Why Your Global Colleagues Hate Meeting With You
“Let’s go around the horn and each say our piece. Yoshi-san, you first.”
The long silence that ensued was followed by an awkward apology from Yoshi to please repeat the request.
This scenario actually occurred on a conference call I was on, and unfortunately, it is not rare. Perhaps you have also been in a global meeting where a native English speaker unwittingly embarrassed an international member of the team by clumsily addressing them with local vernacular?
Similar incidents are ever more likely to occur as we increase our connections with international colleagues and customers. The McKinsey Global Institute projects that “400 midsize emerging-market cities, many unfamiliar in the West, will generate nearly 40 percent of global growth.”1 In a work environment where English is the de facto business language, native English speakers may not realize that they have a formidable, and often intimidating, advantage over non-native speakers. Not only does this contribute to frustration and anxiety among some colleagues, but organizational research indicates that “asymmetries in language fluency contribute to an us vs. them dynamic common in global teams.”2
Many long-time product management professionals, including executives used to fast and commanding communication styles, fall into the language-asymmetry trap. It’s simply too natural for most of us to speak at our regular pace and in our usual vernacular. Based on a lifetime of global travel, work and residence, I’d like to share some communication best practices I’ve honed over the years when communicating with English-as-a-second-language speakers.
- Awareness is half the battle. Simply remembering that your counterparts may struggle with English goes a long way in changing your own communication style.
- Keep sentences short and simple. Drop the vernacular and avoid slang.
- S-l-o-w d-o-w-n … and enunciate clearly. Speaking slowly is incredibly helpful. If it feels completely unnatural to you, then you are doing it right.
- Take regular pauses between sentences. This gives people the opportunity to ask for clarification. You can also ask: “Does anyone have a question about this?” They may not have a question, but it gives them the chance to absorb what you just said.
- When speaking with overseas colleagues, I often repeat myself or communicate the same message in two, or even three different ways.
- When asking a question of a specific person, give them a verbal advance warning by calling out their name: “Yoshi (short pause) ... I would like to ask you something.” This technique gives them time to prepare and pay extra attention to your question.
- Set a detailed meeting agenda in advance and deliberately include keywords that will be discussed. This gives people a chance to research them ahead of time and familiarize themselves, rather than having to fumble and fake it live in the meeting.
- In a video conference or in-person meeting, add a soft smile when speaking. Gently nod your head “yes” when the other person is speaking to indicate your understanding.
- If you have slides, ensure that they are short and simple. Avoid long texts in your slides.
- Some people speak louder in response to a request for clarification. This can be seen as offensive. Instead of raising the volume, I recommend you slow down and enunciate.
- Along the same lines, never say anything along the lines of “I don’t understand what you are saying,” unless you want to completely embarrass the other person.
- Avoid common business speak such as “I am generally aligned with your opinion.” Instead, just say “I agree.”
- Don’t use acronyms (“I’m on PTO that week”) unless you know for a fact that everyone knows what that acronym stands for.
- Try to avoid verbal contractions where possible. It’s much easier for your overseas audience to understand “do not” or “you all” instead of “don’t” or “y’all” in a sentence.
- Never use vernacular or slang. The callout box below has a list of some expressions to avoid, though there are hundreds more.
Bonus Tip for Americans
Finally, I’d like to offer a special bonus tip for Americans: we are the only ones in the world who do not use the metric system. If you know you are going to use measurements, make an advanced effort to convert the units to metric. This can also help for small talk. When you tell your global customers that it’s 70 degrees today, they are likely to give you dumbfounded looks. But when you tell them that it’s 21 degrees, they will recognize and appreciate the effort you just made. Similarly, writing 8/11/2018 on a slide may mean August 11 to you, but everyone else uses the ISO 8601 format, which defines that date as November 8. And that is how the rest of the global team will read it. You can easily avoid this confusion by spelling out the month instead: 11 August 2018.
Ease the Burden
The key to successfully communicating with non-native English speakers is to have empathy for their challenge and potential stress. It may not be your intention to embarrass colleagues but if they don’t understand what you are saying, they may assume that they come across as clueless. This will have a detrimental effect on the organization as well as on your personal relationships.
Multinational companies, such as Honda, Rakuten and a myriad of others, may have switched to English as their official business language, but that does not mean that all the employees excel at it. As native English speakers, we can help ease our colleagues’ pain by making a conscious effort on their behalf. It is my sincere hope that some of this advice will be helpful as you interact with global counterparts.
Have you heard any cringe-worthy vernacular on global team calls? What are some of the best practices you have developed when speaking with non-native English speakers?
- Dewhurst, et. al. (2012). The global company’s challenge. McKinsey Quarterly.
- Hinds, P., Neeley, T. & Cramton, C. J Int Bus Stud (2014) 45: 536.
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