Overcoming organisational culture differences with language

26 February 2020
door Regina Coeli

You often need a common language to be able to collaborate with people from other countries. After all, it’s hard to have in-depth conversations, make appointments or chat about the weekend using rudimentary gestures alone. More often than not, that common language is English, although that may not always be not the handiest choice.

One often underestimated thing which is at least as important to good cooperation is knowledge of each other’s cultures. Collaboration can be difficult to manage or even completely fail due to cultural differences.

You might be familiar with the KLM/Air France example. More than 15 years ago, the two airlines decided to merge. News articles about their collaboration still regularly appear, and part of their long struggle is due to cultural differences. In this case, it hasn’t only been about the contrast between the Dutch and French cultures, but also the difference in organisational cultures.

The cultural differences between countries or companies sometimes appear to be so minor that it would seem best to ignore them. Similarly, some differences lie so far below the surface that they’re imperceptible. The nice thing is that you can bridge the gap with language. Language is a good way to get to know a culture and allows you to raise the issue of differences.

Tips for improving your intercultural communication

Learn the finer points of the language
Learn the language you need well so you can express yourself accurately. To illustrate, learning certain forms of courtesy in a foreign language allows you to also learn how people in that culture interact with one other when they ask for favours, how they build trust and how they deal with conflict. If English is the shared language when cooperating with Asians, for example, you should be aware that you’re dealing with a totally different culture. You should communicate with Asians differently than you would with the British.

Communicate clearly and check how your message comes across
Try to formulate your message as clearly as possible, without using complicated terms and without going into too much detail. Not everyone will understand that depth or level of detail. Usually, communicating face-to-face is most effective so you can see whether the other person has understood you. But never go on assumptions alone. Ask questions to find out exactly what the other person means and whether he has understood you.

Another handy tip is to send a summary of what you’ve talked about by e-mail or to write it up in a report. Any details that may have been missed in the conversation can then be gone over again and digested on everyone’s own time. If you have a good command of the language, you can take that extra step to help the collaboration run smoothly.

Observe and imitate
The etiquette of a country can vary from region to region and from company to company, so observe how certain things are done and what the locals say to each other. Which words get used often and what do they imply? Moreover, there’s another dimension to language: body language and intonation. People in more southerly countries tend to be more expressive. Facial expressions, intonation and hand movements can tell you a lot. And play it safe by speaking to everyone more formally in the beginning.

Take a more indirect approach
Take every opportunity that comes your way to chat with others informally. Doing this helps you build rapport more easily—small talk shows you’re open to others. That goes for business conversations as well. The key is to invest more in the relationship rather than just pursuing your goals.


Can you bridge cultural differences?

Are your language skills good enough to allow you to communicate clearly? Or would you like to take them up a notch? A personal training course at Regina Coeli, precisely fine-tuned to your level and the situations that matter most to you, will help you do just that.

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