the language better than they are able to speak it. Email helps but tends to substantially slow down any dialog. Consider using chat instead, as it allows for near-instantaneous written communication.

Ask your counterparts to summarize..  This may seem potentially awkward but will be well received if done respectfully. Saying something that sounds close to "Hey you, I’m asking you to summarize what I just said because I don’t think you’re very smart" obviously creates a huge risk to the relationship. However, if the message is more along the lines of "You and I are both communicating in a language that is foreign to us, which is hard. I appreciate your part in it. We all know the decision we are discussing here is very important. Would you mind summarizing your understanding so we can verify whether we both share the same one?", there is no such risk and your counterpart will welcome the opportunity for clarification. After all, he/she also wants the communication to work well!

This article is also available in PDF format  (requires Adobe Reader ).

Book Of The Month
Going Dutch
in Beijing


An entertaining overview of cultural norms and practices found around the world, as well as the consequences of violating such norms.

(click title for full book review)


Web Site Of The Month


This Michigan State University site offers a surprisingly rich bundle of useful information for just about any country in the world

(click title to visit this web site)


Quote Of The Month

We cannot
solve our problems
with the same thinking
we used when we
created them

Albert Einstein


Kindle E-Book edition
also available!

Negotiating International Business book

All 50 individual Country Sections from Negotiating International Business are available online  for free.

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Leadership Crossroads
is a competent resource for

  • Global Business Coaching & Training
  • Negotiation Training and Assistance
  • Cross-Cultural Project Management
  • Organizational Learning and Development
  • Executive Coaching
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Lothar Katz

Lothar Katz is the founder of Leadership Crossroads.  He has helped many clients achieve productive cooperation across cultures and drive business success on a global scale.
A seasoned global executive, he regularly interacted with employees, cus­tomers, out­sourcing partners, and third parties in numerous countries around the world.

Contact : info@leadershipcrossroads.com
Leadership CrossroadsSM, 2013

Global Business Practices:
Ten More Tips for Doing Business in the USA

  • While generally tolerant, U.S. Americans tend to respond harshly to actions and behaviors that conflict with the strong values of their culture.
  • Monetary aspects tend to dominate business exchanges and financial success may be admired more than anything else.
  • Subtly demonstrate your importance but don’t brag. For instance, casually mention past achievements or the impact of your current role.
  • Communication can be more subtle and indirect in the Southern U.S. than you might have expected.
  • Try to appear confident and optimistic. Most U.S. Americans respect a ‘can-do’ attitude and have little tolerance for negativity.
  • Always negotiate in ‘good faith.’ Lying openly, taking back concessions, making multiple final offers, etc. could quickly cause negotiations to end.
  • Since age and rank play a small role here, decision makers can be quite young.
  • "I'm not sure I agree" usually expresses disagreement here, not insecurity.
  • Don’t ever step over the lines of ‘political correctness’. Using language that may be interpreted as disrespectful can quickly get you into serious trouble here.
  • If a man puts his feet on the table, this signals that he is relaxed but feels in control of the situation. Do not assume that the person intends to insult you.

Our newsletter is a quarterly publication about all aspects of International and Cross-Cultural Business Management.  Past issues can be found in our  newsletter archive.

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