Mind your language!
Three Steps to Clearer Communication.
You may think that the UK Government’s recent guilty admission that language teaching in our schools has declined by up to 50% doesn’t bode well for our hopes of building successful new international relationships after Brexit. Surely, good language skills are essential for creating strong professional and personal relationships with our global partners?
Certainly language speaks to important human emotions such as trust, engagement and motivation. Way back in the 9th Century, Emperor Charlemagne recognised that to speak another language is to gain another soul – an early form of winning hearts and minds, perhaps. But Charlemagne must surely have been speaking to the inextricable and complex link between language and culture.
‘Linguistic fluency’ and ‘cultural fluency’ are distinct skills and ability in one does not reliably reflect ability in the other. If you are about to deploy your workforce into the MENA region without having scoped out a bold language and culture strategy, you will not be gaining any souls, hearts or minds. You can get by with only very few words of the local language, for sure, but your business plans will run into the sand very quickly if you do not have a culturally fluent team.
We’re not suggesting you don’t offer your team language training (probably, but not necessarily, Arabic), simply that you should count a conservative four years before they’re skilled enough to handle complex situations.
In reality, their MENA counterparts are probably already fluent English speakers with years of negotiating experience behind them. But that doesn’t mean that your team can relax and carry on speaking English as they would back home, confident we’re all on the same page. Everyone round the table may be able to speak the same language, but that doesn’t guarantee clear communication and a happy outcome. Here’s why: mobile employees need to develop local relationships and the quickest way to win hearts and minds is to have a little local colour, an understanding of how to engage and respond to their hosts and counterparts. It’s all about how you and your team behave – both linguistically and culturally.
Step One: Behaviour
70% of communication is through body language, not the spoken word: so how you behave is the most important first step. Navigating other cultures can be a mind-boggling experience. Should I shake hands or not shake hands? Should I sit on the right or the left of my host? Will they think I’m rude if I refuse another coffee (for sure you will be served it!)? All these things can be communicated with a mere gesture, no words required, so how you interpret and respond will set the tone for your meeting. No less important is how you dress – another silent but powerful mark of respect for the local culture.
ICP can work with you to make sure everyone on your team can confidently and culturally fluently broach that first meeting to make sure your project launches smoothly.
Now let’s imagine that you’ve successfully piloted your way around the initial introductions and you’re about to open discussions in English: there’s another culture problem you need to consider: your own English.
Step Two: Mind Your Language
Native and non-native English speakers use the language totally differently: Non-native speakers often find it much easier to understand each other’s ‘international’ English, rather than the English of native speakers. The reason is simple: native speaker English is very far from perfect.
As a native speaker, you speak fast – producing up to three words per second on average. You’ll switch tack rapidly and make obscure references to popular culture – shows on TV, music, national history, politics, current events – assuming your listeners can follow you. You’ll often start to say something, then change your mind and say it differently, self-correcting the tiny errors we all make. You’ll use short-cuts, throw in phrasal verbs and idioms (say, what?), swallow words and generally produce a fluent stream of connected ‘sound’ – meaningful to another native speaker perhaps, but a mystery to anyone else.
Non-native speakers, on the other hand, tend to speak more slowly and articulate more carefully. They make the same language errors as each other, often caused by interference from their first language. They may choose higher-frequency words to express what they want to say, meaning everyone can understand them first time. In short, they tend to use a less cluttered version of the language.
If you’re dealing with a team of non-native English speakers, you need to be culturally sensitive not just to their language, but to your own.
So before you deploy your team anywhere, it’s worth considering that fluency starts with your own language. If you can efficiently strip your communications of linguistic and cultural complications, you emerge as a sympathetic native speaker: a more fluent you. That doesn’t mean you have to sound as though you’re addressing a classroom of three-year olds, or turn into the archetypal Brit abroad, speaking more loudly the less you are understood. It means adapting sensitively to your audience by learning to recognise certain features of English, both cultural and linguistic, which may block communication from the outset.
Step Three: Basic Local Language Skills
Step out of your comfort zone: go local. If your meeting is in English, you may be in your comfort zone, but the local team are almost certainly not in theirs.
It can be difficult to gauge the depth of knowledge and understanding of your non-native English speaking counterparts if you only operate in one language. They may be highly-qualified and very experienced in their field, but feel at a considerable disadvantage having to speak in English, limiting their contributions in meetings.
Power balances are important, especially when you’re developing new relationships. Opening in the local language is one way to even things up and make your greetings and thanks to the contributors really count. Don’t worry if you’re not absolutely word-perfect, a little language goes a long way – and if it draws a smile, you’ve cracked it! It shows your genuine interest in and commitment to establishing firm foundations for your future business relationship.
It’s all about taking the culture out of your LANGUAGE and putting the language into your culture.
It takes time to build confidence and find a level of communication that works for everyone, linguistically and culturally, but by upskilling your team to cope with these vital first three steps, you are well on the way. At ICP, we’re here to help.