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The Myth of Global English: How to Adapt your Skills for Better Cross-Cultural Communication

How international is English really? And what can organizations do to ensure that communication works on a global level? Read about three key steps you can take to improve the effectiveness of your and your team’s cross-cultural efforts.

Global Communication

Before I describe the three steps, it helps to take a closer look at the skillsets involved in speaking English effectively.

The Three Skillsets of English

You manage a company that wants to expand operations to the US. You lead culturally diverse teams. You use English to reach out to partners and clients abroad.

In all of these situations, your communication efforts serve two main purposes:

1.        To share information, such as data, ideas, plans, expectations, etc. and

2.       To persuade others and get them to align with your viewpoint and do what you want them to do.

That can only happen if your counterparts understand what you say, mean, and want. Your words must resonate with them. At the same time, you must be able to correctly interpret what they are trying to tell you, so you know what they think and feel.

Graph showing a funnel with hard, semi-soft, and soft skills.

None of that is easy across cultural and linguistic borders. Successful communication is not guaranteed, not even if you have a good command of English.

As a communication tool, English simply doesn’t work the same way wherever you go. It requires calibration. To better understand what needs to be adapted and how to do that, let's divide English into three skillsets:

  • hard skills,

  • semi-soft skills, and

  • soft skills.

1. Hard Skills: Go Global Without Worries

The hard skills are the linguistic structures. These are quite rigid. There is not much variation on a global level. Most English verbs, for example, have the same conjugations across the English-speaking world. Whether you’re in the UK or the US, words are arranged in the same way to form coherent statements and questions. The grammatical differences between varieties such as British and American English are minor and not likely to cause misunderstandings. Once you have mastered the hard skills of English, you can take them global without too many worries.

2. Semi-Soft Skills: Be Prepared to Hit a Snag

Then there are linguistic elements, such as pronunciation or vocabulary, which are less standardized globally. They can cause problems. American businesspeople, for example, use many expressions from the world of sports.

  • "Wow, that suggestion came out of left field."

  • “Susan gave us a blow-by-blow account of the event.”

  • “Tom, can you provide a ballpark figure for the proposed changes?”

Such expressions can be confusing for people from other countries, who may not grasp the exact meaning or know how to respond.

3. Soft Skills: Learn to Navigate the Unknown Waters

When I say soft skills, I refer to what is customary and appropriate to the interaction. What works (and what doesn’t). While the right choice of words plays an important role, soft skills are also about cues and behaviors.

  • How do you reject a suggestion without being offensive?

  • What can you talk about during small talk without making your conversation partner feel uncomfortable?

  • What does it mean when an American enthusiastically exclaims: “Great idea! I love it! We should meet for lunch and discuss it further.”

These are just a few examples of questions that require culture-specific soft skills. Communication norms and styles are culturally influenced and cannot simply be transferred from one culture to another. Their global validity and universal effectiveness are limited.

Communication that is not appropriate is easily perceived as less credible or even offensive and hurtful. The situation can also be embarrassing for the person who makes the faux pas.

So what can you do to unlock the potential of English as a cross-cultural communication tool? I have outlined three steps that can help you be more effective.

Unlock the Potential: Adapt your Skills for More Effectiveness

1. Continue to expand your hard skills: 

These form the basis. Having a good command of the hard skills frees up your mind. It allows you to focus on the specifics of the interaction. If you’re in a meeting with a potential US partner and your mind is preoccupied with how to formulate the next sentence, you will have little brain capacity left for interpersonal and intercultural issues and for the discussion topics at hand.

Strong hard skills are a prerequisite for becoming a strong communicator and negotiator.

2. Develop intercultural competence: 

Solid hard skills, however, do not ensure successful communication if you continue to follow only your own communication norms. It’s essential to understand that cultural norms are relative and that your own norms are not superior.

It’s important to change perspectives.

3. Add culture-specific competencies: 

To be effective in a specific culture, such as the United States, you must acquire culture-specific competencies. Intercultural competence trainings go a long way, but they are not enough. Before a foreign assignment, an event abroad, or when cooperating with companies from other countries it’s crucial to develop a deeper understanding of the culture you’re going to encounter.

Cultural competence must cover semi-soft skills (how do people speak, what words and expressions do they use, how do they pronounce them, etc.) and soft skills (how do people interact, what is appropriate, what will spark interest and grab attention, etc.). Anyone on your team interacting abroad should be prepared for local practices and expectations.

Man writing the words soft skills on a wall. Underneath is an arrow that curves upward.

Adding culture-specific competencies has another great benefit: It also gives you confidence and credibility. Both are crucial for forming relationships and building trust.

In international business, culture-specific soft skills are true power skills that will impact your success.

The Myth of Global English: Be Prepared

If you’re fluent in English, you may be tempted to think that there's not much that can go wrong with communication. However, when it comes to negotiating interests, developing joint solutions, or achieving predefined goals, a lack of semi-soft skills and soft skills can quickly become a major problem. You feel that you are not getting through to the other person and don't really know why. Misunderstandings arise and cooperation comes to a standstill. Preexisting stereotypes are confirmed, and negative opinions are formed.

How international is English? The linguistic structures of English may be global, but English as a communication tool is not. People don’t speak "Global English" or “International English”. Our communication is characterized by deeply rooted habits and norms. The better prepared we are for this, the greater our chances of successful communication in English.

Do you need help preparing for the global arena? Do you need help developing your culture-specific competencies for the United States? Contact me. I look forward to speaking with you!

If you know anyone who would find this article helpful, share it. Thank you!

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