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Effective Interactions in Global Business.

Effective Interactions in Global Business

Never have business interactions required so much flexibility and linguistic dexterity as in today’s global environment. The criteria for assessing the effectiveness of communication in organisations, defined primarily in transactional terms, have lost their currency due to complexity of modern encounters and their emerging new contexts. Research shows that as many as 80% of conversations in English take place among non-native speakers. [1] And business is no exception. Its success is now largely dependent on our capacity to interact at the interface of multiple cultures, which not only use different varieties of English, but also operate according to different discursive and behavioural norms.  

In such a highly demanding environment one of the key competences one needs to master as a global professional is adaptation –  learning to attune the style of communicating in order to facilitate understanding and ensure that our language and interaction are appropriate for context. [2] Rudi Camerer and Judith Mader, researchers in cross-cultural education and authors of business communication courses, explicitly show that successful global interactions do not result from language proficiency, as grammatical or lexical mistakes very rarely hurt our effectiveness at work. [3] International business thrives on its ability to build positive and lasting relationships with a wide range of people and this cannot be achieved without the willingness of business leaders to learn about their partners’ culturally-driven attitudes, preferences and motivations.

Not without a reason is socio-cultural appropriateness, and especially practical knowledge of politeness and discourse conventions, hailed as the new, critical skill for achieving effectiveness in intercutural business settings. [4]

Professionalism Is in the Eye of the Beholder

In the introduction to her bestselling book ‘The Culture Map’, Meyer [5] recounts that millions of people travel regularly for business or work globally but even those who come in contact with people from other backgrounds have a limited understanding of how cultural differences impact their interactions.

Some time ago I attended a linguistic conference addressed to Business English teachers and consultants. In one of the sessions we were shown a video depicting three professionals making introductions during a project kick-off meeting. The leaders, who came from Germany, Argentina and China, presented themselves using different conventions: from a task-based, down-to-business approach, through a relationship-focused style, to a light-hearted and humorous repartee. After watching the talk we were asked to gauge the professionalism of the speakers. All the participants who volunteered to share their views, most of whom came from Poland, described the Argentinian and Chinese leaders as unprofessional. The same people had spent approximately four years studying foreign languages, their histories and politics. And yet not a single one of them took account of cultural differences in communication. How could this be?

After researching this issue in more detail I quickly realised that despite the use of English as the lingua franca, our cultural lenses still influence our perceptions about what is appropriate, effective or professional in a given context.  [6] These lenses filter and predefine our expectations for every situation we encounter, from how to run a team meeting or give a critical feedback, to what makes a great leader. So, what came to the surface during that memorable conference exercise were the westernised concepts of leadership and professional relationship which underpin Polish people’s expectations about acceptable business behaviour -  hence the positive evaluation of the task-based approach adopted by the German speaker.

Cross-cultural variations in communication styles and discourse conventions can be found during all business interactions, such as interviews, negotiations, presentations, project meetings, networking events, and even during a small talk. [7] All these situations, which are key to our working lives and careers, entail specific rules for behaviours that different cultures see as appropriate in those settings. Andy  Molinsky [8] calls such hidden rules ‘cultural codes’ and points to variations in degree of formality, directness, emotional expressivity, self-promotion, assertiveness and personal disclosure. But the list does not end here. There are clear differences with regard to how cultures view interruptions, pauses or confrontations, as well as what meanings they assign to silence or other high-context clues including the use of space or power structure. [9]

What many of us forget is that the hidden rules for holding conversations are transferred into global settings even when we use English as the common language. The lack of ability to turn them into practical behaviours may impede international collaboration resulting in misunderstandings, communication breakdowns or damaged relationships.

Politeness Comes in Many Guises

Take, for instance, the varying concepts of politeness. For some cultures, including Britain, polite behaviour implies not imposing on the other person. Showing deference and maintaining appropriate social distance is a sign of respect for individual autonomy. In societies where interactional spirits are in turn warm, enthusiastic and friendly, the same behaviour might be interpreted as hostile and alienating. [10] Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner [11] note that frequent interruptions and overlapping speech are the culturally expected patterns for holding discussions among Latin speakers. For southern Europeans stopping a conversation partner half sentence to express an opposite view demonstrates how interested one is in what the other person is saying.

Research into the styles of interactions used while voicing difficult or critical opinions, such as during business performance reviews, identifies different cultural strategies for managing rapport. Meyer observes that more direct cultures rely in those situations on the features of language which strengthen the force of expressed criticism by using so called upgraders (e.g. ‘absolutely’, ‘totally’ or ‘strongly’), as in ‘This is ‘absolutely inappropriate’ or ‘totally unprofessional’. More indirect cultures, in turn, tend to coach their statements in more diplomatic terms by using downgraders (e.g. ‘kind of, sort of, ‘a little’, ‘maybe’) or understatements, as in ‘We are not quite there yet’; ‘This is nowhere close to complete’. [12]

Lewis [13] labels such indirect communication ‘coded speech’. He says that evasive language, which distinguishes British speakers in international meetings, has its origins in the days of the British Empire, when speaking in vague terms served the aim of disguising the real intentions of the British troops. This style of communicating can still be found in today’s business interactions, as the Anglo-Dutch translation guide [14] or Lewis’ comparisons well illustrate. To quote some examples, ‘with all due respect’ is a polite way of saying ‘I think you are wrong’, while ‘I hear what you say’  is a code for saying ‘I do not agree’. [15] The problem is that the hidden meanings are not easily decoded by people from more direct cultures, like Dutch, Danes or Swedes, who assume that both statements mean that they are being listened to.

A German finance director, quoted by Meyer [16] recounts how his lack of familiarity with his boss’s coded language almost caused him to lose his job. He says: ‘In Germany, we typically use strong words when complaining or criticising in order to make sure the message registers clearly and honestly (..). My British boss during a one-on-one ‘suggested that I think about’ doing something differently. So I took his suggestion: I thought about it and decided not to do it. Little did I know that his phrase was supposed to be interpreted as ‘change your behaviour right away or else’. [17]

Linguistic politeness takes many forms. I learned this while working as a media analyst in London. Here is the message I wrote to the marketing manager of a Swiss watch company:

Dear Marco

Since Fiona is hard to get hold of these day I would appreciate if you could help me identify the watch displayed on page 3 of Watches Today (picture attached).

Kind regards

Hanna

I was confident at the time of writing the email that I expressed myself according to British politeness norms. I used modal verbs ‘would’ and ‘could’, opened and closed with a formal salutation. Yet, immediately after pressing the send button the following comment popped up on my screen: ‘Hanna, if you don’t mind I would like to suggest a slight change of language’. By saying that the former marketing manager ‘was difficult to get hold of, ‘ I indicated, in the opinion of my British supervisor, that the woman wasn’t doing her job properly. I was advised to transform the sentence into a passive voice by saying that ‘I was unable to get hold of Fiona’. To someone born and bred in continental Europe, like myself, the original sentence sounded neutral and totally harmless. To my manager, raised in England, I caused our client to lose face. At that point it was irrelevant that I came from a different part of Europe. What mattered was that I failed to fulfil British politeness expectations, which made me appear rude 

Today’s global managers face the unprecedented task of navigating their way through extremely complex environments, where success rests on the ability to interpret and respond to subtle contextual clues and meanings. Building rapport and managing communication with people from other cultures is the most essential skill for anyone working in international business. Research [18] shows that the acquisition of intercultural competence doesn’t just happen while adaptation is not something we can instantly step into. Rather, they must both be developed through meaningful and reflective learning experiences. While it is impossible to prepare ourselves for every situation we might come across, it is possible to train ourselves to be more perceptive about our immediate environment, to listen with empathy and respect to other viewpoints. [19] Often the first and most important step on the road to global effectiveness is our willingness to make an effort and to show interest in our conversation partner. With a healthy dose of flexibility, humility and self-awareness we can be successful and achieve our goals in every situation.

[1] Porter, S. (2019) ‘Legal Secretary Case Study: Business Emails’. Presentation delivered at 2nd IATEFL Poland BESIG Event: 11 May 2019

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.plainlanguage.gov/about/definitions/

[5] Porter, S. (2019) ‘Legal Secretary Case Study: Business Emails’. Presentation delivered at 2nd IATEFL Poland BESIG Event: 11 May 2019

[6] http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/about-us.html

[7] Brochet, F., Yu, G. and Naranjo, P. (2019) Research: Executives’ English Skills Affect the Outcomes of Earnings Calls. Harvard Business Review. August 2019 Issue. Available at https://hbr.org/2019/08//research-executives-english-skills-affect-the-outcomes-of-earnings-calls

[8] Ibid.

[9] Burton, S. (2018) The Case for Plain-Language Contracts. Harvard Business Review. January-February 2018 Issue. Available at https: //hbr.org/2018/01/the-case-for-plain-language-contracts

See Kimble, J. (2012) Writing for Dollar, Writing to Please. The Case for Plain Language in Business, Government and Law. Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press.

[10] Burton, S. (2018) The Case for Plain-Language Contracts. Harvard Business Review. January-February 2018 Issue. Available at https://hbr.org/2018/01/the-case-for-plain-language-contracts

[11] Ibid.

[12] https://plainlanguage.gov/resources/articles/revisiting-plain-language/

[13] Burton, S. (2018) The Case for Plain-Language Contracts. Harvard Business Review. January-February 2018 Issue. Available at https://hbr.org/2018/01/the-case-for-plain-language-contracts

[14] https://irp-cdn.multiscreensite.com/aaf9e928/files/uploaded/WhyUsePlainLanguage.pdf

[15] Garner, B. A. (2012) HBR Guide To Better Business Writing. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

[16] Hansen, H. (2018) ‘Two Billion Voices. How to Speak Bad English Perfectly’. Ted Odense. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dum2Z4B3js

See also https://lifehacker.com/10-sports-metaphors-used-in-business-and-where-they-re-1782325688

[17] Garner, B. A. (2012) HBR Guide To Better Business Writing. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

[18] Bovee, C. L. and Thill, J. V. (2018) Business Communication Today, 14th Edition. Harlow, Essex. Pearson Education. p. 182.

[19]  Garner, B. A. (2012) HBR Guide To Better Business Writing. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, p. 54.

[20] Ibid: p. 63.  

[21] Freeden, M. (2007) The Meaning of Ideology. Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives. London: Routledge, p. 124.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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