I came across a great article the other day, which had some powerful insights. It’s entitled Team Culture Trumps National Differences, written by Nancy Settle-Murphy of Guided Insights.
Many of us on this newsletter and blog are native English speakers, and Nancy makes a crucial point: Because we grew up with English, we tend to think that non-native speakers just need to learn the language.
Here’s the problem: people who grow up in different cultures have a different experience with language, and just learning the words and syntax doesn’t change that.
Here are Nancy’s 11 points:
- Native English speakers don’t actually know how to speak and write their own language in a way that can be understood by non-native English speakers
- Sometimes nuanced communications just do not translate very well
- Be very clear, right up front, how and when progress will be tracked
- To avoid misunderstandings when you’re on a team call, ask people to regularly summarize what has been agreed
- Listen deeply to what’s being said, or not said
- Respect the national holidays of all team members
- Make sure everyone that is on the virtual team shares the same “system” of communication and that they know how to use it
- Virtual water coolers are a great way to make social connections for virtual teams
- Different cultures have different notions of punctuality
- The best way to learn about other cultures is to leave your comfort zone
- Accept that silence can mean different things in different cultures
Those of us with experience in cross-cultural teams know these, because we’ve encountered all kinds of surprises over the years. But I’d like to bring special focus on that first item, because it’s worthy of extra attention.
The fact is that we each view ourselves as expert in our native language, but actually aren’t. We throw in colloquialisms, pronounce things sloppily, and make contextual assumptions. Someone who has learned the language later in life understands that there are things which make sentences easier or harder to understand, and is more careful and thoughtful in their communication.
I had an interesting experience a couple of years ago: I attended a class in London (I’m from the US) where they did an exercise with pictures of famous people. They included celebrities, political figures, inspiring icons, and even cartoon characters.
I was lost. I recognized maybe 20% of the people, particularly international figures such as Gandhi. And even though I recognized Margaret Thatcher and knew her role in UK politics, I didn’t have any of the context about her character and the feelings that the Brits have for her.
This can get REAL interesting with current references – for example to our current president Obama. The feelings about him vary widely around the US and the world. Even though most people know who he is, they have much different internal reactions when you refer to him in a sentence. I took a risk just by referring to him here!
Your homework assignment is this: If you work with or lead cross-cultural teams, go read Nancy’s article. It’s very perceptive.
Giving credit where it’s due: Nancy’s first five tips come from Richard Pooley, Managing Director of Canning International Training and Development. The last six tips come from Sanda Ionescu of the The Culture Broker. Both are based in the UK.