Why Intercultural Communication is an Essential Component of Language Coaching

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issue 06 / Sarah Spicer

Language is inextricably linked to culture. How a language is used and the words that are spoken (or not spoken!) often reflect the core beliefs of the culture that it originated in. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the way we communicate can be partly influenced by the cultural norms we grew up with.

As language coaches, we want to help our clients overcome language barriers, but if we really want them to achieve their goals in the target language, we need to help them to navigate potential cultural barriers too. Whether your client is moving to a new country for work, or working in a multinational company, being aware of where misunderstandings may arise, and helping them to adapt accordingly is essential for successful communication.

To demonstrate this, here are five aspects of a business conversation where there could be a mismatch between the intention and interpretation of communication. 

N.B. These are only patterns, the way an individual communicates will be influenced by other factors including context, relationship dynamics and individual personality.

  1. Greetings

In a business context, this is your first chance to make a good impression. To do this, a good understanding of what is expected in a particular culture is key. What we say, how we address the other person, and our gestures are all important to create that important first impression.

Let’s take the UK as an example. The greeting, “Good morning, how are you?”. Is not an invitation to explain how you are actually feeling as this would be considered oversharing. It is simply a social nicety where, “I’m fine” or “I’m very well” are the most appropriate responses. Moreover, addressing others by their first name is generally accepted these days; whereas in more hierarchical societies, using title is essential to demonstrate respect.

Despite a handshake being the expected norm in many international business contexts these days, the strength and length of the handshake can all be interpreted in different ways.

  1. Starting a conversation

“Small talk” is that little seemingly pointless conversation you have when you first meet someone. Whether you talk about the weather or have superficial conversations about your work, small talk is an essential part of conversation in many countries. In the UK for instance, small talk is by no means pointless. It is a way to build rapport when you first meet someone. If you speak directly about business, or you can seem pushy and therefore lose a potential sale. 

Although small talk is common in many cultures, it isn’t expected everywhere in the world. Take Germany for example, where being direct, clear, and honest are highly valued. In this context, the social niceties of small talk can be seen as a waste of time. Direct communication is expected so trying to build rapport through small talk could be met with frustration and harm your business prospects.   

Even if small talk is valued in a culture, the expected topics of conversation vary. In the UK, it is generally accepted that politics, religion, and personal questions should be avoided, whereas in countries where family is highly valued, asking questions about family is actually encouraged to establish rapport.

  1. Turn-Taking

The way people converse and take turns in conversations can vary across cultures. In the UK, it is generally considered polite to wait for others to finish speaking before you respond. Furthermore, if you do need to interrupt, you should indicate this first, “Could I just add something here?”. However, in many parts of South America, conversations overlap naturally, and these overlaps are not seen as interruptions. In fact, expressing your points as the speaker speaks demonstrates your interest in what they have to say.

On the other side of the turn-taking spectrum is Japan, where listening carefully is highly valued. During a conversation in Japanese, pauses between speakers tend to be longer. These pauses show that you have reflected upon what has been said before responding. In other countries, these pauses may be interpreted as reticence, and therefore be filled with the intention of helping the conversation along.

  1. Making requests

As mentioned above, countries such as Germany have a direct communication style. No matter the context, being direct, clear, and honest in your communications is highly valued. In the UK, although being clear and direct when delivering information is valued, an indirect approach is taken when making a request.

For example, imagine you arrived at a business meeting and unintentionally parked in front of the delivery area. A British person may say, “Would you mind moving your car?”. What they really mean is, “Move your car because it’s in the way”. However, it is phrased as a question with the intention of being polite. To someone with a direct communication style, this lack of transparency could be interpreted as a lack of honesty.

Having coached many clients from more direct cultures, I have heard countless stories of how this ambiguity when making requests has led to misunderstandings, and in some cases, a breakdown in working relationships. 

  1. Expressing disagreement

It is not surprising that individuals with a direct communication style, also directly express disagreement. No offence is taken by disagreement; it is simply accepted as another opinion.

However, in high-context cultures and, especially hierarchical cultures, disagreement may not even be verbalised in order to help ‘save face’. This is especially true if the person you are disagreeing with is in a position of power. The true meaning may be more readily interpreted through subtle speech patterns and non-verbal cues.

Although a level of clarity is important in the UK, Brits tend to acknowledge another opinion first, before expressing their disagreement. For example, “I see what you’re saying but…….”, “That’s an interesting point, however….”. 

As we can see from above, even within a first conversation there are several ways in which what is said (or not said), may be interpreted differently from the way it was intended.

Of course, we should never assume that an individual will communicate in a specific way according to their nationality – our communication style depends on a whole host of other factors. However, raising your clients’ awareness of where potential misunderstandings may arise, will help them to build stronger relationships, which are ultimately the key to success in both life and in business. 

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