5 Ways to Avoid Awkward Mistakes When Doing Business Across Cultures

In an increasingly global business environment, the words you use are more important than ever.

By Maya Hu-Chan

This article was originally published on Inc.com

A client called me recently, very upset. “My boss just told me I was stupid,” he said, a tremor in his voice. “I feel so humiliated. I don’t know what to do.”

As an executive coach who specializes in cross cultural management and global leadership, I had an inkling of what might be wrong. “Can you tell me the exact words he used?” I asked.

“We discussed a project I was working on. I gave him my views, and he said my idea was a no brainer.”

Ah. As I suspected.

I explained that “no-brainer” is an American slang expression that indicates that something is obviously correct and doesn’t require any further thought.

Another international client was horrified when he heard that one of his colleagues was “tied up at the moment.”

“Why?” he gasped. “Who would tie him up?” Once I explained that it was merely an English expression, we both had a good laugh.

With the rise in global business, this kind of miscommunication is becoming more common. Sometimes it’s harmless–even funny–but in other cases it can really strain relationships.

Many of my international clients have an excellent grasp of English (and speak more correctly than most Americans). But as anyone who has studied the language knows, English is riddled with idioms and grammatical exceptions that non-native speakers often find hard to decode.

An American might casually refer to a “ball-park figure” or describe a job as a “piece of cake” and accidentally create confusion in a listener unfamiliar with American culture and slang.

Among the most difficult words to understand across cultures: yes and no. For example, in China, Japan and The Philippines, yes means only that some one has heard you, not that the person agrees or will do what you’ve asked. In Israel, it’s common to begin a response with the word no but then go on to agree with what the person just said.

Even a simple nod of the head can sow confusion, as this gesture means different things depending on the country and cultural context. In some Balkan states, a single upward nod of the head actually means no.

So how can you avoid miscommunication and hurt feelings – beyond avoiding culture-specific and slang expressions? The key lies in adapting your communication style to fit the audience. A few things to bear in mind if you are doing business with some one with a first language other than English:

  1. Communication is always the responsibility of the communicator. It’s your job to make sure your listener understands you, not the other way around.
  2. Use the simplest possible words. Mark Twain once told an editor, “I never write metropolis for seven cents because I can get the same price for city. I never write policeman because I can get the same money for cop.” I agree that shorter, simpler words are better – especially when communicating with a global audience.
  3. Speak slowly. You don’t have to enunciate every syllable, but do slow down when using key words or phrases, and make it clear when you are switching to a new topic.
  4. Ask open-ended questions instead of yes-no questions. Questions that start with who, what, where, when, why or how require longer, more thoughtful answers, which reduces miscommunication in the long run.
  5. Make people feel comfortable. Then they will ask questions and admit when they don’t understand something–good advice for communicating with native speakers, too.