Tag Archives: English

Top 7 Cultural Generalisations and Beliefs

There are some pervasive beliefs about cultural similarities and differences that I hear bandied around not only by people I meet casually, but even (bless them!) by some family members who should know better after living with me as an aunt, cousin or daughter for so many years.  While none of them are downright racist or malicious, uninformed good intentions can be just as damaging. 

Multicoloured and multicultural

Variety is the spice of life

1. Live and let live, I always say…

Great in theory, but in practice it often covers the sin of not being at all interested in the Other, and wishing to banish them to some kind of ghetto.  Out of sight is out of mind, but that is not living together in good cultural integration.

2. Underneath it all, we are all human…

Again, beautifully idealistic statement, but how often is this used to deny difference?

3. Everyone travels nowadays, so we all know different cultures.

I’ve written a blog post about this before https://sandaionescu.wordpress.com/2010/09/28/being-made-redundant/ but I will just reiterate that, although travelling does broaden the mind, it depends on whether you travel with an open mind and try to get to know the different countries on a more in-depth level than just the beach, the Hilton, the Margarita…

4. Everyone speaks English, so why should I bother to learn anything else?

Estimates vary (and figures can change rapidly), but indications are that between two thirds and three quarters of the world’s population does not speak English.  Besides, the English that does get spoken in different parts of the world may be quite different from what native speakers might be used to.

5. English is THE language of the Internet.

It certainly used to be, but the percentage of Web content that is entirely in English has decreased dramatically in recent years, while Chinese, Spanish, Japanese and German are catching up.

6. I have nothing against these people in general, but why can’t they be more like us (when it comes to democracy or religion or crowd behaviour or business etiquette or…)?

This is the big one and a source of frustration to many when interacting with different cultures or setting up a business abroad.  All I can say is that my parents, husband or children are not very much like me either… although I have nothing against family in general!

7. I’ll be fine when I move abroad, I don’t need any preparation.

Some will be and some will not.  Those who are fine may be so purely by chance, or because they have a company or spouse or friend who makes life easy for them.  Some may be ‘in survivor mode’, rather than truly enjoying their life in another country.  Some may be counting the days until they move back.  Isn’t that sad?  Aren’t those years too part of your life?

While it is true that no one can prepare you for every single eventuality and emergency of your life abroad, having some idea of what to expect will ensure that you don’t rely entirely on luck to thrive in your new location.

What other generalisations have you heard which amused or frustrated you?  And how do you respond to them?

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Filed under Globalization

Does language matter anymore?

We are all aware of the potential dangers of misinterpretation in translating and interpreting, but what about the dangers of misunderstanding even when participants share a language?  And is it really true that English is the world language of the future?

One of my ‘favourite’ arguments about globalisation and how small our world is becoming is that English is becoming the preferred language of business worldwide.  This has been used as an excuse to delay (or do away with) language teaching in schools, or for failing to translate materials at conferences and in multinational organisations.

Native English speakers, however, would have trouble recognizing the emerging universal English, or ‘globish’, a term coined by a French businessman and expat in 1995 (and which most recently has led to a book with that name written by Robert McCrum).  This is ‘English-lite’, a simplified version of English, which foreigners understand much better, devoid of accent, jargon, puns or emotional baggage.  It may not be the language of Shakespeare, but it’s a far better bet for you as a presenter at an international conference.

However, if you do want to convey nuances, if you do want to be subtle, or if you simply want to impress your foreign counterparts and build a relationship, nothing beats learning their language.  It’s not easy, but it’s a sure sign of interest and respect, and will bring you all sorts of additional benefits.  Be sure to learn not just how to translate your sentences in a linguistically accurate fashion, but also your meaning.  Because sometimes concepts do not travel well from one culture to another, even when the words seem to be perfectly clear.  ‘Decisive’ Japanese managers, anyone?

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The British in a Nutshell

Continuing the theme from last week about how playing to stereotype can sometimes be advantageous, I will summarise how the English (and it is the English that foreigners mean when they discuss the ‘Brits’ more generally) are perceived by those new to the country.  If you are English and disagree with this perception, please comment (as you should know by now I am not a big fan of stereotypes).  If you have moved to the UK from elsewhere and can confirm or add to these perceptions, please do so.

I should add that yesterday I heard a cross-cultural coach, Katherine Barton http://www.bartoninsights.com/  speak at the Oxford Summit of Leaders conference http://www.ebaoxford.co.uk/index.html about the cultural challenges of doing business in the UK.  Katherine had the unenviable task of condensing thousands of years of development of national character into 20 brief minutes, but she mentioned three key elements to understanding the English:

1) Being reserved, ill at ease socially, which is not the same as being cold or unfeeling.  However, displaying emotions is feared and widely regarded as unprofessional.

2) Desire to avoid confrontation and fear of giving offence can lead to excessive politeness and vagueness.  For instance, ‘a little bit of a problem’ probably signifies quite a major disaster.

3) Quite structured and planned, scheduling everything far ahead and sticking to the agenda, the English can be inflexible once they have planned their workload and are not keen on surprise interruptions.

Some other key characteristics that spring to mind (and were mentioned by some of the other speakers at the conference) are:

4) Honesty and integrity in business dealings, incorruptible legal system, keeping their promises, sticking to deadines

5) Democratic, fair, transparent systems that favour personal merit over personal connections

Interestingly enough, each of the characteristics above can be reversed once you delve a little deeper into the national psyche (without even taking into account regional or class differences).  For example:

1) Mass display of grief and outrage at the death of Diana, kidnapping of Madeleine McCann etc.

2) British managers viewed as too blunt in their feedback in Latin American and Asian countries.

3) Big building projects are rarely completed on time and within budget.

4) MP expenses scandal

5) Old boys’ network still alive and kicking

So what is the truth, other than considerably more complex than the stereotypes? Is this because business culture is quite different from the ‘mass culture’?  Or are we focusing too much on exceptions rather than the norm?  Or is the national character changing?

All of the above, in some way.  I also believe that perceptions of another culture invariably tell us more about the ‘assessor’,rather than about the people being assessed.  The British are punctual, honest, incorruptible, professional and polite to most East European countries, for example, because that is what we aspire to be.  And an excellent starting point for discussion, mutual understanding and collaboration.

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Filed under Business cultur