If I learned anything during my eight years spent living abroad, it was how to spot a Canadian or American on their first business trip: face red, yelling the same question repeatedly at their foreign counterpart in the airport.
With so many Asian centres of trade these days, it’s difficult enough to learn how differences in culture affect various areas in the workplace, such as management, decision-making, negotiation, etc.
With the tremendous opportunity to expand into new, lucrative markets at stake, business owners and executives really can’t afford to create misunderstandings or insult their prospective partners or clients when trying simply to communicate.
Second language speakers of English outnumber native speakers
For those who have not travelled abroad extensively, it may be a surprise to you that a group of Asians hailing from Singapore, China and Korea are unlikely to be heard speaking Chinese to one another at a conference in Europe.
They communicate with one another in English, and they are probably better understood by each other than you would be, despite the fact that you grew up speaking English.
That is because English is one of the only languages in the world where the number of people speaking it as their second language far outnumbers those who speak it as their first (505 million vs. 330 million at last count).
The prominence of English as a second language has prompted repeated attempts by various linguists to develop what they call a ’standard’ or ’basic’ English, and even the proposal of a new language all together, which would be called ’Globalish’.
So far, those attempts have failed. Native English speakers, however, do not need to learn a new dialect of English as a second language in order to successfully communicate better in global markets and with people speaking English as a second language. That is, if you can follow these rules:
1. Slow down and pronounce clearly
The first rule of communicating with those speaking ’English as a second language’ (ESL speakers) is to slow down and try to pronounce every word clearly. Keep in mind, this does not mean you should speak as if someone just tapped your ‘slow-mo button’—that will just confuse people, and may come across negatively.
And if you project your voice while in slow motion, then you will only succeed in letting everyone in the room know that yooooou aaaaare A Big Jerk—not good. What you would like to do is to avoid ’running words together’. For example, say: “Do you want to go now?” Instead of: “Do ya-wanna-go-now?” See the difference?
2. Leave the puns and other fun language at the water cooler
If you are using colloquial expressions, idioms, or other unfamiliar words, you are also bound to run into trouble. Avoiding these types of expressions will make it much easier for others to understand your message:
Negative Tag Questions. Oh wait, you don’t know what a ‘tag question’ is, do you? There, I just used one, and it confuses the heck out of ESL speakers even though they otherwise seem to speak the language proficiently. Rather than asking “You aren’t hungry, are you?” Simply state a question more directly: “Are you hungry?” Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?
Idioms. “The ball is in my court? I thought we were negotiating a contract?” “You pulled an all-nighter? Did it hurt?” If your intention is to confuse, idioms are by far the best strategy. So do your listener a big favour and cut it out.
Puns. I know, I know. Your witty rhetoric probably draws a crowd at the water cooler; and you would like nothing more than to share your authentic North American humour with a global audience (wouldn’t that be pun!). Too bad they will have no idea what you are talking about.
3. Brush up on your vocabulary
Removing the aforementioned types of expressions may be difficult. Fortunately, while ESL speakers may not have learned the language you learned growing up in your local neighbourhood, they do surprisingly well when it comes to vocabulary, especially since in many Asian countries, foreign assignments and trips to conferences abroad are usually awarded based in part upon English language test scores.
So while an expression like “Don’t jump the gun” may evoke a blank stare (or perhaps fear); conversely, you would be surprised at how clearly an phrase including words like “don’t rush prematurely” will come across.
4. Confirm understanding and repeat when necessary
Everyone has been guilty of nodding their head when they, in fact, do not truly understand the speaker; this is especially common among those communicating in a second language.
Be sure to ask whether your listener understands and be ready to repeat and rephrase if necessary.
If you are with an individual or small group, you might even want to try writing important things down on a piece of paper. Remember: If your eyes are bulging out of your skull, nose flaring and voice raised while you ask “Do you understand what I am saying?,” chances are you will not get a straight answer. You will, however, have hurt the chances of eventually gaining respect from anyone within earshot.
5. Be explicit and remove the noise from your speech
Finally, avoid filling empty space with meaningless words and get to the point. If you are asked a question do not reply with “I kinda. Well, ummm. I sort of think that…” Consider that it is quite possible that your listener(s) are putting forth some effort to understand each and every sentence you utter.
With that in mind, lose the filler and when possible state your answer in explicit terms.
Recognize that you are going to need more time to communicate, and don’t blame your listeners if your message doesn’t get across the first time. It may not seem like much, but following these simple rules will make a world of difference for your foreign counterparts.
Interested in government funding to help you expand into new markets?
Attend a free Government Funding for Small Business webinar, co-hosted by the Canada China Business Council taking place Monday November 10th from 11:30am-1:00pmEST.