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Localize your communication skills to bridge cultural gaps

... and better reach your clients, partners, and colleagues.


Communication is at the core of every cooperation. When we cooperate internationally – in business, in academia, in non-profit organizations, or any other setting – English is often the language of choice. As a result, a high level of English competence is expected in many fields. But to really reach your stakeholders – the people relevant in your work and for your business – you have to go a step further: you have to localize your skills.


Bridge

Localize your skills – what does that mean?


If you plan to expand your business operations to a new market or take a job in a different country, your success will depend on

  • how well you understand your new clients, partners, and colleagues and

  • how well your new clients, partners, and colleagues can understand you.

One way to achieve that is to localize your communication skills. This process involves three key elements:

  1. Learning about the new culture and how its members communicate in different situations.

  2. Sharpening your listening and comprehension skills. This is necessary so you can understand others better.

  3. Adapting how you yourself communicate. This is important so others can understand you better.

Localizing your communication skills goes beyond language. It's about bridging the cultural gaps between you and your new clients, partners, and colleagues.


Why speaking English is not enough


Speaking English is not enough, because the world does not speak “English”. The world speaks many different Englishes that are embedded in many different cultures.


When you interact with people who speak English as their first (or native) language, it’s important to understand that most of them don’t speak some “internationalized” or “neutral” English. They speak a language full of cultural references. They follow local conventions and practices. They use phrases that have obscure meanings, and the rhythm of their speech sends subtle messages.

drive through pharmacy

Because their language usage is closely tied to their own culture, it can be challenging for an “outsider” or “newcomer” to grasp the full meaning of conversations. This can lead to misunderstandings.


In the next few paragraphs, I will talk about American English and the need to localize your skills if you want to work and do business in the US. (The need to localize your skills does not just apply to the US. It's an important step anytime you become active in a new culture.)


The language situation in the US


The language situation in the US can be summarized in one short sentence: People speak American English. (Within the US, you have regional variations that may be relevant, depending on where you plan to work or do business.)

schoolbus

Only a very small number of Americans speak a foreign language. As reported in this article by Kathleen Stein-Smith, only about 20% of the school-age population study a foreign language in school. At the college level, only 7.5% of students take language classes. The numbers are declining, as more and more schools and colleges are closing their language programs.


Those young people who do study a language in school or at university do so for a relatively short period of time, only about 2 years. For most learners, that is not enough to become fluent. As a result, many Americans only communicate in English – in American English.


American English – what’s different?


American English has unique features on all linguistic levels: pronunciation, vocabulary, spelling, and even grammar. More importantly, it has unique features with regard to communication styles and common practices. Learning and understanding these features is a crucial step for your personal, professional, and/or business success in the US.


In the following, I will highlight two features that can be a challenge for people who do not speak American English.


1. American idioms


One feature of US workplace communication is the widespread use of idioms.

​An idiom is a group of words. Its meaning is not deducible and therefore not clear from the individual words in the group. The meaning is established by common usage.

Look at this statement by a US investment manager:


In our business, we are used to things coming out of left field. And when things come out of left field, as they always do in markets, you’ve got to step up to the plate and help your customers navigate the situation.


The statement contains two idioms:

baseball and mitt

To come out of left field: to be unexpected, surprising, and even strange.


To step up to the plate: to take action; to do one’s best.


It's hard to get the meaning of the idioms from the individual words in the group.


Both expressions are from baseball. Many idioms in American English come from popular sports, such as baseball, American football, or boxing. Other sources of idioms are the military and historic events. Some expressions have simply evolved over time.


There are several hundred idioms used regularly in the workplace. People use them without consciously thinking about them - or about the fact that a newcomer may not understand them.


Here are a few more examples:

Idiom

Meaning

A ballpark figure (Baseball)

An approximate number; a rough estimate

To drop the ball (American Football)

To make a mistake; to fail

To take the ball and run with it (Football)

To take the initiative; to take charge

To know the ropes (Boxing)

To fully understand a situation; to know a lot about something

To take a crack at something

To try something

To pull out all the stops

To use all resources to get something done

To crunch / run the numbers

To make financial calculations

To nickel-and-dime

To negotiate over very small sums

Back-of-the-envelope calculations

Quick calculations and estimates

To have some wiggle room

Flexibility, ability to improve an offer

When someone uses an idiom you don’t know, you can:

  • Try to figure out the meaning from the context. That can be challenging, and you may miss crucial information.

  • Ask for clarification. While this is a good option for non-native speakers, it can be difficult in certain situations: you may have to interrupt the speaker, it may be awkward to ask, there may be no opportunity to get clarification, etc.

  • Be prepared. Being prepared is the best option. It is the result of localizing your skills: learning and understanding commonly used workplace idioms.

Using idioms in your own speaking is even more difficult, but that is something I'll discuss in another blog...


2. The cultural code of directness


Americans tend to express their wishes and opinions in a very direct manner. As a listener, you generally don’t need to read between the lines to understand what someone wants from you. US communication style is direct.


But there are exceptions. In some situations, directness is not appropriate at all. For example, when Americans are presented with new ideas and suggestions, they usually don’t reject them in a direct manner.


Imagine you are in a meeting. You have an idea that could solve the problem just discussed in the meeting. You decide to share your opinion. People respond in a positive, even enthusiastic, manner. They say: “What a great idea!” As a result, you think that they like your idea and agree with your suggestion.


And yet, it’s quite possible that they don’t like your idea. Maybe they even think it’s a bad idea! Many Americans would feel uncomfortable voicing a direct negative response to your face in that situation. In business, in the academic world, in everyday life, there are many situations where communication is indirect and true opinions are not shared.


There is a cultural code for directness.


A way to communicate more appropriately and effectively


These were just two examples (out of many) that show, why it is important to localize your communication skills.

Localizing your Communication Graph

Localizing will give you deeper insights, better understanding, and the tools to make your own communication more appropriate and effective.


The unfairness of having to adapt


I’ve taught many courses on intercultural communication. The following questions come up on a regular basis: Why do I have to adapt? Why don’t they adapt?


Why me

Sometimes, people feel it’s unnecessary or unfair that they have to change their behavior or communication style. Andy Molinksy, a professor at Brandeis University’s International Business School, calls this the “resentment challenge”: “… people can also experience considerable resentment over the fact that they have to adapt behavior in the first place. ‘Why do I have to adapt,’ they may wonder to themselves, especially in cases where the new behavior feels awkward, unnatural, or unnecessary. ‘Why can’t the other person adapt to me?’” (2013, p. 34)


Localizing your skills is a personal choice. It is, however, a choice that can have a big impact on your personal success in a new workplace or your business’ success in a new market. There are plenty of case studies that show the negative consequences of not adapting: embarrassment, misunderstandings, offense, damaged relationships, failed projects, etc. – and potentially a lot of lost money.


Localizing your communication skills can bring you closer to your personal and professional goals. The many benefits include:

  • a widened horizon,

  • a higher level of competence,

  • better understanding,

  • more confidence,

  • and a much greater chance of success.


Contact me if you want to find out more about how you can localize your communication skills for the US. I look forward to hearing from you.





References:

Molinsky, A. (2013). Global Dexterity: How to adapt your behavior across cultures without losing yourself in the process. Harvard Business Review Press.


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