I’ve been lucky to travel extensively across continents on training assignments and here are some tips on communicating across cultures.
1. Challenge your Assumptions
My training career took off literally when I boarded a Thai Airways flight to Singapore from Bangalore in 2005. This was my first trip abroad. I had a two hour layover in Bangkok airport. Like the proverbial ‘innocent abroad’, I was gaping at the grandeur of the airport and soon landed at a cafe and ordered coffee.
Imagine my shock when I was handed over a cup of decoction for US$ 1. At once, my mental math told me it was a neat ₹45 as against ₹5 back home. I wanted to yell, ‘how do you expect me to drink this?’ but saw a customer picking up milk and sugar sachets and stirrers kept in a wooden box near the cash counter.
I had assumed the entire world drinks coffee my way, frothy filter kaapi with milk and sugar from the ubiquitous darshinis that abound in Bangalore and now understood that coffee means coffee in categorical terms. Over the years, I’d got addicted to ‘black coffee’ especially during my visits to the USA. My first lesson was to challenge my assumptions. Come to think of it, this is the only tip I’d like to share because it encompasses every other facet of managing across cultures.
It is not an easy lesson because your biases, prejudices and judgments are always a step ahead and mostly you learn only by experience. Many years later I was slated to conduct a training session for managers on Influencing Skills for my client in Düsseldorf, Germany. There were 28 participants out of which except the lone Indian the rest were Germans. My stereotyping baggage was heavy and I’d already concluded this would be a difficult interaction because in my mind Germans were rigid, almost hostile to strangers, serious and non-communicative. While I was met with a stony silence for the first ten minutes confirming my worst suspicions, I realised I hadn’t conducted an icebreaker exercise. So I asked each participant to mention their name, role and one word to describe themselves. I started the exercise by introducing myself, “Hi, I am CK, a corporate trainer from India and am RESPONSIBLE. Whenever anything goes wrong at home, my folks hold ME responsible”. The participants erupted with laughter in unison and started pointing out to their neighbours, shouting, ‘he is also responsible’ and the next twenty minutes was a joyride with each one enthusiastically and creatively coining words to describe themselves much to the amusement of their colleagues. We continued on that high note throughout the session and I count that as one of my best- ever sessions outside India. Clear the baggage before you visit keeping in mind certain general guidelines.
Muscat. Sultanate of Oman. A session on Assertiveness at Work for the public works department. A total of 46 participants, 24 men and 22 women. Firstly, I was surprised that Arab women were taking part, that too in such large numbers. I then assured myself that they must have been forced by their bosses to attend and they were here as mute spectators.
But, once the session started, questions, doubts, sharing of ideas and experiences, challenging some of my concepts, taking part hyper- actively during role plays and responding with loud guffaw not only at my jokes but whenever their male colleagues goofed up……. Phew! It was one of the most interactive sessions in the GCC area! I apologised to them for misjudging them and they laughed it off. However, when I wanted to take pictures of the session, the hijab- clad women politely requested me not to click them as it was part of their culture. I was not at all disappointed but profusely thanked them for their participation and clearing my cobwebs about Omanese women.
So the first and vital tip is, CHALLENGE YOUR ASSUMPTIONS!
2. Cultivate a neutral accent: Language, in particular, accent is a hindering factor in trying to decode what the other person means. In Singapore, during my first visit I wasn’t surprised with their accent or their penchant to suffix ‘la’ after every sentence because we had many good friends from Malaysia at MIT Manipal where I studied engineering.
I had to take a bus from Singapore to Malaysia to meet my college mate Ramgopal after 30 years. I asked my cabbie to take me to the ticketing office and he dropped me at a traffic junction and said because of one-way restrictions it would be a long drive but asked me to reach the ticket counter in five minutes by walk near hotel Golden Lama. I spent half an hour searching for the sign board and finally when I asked a passer-by he asked me to turn around and there standing tall and mighty was the hotel, GOLDEN LANDMARK! 😎😳😜
My first ever visit to the USA. Newark International Airport. In my excitement at stepping foot on a country I’d read so much about, I forgot to show my stamped passport as I exited immigration. The officer standing there hailed me and said, “hey,Sir! I’m not standing here for my good looks you know” and after checking the passport, waved me away with, “enjoy your stay”. That was my first brush with live American humor. The language was relatable and accent easy to grasp unlike Texas where the Southern drawl makes it difficult for an uninitiated traveller to make sense out of it.
And when my host asked me ‘how are you’, I replied, ‘I’m fine except for my chronic diabetes, cramped legs and eyes itching to get some rest after the jet-lag.”. My host, an Indian laughed and gave me a primer on American usage, “ck, ‘how are you’ is a greeting here. Not a question!’”
Whether Europe, Latin America or America, as an Indian, I learned it is important to develop a neutral accent. Watch movies and sitcoms to understand the local accent to an extent but our heavily accented English is bound to confuse the locals. You don’t need to outwit the British or Americans but a neutral accent makes it much easier to understand.
3. Words don’t mean the same everywhere. I was listening to a cross – cultural trainer narrate a dialogue between an Indian male student in a New York university and his female classmate.
He: can you pass me a rubber please ? She: Whaaaat? After she understood his intent, she explained, “listen buddy, here in the US, we use an eraser to correct a mistake and a rubber to prevent one!”. 😎😜😳 I haven’t yet come across such an accurate, brief and clear definition!
Here’s a check list compiled by a friend…
My dear friend and vivacious Toastmaster late Padmini Samarasinghe from Colombo, Sri Lanka was active on social media sharing positive and relevant messages and always bounced around with an air of unmitigated joy. She had sent me this note during my halcyon travel days. I hope you too find it useful.
“If you travel abroad frequently for work, or if you have an e-commerce store with customers from all over the world, it’s worth noting that there are a number of English words that, phonetically, don’t work in other countries and can lead to double entendre or unintended offence territory. Here are 20 of them to help you ensure that your communication is not lost in translation.
Preservative. Avoid asking about preservatives in France; you’ll probably be met with strange looks. It means ‘condom’ in France.
Pick. If you’re visiting Norway, don’t use the word ‘pick’. Your Norwegian colleague is unlikely to be impressed – it means ‘dick’ over there.
Fitter. Does your business specialise in fitness products? Be mindful that in Norway, the word ‘fitte’ refers to a woman’s genitals.
Peach. Going to Turkey? Avoid asking for a peach in the supermarket or anywhere else for that matter. It means ‘bastard’ in Turkish.
Gift. ‘Never look a gift horse in the mouth’, we’re told; perhaps more so in Germany where the word means ‘poison’.
Latte. In Germany, latte doesn’t mean the frothy, milky concoction you get from your local Starbucks. It means ‘erect penis’ in some German quarters.
Salsa. Out for a Mexican in Korea? It’s probably best not to ask for salsa: it means ‘diarrhoea’ in Korean.
Speed. Try not to talk about speed when in the company of others in Sweden. It means ‘fart’.
Bump. If you’ve had the misfortune of a bump on your car, note that the word ‘bump’ in Swedish means ‘dump’.
Speed bump. Put the above two words together and you have the phrase ‘speed bump’, which in Swedish means fart dump.
Kiss. If you ask your Swedish host or hostess for a kiss, they might very well direct you to the toilets. In Swedish, the word means ‘pee’.
Pay Day. If you’re in Portugal, refrain from singing with happiness that it’s ‘pay day’. No one will be impressed. In Portuguese it means “I farted”.
Exquisite. Extend a compliment to your Portuguese host by describing something belonging to them as ‘exquisite’ and you might be met with askance looks: ‘esquisito’ in Portuguese means ‘weird’.
Cookie. If you’re visiting Hungary, whether on business or for pleasure, avoid asking for a cookie. It means ‘small penis’ in Hungarian.
Jerry. It’s perhaps a little late for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, but if you’re in Japan, avoid using the word – it means ‘diarrhoea’ over there.
Bra. Do you sell luxury underwear? Whilst you and I might initially understand the word to mean a garment that covers the breasts, if you’re in France your French colleagues might think you’re selling arms. Literally.
Tremendous. Refrain from boasting about the tremendous prices you offer your clients. In this country, ‘tremendo’ is the word for ‘terrible’.
Bill. Asking for the bill might raise a few guffaws in the Netherlands: ‘bil’ means ‘buttocks’ there.
Lager. It might confuse your Dutch colleagues if you were to ask for a ‘lager’ when having a few drinks with them after work. Lager means ‘storage’ in Dutch.
Cool. The word cool is too close for comfort to the Spanish word ‘culo’; a crude term for ‘bum’. Best avoided.
I hope you found this post useful. My parting advice would be don’t totally rely on this blog as a guide. Talk to people who’ve been there and get their practical inputs. Here’s sage advice from Mark Twain.
Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint!
Thank you for reaching this far. Do pitch in with your tips and techniques.