Don't let your communications get lost in translation

Ellen 14 Low web

In America, making a circle with your hand is the recognised symbol for “ok”. But that same gesture is symbolic for money in Japan and in France, it conveys the notion of worthlessness. Here Ellen Widdup looks at how to avoid your message getting lost in translation in the world of international business.


Cross-cultural communication is absolutely critical to the business world.

After all, these days many companies have to negotiate and mediate with customers, staff, suppliers and wholesalers stationed around the world.

This might involve interacting with people from a different background, ethnicity, race or religion.
And all too often basic messages can get mixed up resulting in confusion, delay and misunderstanding.

So can a business prevent this from happening?

Well in order to deal with multicultural clients, customers or colleagues, a person needs to learn how to work effectively across cultures as well as be open to adapt.

This is not always easy.

We are not just talking about learning a few basic phrases in a foreign tongue or sampling the local cuisine.
Cultures provide people with ways of thinking, seeing, hearing, and interpreting the world and sometimes, even in countries which speak the same language, there are areas of confusion.
This is because each culture has its own rules about proper behavior which affect both verbal and nonverbal communication.

It can include everything from how close you stand to another person, to whether you should make eye contact with them.

Different cultures also regulate the display of emotion differently. Some might shout, cry or gesticulate with more animation than others, who might find it inappropriate to display their feelings so openly.
Likewise body language can be interpreted differently; postures that indicate receptivity in one culture might indicate aggressiveness in another.

When working with international colleagues you may also find that they will have a different sense of time, and a different sense of humour to you. 

They will have different ways of negotiating, and different perceptions of when a deal has truly been made.
They might also have different expectations of what it means to follow through on commitments and agreements.

Here are some communication tips from Prominent to help you carry out business abroad:

1. Keep your messages simple. Use less complex sentence structures and vocabulary.

2. When speaking, slow down your delivery and clearly articulate each word.

3. Avoid technical words and acronyms, abbreviations, metaphor, slang and idiomatic expressions.

4. Be patient and don’t be afraid to ask the other person to repeat themselves if you are unclear on something that has been said.

5. Stay calm. Even if you feel strongly about something, do not shout.

6. Adapt your space requirements to those of your counterparts whenever possible. You can judge someone’s comfort zone by the distance to which they extend their hand when shaking hands.

7. When someone does or says something that seems weird or wrong, give them the benefit of the doubt. Ask for clarification. If you do not understand a particular word or sentence, ask the person to spell it, write it down, use a synonym or say the word in his/her native language and have someone else translate.

8. Communicate important messages via several different media to ensure that they are received. Make sure that all the messages are consistent.

9. In meetings, provide some break time so that non-native English speakers can take a rest from the concentration required to follow the conversation.

While there is no short and easy way to learn about a given culture in any depth, do not be afraid of communicating and conducting business with people of backgrounds unlike our own.

At the outset, differences appear to be daunting but remember, we all share 99.9% of the same DNA which means we are all far more alike than we are different.

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