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Avoiding Misunderstandings at International Meetings

English may be the lingua franca of business gatherings, but that doesn’t mean non-native speakers are always in sync. There are ways to bridge the gap.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Title: “Can You Spell That for Us Nonnative Speakers?” Accommodation Strategies in International Business Meetings (Subscription or fee required.)

Author: Pamela Rogerson-Revell (University of Leicester)

Publisher: Journal of Business Communication, vol. 47, no. 4

Date Published: October 2010

Speaking the same language isn’t always as easy as it sounds. One of the most persistent challenges in international business is securing effective collaboration from employees who have different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. If colleagues don’t fully understand what others are saying, bad outcomes can result, including combative meetings or even accusations of incompetence. Most professionals seeking a lingua franca turn to English; however, this often leaves non-native English speakers feeling they are a step behind. Some don’t participate in meetings out of a lack of confidence and others can miss key details in an effort to project “normal” comprehension. This paper explores a range of procedural and linguistic strategies to better accommodate colleagues for whom English is not the first language.

The author sat in on and transcribed several meetings of the Groupe Consultatif Actuariel Européen (or GCAE), a body funded by the European Union that advises institutions in Europe on how E.U. legislation could affect their financial risk management strategies. Members of the group meet as often as twice a month and are in frequent e-mail contact, and the organization encourages active participation from its non-native English speakers. To explore how members try to accommodate their less-fluent colleagues, the author recorded three of the group’s six meetings at its annual conference. Members of the group also completed a detailed questionnaire on the challenges surrounding their language usage.

A key work-around approach to the communication problem emerged from the study. In a process that the author called “let it pass,” both native and non-native English speakers tended to gloss over minor garbling of phrases and idioms in the meetings to focus on the content of what someone was saying. Indeed, despite the regular occurrence of linguistic errors, participants rarely corrected another speaker’s usage, the author found. Although this approach stressed politeness and practicality, it did little to ease the frustration of some non-native speakers. Nor did it preclude possible misunderstandings.

To get a better outcome, some participants favored a careful speech style that smoothed over disparities in linguistic repertoire. This meant that participants in meetings sought to speak slowly and clearly, avoiding colloquialisms, metaphors, and jargon. Among other things, they jettisoned idioms like “going through the roof” or “taking a second bite at the cherry.” The author calls this a low-context approach to communication, one that relies more on the explicit meaning of what is said than on shared knowledge or culture. Formality helps, too; meetings that adhere to a strict schedule and agenda, with speakers making prepared remarks, may lose something in spontaneous creativity, but they are easier for non-native speakers to follow and engage in.

The author suggests that organizations examine transcripts of their own international meetings and highlight instances of successful interactions; these can then be used as the basis of workshops for both non-native and native English speakers. Successful accommodation is a two-way street, the author concludes, and is increasingly essential for effective international meetings.

Bottom Line:
Communicating in international business meetings often requires the accommodation of non-native English speakers. Settling on a careful speaking style — marked in part by a lack of colloquialisms, metaphors, and jargon — is an effective way for native English speakers to make their point.

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