“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
– George Bernard Shaw
Just a question of culture?
A French national recently sacked from his job in Canada for being “aggressive and rude” claimed his behavior with the customers wasn’t “out of line” and that he’d really been fired—because he was French!
The waiter, who worked at a restaurant in Vancouver, filed a complaint with British Columbia’s Human Rights Tribunal against his former employer, claiming discrimination against his cultural heritage. “I have an honest personality,” he said, “French culture tends to be more direct.”
Although this may be an unusual case, when you work with someone from a different country the first time—whether it’s a residency abroad, a meeting at the EU headquarters, or contract negotiations in Asia—you’re bound to come across behavior that just doesn’t make any sense. And on top of that, even if you did well in those language lessons before you left, it still doesn’t mean you’ll be able to communicate your intentions perfectly.
Not a moment too soon? Cultural differences can be subtle, or they can sometimes be easy to spot. In Mexico, for example, it occasionally seems like the clocks tick slower than everywhere else. That is if they even tick at all. It’s possible to wait for hours on the delivery of office materials that were promised to you ahorita (which means in a moment), but which moment exactly? In an hour? Maybe tomorrow? Or even in a week? You might end up waiting a long time before learning that people in Mexico don’t literally mean “in a moment.”
Or, perhaps you’re frustratingly driving around and around in circles on the way to meet a client in Bangkok, because all the people you stop to ask directions are too polite to say they don’t have a clue where that meeting point is, and so just tell you to “turn left.”
All the French waiter, with his direct and yet “professional” behavior, the visitor to Mexico who may be in a hurry, and the person driving around Bangkok without GPS have to realize is that an approach such as insisting or demanding promises often achieves exactly the opposite of what was intended. Customers, colleagues, or business partners might feel offended and simply refuse to cooperate.
“Discourse is about more than just language”
These three examples have one thing in common: They show that speaking another language at a high level doesn’t change the fact that surprising cultural differences can still create hurdles to achieving complete understanding. They can make working together difficult and, in the worse case, even lead to getting fired from a job, losing a client’s business, or having contract negotiations fail. People are often misunderstood as being unfriendly, incapable, unreliable, or culturally inept. That’s why it’s called “intercultural communication.” Countries are divided not just by their languages, but by their cultures as well—a point manifested not only in traditions, monuments, and exhibitions, but also in principles, values, concepts, prejudices, and convictions.
These factors unconsciously affect our day-to-day thoughts, feelings, and behavior as well as the way we communicate with each other and interpret what we hear. During an exchange, each speaker unconsciously follows their own cultural interpretation system. In a lot of countries, for example, sticking out your tongue at someone is considered rude; but in Tibet, it’s a sign of respect! If you’re unaware of the other speakers’ cultural interpretation system, some serious misunderstandings could arise. Are you likely to do business with someone who just stuck out their tongue at you?
Communication is transforming!
Fortunately more and more people have come to realize the importance of mastering intercultural communication. International companies in particular are increasingly recognizing the issue of communication differences across cultures and are offering training to their employees to better prepare them for the special challenges they may face working in a globalized world.
This transformation can be seen in the translation business, too. Companies want to ensure their messages come across accurately in other cultures and marketing targets are met.
A simple translation is often not enough: A text needs to go beyond linguistic transformation and may also require cultural transformation that reflects a specific cultural context and/or group of people. This is accomplished through a process called “transcreation.”
We can still hope that more people across the globe become interested in developing their intercultural communication abilities and we all come to better understand one another.
As for the French waiter: Perhaps he could learn from the Mexican delivery worker and relax a little while he awaits a decision about his complaint—and also be grateful that the Human Rights Tribunal building wasn’t located in Bangkok.