How not to be divided by a common language

Manager's Handbook, Prague Business Journal, September 2003

September 8th, 2003

Laura was ecstatic after hearing six months ago that she had been promoted to the position of country manager for the Czech Republic. Her dreams of an international career finally seemed to be coming true.

Upon arriving in Prague, Laura was determined to learn Czech, but before she could become proficient in this new language, she would have to rely on her native English and the language skills of her co-workers to communicate effectively. One of her top priorities in the new position was to build strong relationships and develop trust among her team. However, while settling into her new job, Laura soon realized that communication problems within her team were becoming a serious obstacle to the realization of these goals.

Although English was the office’s lingua franca, not everyone spoke with the same fluency. So it was difficult to communicate effectively. What most troubled Laura was that her biggest communication problems were with those who spoke English best.

Whether she realized it or not, Laura simply expected her co-workers to understand and communicate with her in her language, English. What she did not appreciate was that even native speakers do not always speak the same brand of English. That is to say, a word or phrase spoken by Laura may have a very different meaning when used by her British colleague.

Moreover, the meaning of that word or phrase may again be re-interpreted depending on where Laura’s Czech coworker studied English. This is not because Laura spoke any worse or any better than her co-workers, but because her brand of English, American English, has evolved in a different way from British English. These differences in usage and meaning, however, are only part of Laura’s problem. It was also important that she try to understand how her co-workers were thinking. In order for her to communicate with them more effectively, Laura needed to pay as much attention to how her co-workers were saying things as to what was actually being said.

To solve these communication problems, I suggested that Laura keep several important points in mind to avoid misunderstandings and confusion.

  • Simplify sentence structure and vocabulary. This is particularly important for English speakers coming from the United Kingdom, where the breadth of one’s vocabulary and the ability to use complex grammatical structures may reflect one’s education and social position. In speaking to many non-native English speakers, the use of a simplified vocabulary will go a long way toward better communication and understanding. For example, the word “big,” which is widely understood, might be used in place of less common synonyms such as “enormous,” “gigantic,” “immense,” etc.
  • Avoid using references to sports. American English in particular is filled with idioms and phrases taken from the world of sports. It is important to understand, however, that the use of phrases like “step up to the plate” and “drop the ball” mean nothing to those unfamiliar with baseball or football. It is better to avoid such figurative language in favor of plain language. The same logic applies to the use of cultural references taken from film and television.
  • Be aware of the differences between British English and American English. British and American English sometimes assign very different meanings to even the simplest words and phrases. For example, the phrase “to table an issue” would be understood by an Englishman to mean put something on the agenda. An American, on the other hand, knows the term to mean that discussion of an issue is to be postponed indefinitely. Similarly, a Briton is said to have “lucked out” after having fallen on hard times. In contrast, an American would be experiencing good fortune if he has just “lucked out.” It is also worth remembering that most Europeans learn British English at school rather than American English. This is often also true in the Middle East and in Africa.
  • Look out for communication patterns. Learning to speak the “same language” as one’s co-workers and associates involves not only simplifying or adapting what one says, but also creating an awareness of how one says things. This is particularly important when interacting with people of different cultures, who often have a different style of communicating. Czechs, for example, generally favor an explicit style of interaction and are often clearer and more straightforward that the French, who are more attuned to subtleties of gestures, posture and voice. For their part, the English show a greater degree of reserve and discretion in comparison to their American counterparts, who are far more candid and direct.

Building ties between people of different cultures is a complex process that requires both time and a common language. As the Czech Republic prepares to join the European Union, the need for open communication and understanding is becoming increasingly necessary.

Karin is a business coach and a specialist in cross-cultural understanding, communication and team-building.