Tag Archives: interpretation

Cultural awareness starts with yourself

The Unmixed View of the World

Many articles or even workshops on cultural etiquette and ‘how to do business in X country’ become a list of dos and don’ts, a little tickbox exercise of everything that is different or ‘quaint’ about the other culture.  I suppose there are good reasons for that: time constraints, word limits, or the unwillingness to dig deep within yourself.

However, I do profoundly believe that the first step in understanding other cultures is to become aware of  your own values, assumptions and -dare we say it? – foibles.  Only when you understand what you are made of, can you begin to grasp and appreciate what others are made of. 

Some of these assumptions are so deeply ingrained that we are unable to distance ourselves from it or even to see it.  So, in my workshops or coaching sessions, I will often throw in some provocative statements or questions to reveal some of these cultural blind spots. 

For instance, when I have a predominantly British audience in the room, I will ask them what they think that foreigners find most puzzling or annoying about living in the UK.  Typical answers include the weather or poor customer service, but in fact these are the things that annoy British people most.

So what is the answer?  Simple:  unmixed taps and carpet in the bathrooms.

When I finally give the answer, expat audiences laugh or give a groan of recognition, while the British usually are completely mystified.  Why would anyone pick up on these trivial points?  Surely carpet is softer and warmer on your feet when you come out of the bath?  And just what is wrong with unmixed taps anyway?  (If you are still baffled, pick the nearest Continental European and ask him or her about this.)

Yes, these might be innocuous examples of mild irritation, but do not underestimate their effect on a long-term relationoship.  What else might be annoying our foreign colleagues, employees, partners?  What else makes perfect sense to us but  could be causing them embarassment, unease, anxiety?  Shed some light on your blind spots and, who knows, you might even change your taps!



Filed under Business cultur, 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?


Filed under Globalization