Lost in Translation, part 2

accents + dialects business english conversational skills humor office communication podcast Jan 30, 2022

My last blog entry ended with the question:

Is there a difference between the US and the UK regarding handling projects and project communication?


The answer is yes. And now we'll show you how to be properly rude ;-)


If you're not in the mood to listen to the podcast episode that answered that question, then here's the transcript of the mentioned episode:


Olivia Augustin 0:00  

Welcome to English for Engineers. I'm your host Olivia Augustin. Join me on my podcast as I dig deep into all things Technical English, Business, English, and International Business Communication to bring you a lifetime of knowledge in a digestible format.


Today, I'm happy to have my friend, communication specialists and polyglot Ama Zbarcea here with me again. During the last episode, the two of us started our conversation about the minefield of international business communication, or as we like to call it, 'Lost in Translation'. Ama, thank you so much for coming to this podcast.


Ama Zbarcea 0:50  

Again, thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to be here.


Olivia Augustin 0:53  

We finished the last episode with kind of a cliffhanger. And I'd like to repeat the question that we left open last time. It's like "Previously on this show". We both are big fans of the book, The Cultural Map by Erin Meyer; we both love it. It's such a great book. It's such a great resource that helps you navigate the minefield of international business relations. And there's one example I read. And that example is the base for my next question. Let me paint the scene or paint a picture, set the scene for you. International project, the engineers involved are German and Japanese. And due to the nature of different time zones, most communication is via eMail. The Japanese engineer had a question that he emailed to his German counterpart. The German technician knew the answer and immediately replied - Problem solved, you would think. The other way around, when the German guy had a question for his Japanese counterpart, it sometimes took a week until he got a reply. And here's the trouble. They both assumed that the other was not doing their work properly or diligently. Why? Compared to Japan, Germany has an egalitarian culture to as which Japan is more hierarchical. Even if you know the solution to a problem, you go and double-check with your boss. And that takes a day or two, so the longer response time is perceived by a German as slow, as not knowledgeable. The other way around, the fast response of the very knowledgable German is perceived as hasty or lazy by his Japanese counterpart. A quick response means you didn't check with your boss, which means you are a) lazy or b) you don't respect your boss. The problem is thus not a grammar problem, not a language problem, not even a technical problem. There was a cultural misinterpretation of behaviour. They were lost in translation. So my question is - the question that I started 5 min ago - is there a difference between the US and the UK regarding how they handle projects and project communication?


Ama Zbarcea 3:23  

Absolutely. That's the short answer. Truly, there's this perception that time is money. Every single second, minute of the day is perceived as lost or gained money. So very much like the Germans, you reply right away if you know the answer. In the business world, everyone expects a reply roughly within 24 hours, business hours. It's not uncommon for people to work on the weekends, work late nights. If a superior asks a question, you're meant to reply, no matter what time of day it is or if you're having dinner. There's much more of a respect for work-life balance in the UK. The Americans would view it possibly as lazy or not motivated, or 'the European way' to take time off to have that separation, that balance. So there's a bit more respect for people not replying quickly. However, unlike the Japanese example you gave, they're still very much "give the answer as soon as you can, as soon as you're ready". If you know it, you don't have to check with people.

Maybe slightly more of a team focused approach in the UK; if you're not 100% sure that you do check with your team or your superior or whoever. In the US much more individualistic: if you know, you know. But again, that's cultural. Individualism is a big part of the US culture from a very young age. Children in school are taught to raise their hand when they have the answer, which means raise it high, and if you don't raise it high enough in an American school, you're penalised for that. You're told, "well, you didn't raise your hand high enough". Your hand wasn't straight above your head touching the ceiling, essentially. 

I didn't go to primary school in the UK, but I have a lot of friends with children here. And I've learned about it. And I've seen their behaviour as adults in the room. What they do is they raise one finger on one hand; it's close to their shoulder; it's very subtle; it's showing that they know, but they're not being in your face about it. They're not interrupting visually what's happening in the room. So, you see a lot of that cultural difference in the way people are willing to be direct or interrupt in a meeting or share what they have to know. It's much more so f in the US; if somebody has something to say, they will volunteer it right away. They won't wait for somebody to ask them; they will, you know, usually be polite enough to wait for a break in the conversation. But if they think it needs to be said right away, they will interrupt, and it's not rudeness. It's directness or not wanting to be off track, or you didn't want to waste time going down the wrong path. Because time is money. And in the UK it is the complete opposite. They wait for that break to be asked to volunteer. 


Olivia Augustin 6:02  

Oh, okay. Is it otherwise, like showing off, being rude and wanting to show off?


Ama Zbarcea 6:07  

The Americans, you mean? 


Olivia Augustin 6:10  

Would it ever be perceived as that by Americans in the US?


Ama Zbarcea 6:13  

It's definitely not perceived among Americans as being rude or showing off. It's just part of what you do. However, other cultures may perceive it that way. And it, you know, it's, it's not wrong to perceive it that way. Because in the context of your own culture, it seems that way. But it's really important to notice that, you know, somebody might be from a different culture. You have to give some leniency, even if you don't understand why they're doing what they're doing.


Olivia Augustin 6:39  

And you don't always realise in the first couple of seconds that someone comes from another cultural background. That's actually one of my problems. I have blonde hair. I live in the Netherlands, my spoken Dutch for at least the first five minutes is quite good. So I'm mostly perceived as such (as Dutch), and then all my mistakes come up a bit later. Not even not using proper Dutch words. But sometimes, the same word in Dutch and German has an entirely different meaning. And things can go horribly wrong. And now, 10 years later, I can laugh about it. But I had my fair share of putting my foot in my mouth of being unintentionally rude.


Ama, we have known each other for quite a while. And I know you have a funny story that popped into my mind when I used the word 'rude'. Would you mind sharing?


Ama Zbarcea 7:27  

Oh, sure. I mean, this goes to company cultures and cultural differences between countries. So I was in the office of this, you know, the corporate headquarters, just outside of London of a large multinational company. And I was working with this team quite regularly in the legal department. And one of the women that worked there was from Slovakia. But she hadn't been in the UK long, although she had worked all over the world. So definitely a worldly person, a very, very brilliant lawyer. And she was working on compliance. And one of the things that happened because of my role as an American on that team was that when it was time to deal with more complex situations, confrontational things, or resolving conflicts–because the Brits are a little bit more conflict-averse, and they knew that I didn't have any problem with it–I usually got designated to be the bad person and deal with those conflicts, which gave me a lot of experience. But anyway, I'd be on the phone, and I'd be quite direct with people and say, "Look, this needs to get done". I've never done it in a mean way, in a bad way. It's just as an American, I have more experience with that direct confrontation. So I don't find it as intimidating. And the Slovakian woman was sitting, you know, in an open-plan office, maybe three rows down, and it's relatively quiet. She's heard me just get off the phone and solve a problem quite assertively, probably. I don't actually even remember what that was about. All I remember is hanging up the phone, and this woman from the other end of the room turns around, and she exclaimed, and you know, with so much emotion, "Ama, I love you, you're so rude". And I said, "You know, you can't say that". I said, "I don't think you mean rude. I think you mean, you know, assertive or a problem solver". I don't remember how I said it to her. But you know, I don't think I was being rude. And she goes, "No, I love you. You're so good". She was so excited about it because she saw something in me. We didn't know each other that well at that time. You know, we've only been working together a few weeks. But she saw something in me that she saw possibly from her Eastern European culture that directness or assertiveness, which maybe she was missing in her British colleagues. She was so excited, and it was meant as a compliment. She just really liked my style right to get things done. But she said it maybe three or four times, and she's shouting in this office because she's just a loud, exuberant person. I said, you know, you need to be careful about saying that because people might actually think I'm rude. And that's bad for my reputation because rudeness is taken very seriously in British culture.


Olivia Augustin 10:15  

Okay, so how do you make your way back? If you have been rude, or have you just lost?


Ama Zbarcea 10:27  

You may have just lost, you know, first impressions do matter. But at the same time, first, you have to recognise that someone did perceive you as rude, which is not as easy as it sounds; sometimes, you just don't know. Like, we were talking about raising your hand or interrupting. Sometimes it's just so natural in your culture that you don't realise other people perceive you as rude.

But if you do notice that somebody thought you were rude, or maybe just something feels off, you can wait until emotions might die down a little bit–do not do it right away–and approach that person in a casual setting. Or just give them a casual phone call, whatever and say, "Look, this is what happened. I said these things, and I felt something was off in our relationship afterwards, or something didn't feel right. I'm not sure if I misinterpreted it. But I want you to know that, from my perspective, I was not trying to be rude mean, whatever the case may be. And if you saw it that way, I apologise for hurting your feelings or interrupting the project, whatever the effect might have been. So I didn't mean for anything to go in that direction. I apologise if it did. This is part of who I am and how I approach things. If it's a problem, can you please discuss it with me"? 

And sometimes, you do that in writing to give them a chance to absorb that information and come back to you. And sometimes you do it in person over a coffee. It really depends on your relationship with that person and who it is. And whether it's a barrier and what culture you're in, what culture they're from, you have to feel it out. Because relationships are essential in business, whether it's your colleague or the person you're sitting across from a negotiation table from.


Olivia Augustin 12:02  

As an Austrian married to a German living in the Netherlands, I have learned that it does help to have that one friend or colleague that you can ask to educate you about cultural differences. Where you can say, "Hey, look, please help me to find my way around here. And if I say something stupid, if I make an unfortunate gesture, let me know. Let me know, tell me, don't just think she's weird. Give me some feedback on everything about everything you think might be slightly off". That helps a lot. If you have the luxury of having an honest and open person close to you.


Ama Zbarcea 12:34  

It is a luxury to have. And some cultures are more close to giving that sort of feedback than others. I mean, I've worked on projects all over the world. I've worked with many Chinese people and in Chinese departments of a multinational; obviously, you have subsidiaries all around the world. And I've tried to ask for that sort of feedback. And fortunately, unfortunately, it's part of their culture that even if they say yes, they still won't; because it might be taken the wrong way, or they are afraid to hurt your feelings, or they might feel it's rude. They have that cultural barrier where they cannot. They don't feel comfortable doing that. And that's just part of life. Yeah, but I have a funny story, actually. Since you mentioned asking people for guidance and feedback. When I first came to the UK as a student intern, I was very fortunate that the general counsel of the head of the legal department of this huge company I was working for came to escort me to the office on the first day. We were on the train. And I was a young 19 year old in my first corporate job, and the first time working in a foreign country; I travelled a bit, but I'd never worked anywhere else. I'd actually never worked in a corporate office at all. And I asked him for some advice.

I said, "Do you have any advice for someone starting out, especially in a foreign country, you know, cultural differences and so on?". And this man–who is incredibly nice, incredibly generous with his time for someone in a senior position–he turned bright red, as he's telling me, "If somebody asks you for a rubber, it doesn't mean what you think it does. It's an eraser, I swear it's in eraser". So a rubber to an American generally means a condom. It also means the material called rubber. But suppose you say 'a rubber' in a casual conversation. In that case, it means a condom, which is probably not appropriate for the workplace. But in British English, it simply means an eraser for a pencil on paper to erase what you've written. 


So, that was his first piece of advice. And for the second one, he said, "Don't say pants or underwear. Say trousers."


And funny enough, I took that to heart. I memorised the words, rubber and trousers, and I repeated them in my head for the rest of the hour train ride to the office. And, of course, in the first two weeks, I must have said pants about 13 times. I immediately corrected myself, and, you know, people giggled a few times. But I'd say, "Oh, I meant trousers". But they understand. People understand. And thankfully, for me as an American, people watch a lot of American movies, right, so they're more familiar with American culture, American slang; so they might know what pants are. The other way around might be a little bit more difficult, but either way, people are people.


Olivia Augustin 15:40  

People are people. True. That is actually one of the things I always tell my students or my clients. When they asked me, "Olivia, what English should we learn? Which one is the better, British English or American English? If you have to learn one anyway.". And I always say the luxury of a non-native speaker is that we can choose. And we could even mix and match them sometimes. But if you do, you have to be careful. And the example you gave is just perfect. You can mix and match as a foreigner, but be careful and do some research. But it tells you a lot about culture.

Maybe that's another podcast on the culture of cursing.

When I think of your boss who picked you up and even before giving you the advice regarding the two words eraser and rubber, he blushed he turned utterly red as a grown-up man. He didn't even want to talk about that topic. He even didn't want to use the word rubber. I'd love to invite you back on another podcast about the culture of swear words, or, as I like to call them, the no go words. Because in some European countries, even in the workplace, it's so common even normal to us. Funny enough, the English expressions. In Austria and Germany, they use a lot of English swear words, and that's perceived less... What's the word? I don't want to say impolite... It's easier 'tolerated' than the German equivalent; it sounds softer even, funny enough.


Ama Zbarcea 17:06  

I've heard that a lot. But I never understood why.


Olivia Augustin 17:08  

Me neither, actually. Never understood why. Maybe because it's a foreign word. It has another impact, a different emotional load. Sometimes when my engineers have projects with an international team, they just use that language. But it's plain rude; you cannot do that. And sometimes, I have to admit, I have a hard time explaining that to German-speaking engineers. But that's a topic for another hour-long podcast.


Ama Zbarcea 17:35  

Something like that. I'm sure I could find you plenty of embarrassing stories about all sorts of words. And yes, I think the use of swear words in the workplace is probably a big topic on its own.


Olivia Augustin 17:46  

Yeah, definitely. So what's your advice to be on the safe side?


Ama Zbarcea 17:51  

The best thing I can always say to people is 'know your audience'. If you know who's in the room, you can gauge the reactions a little bit better. And read the Culture Map by Erin Meyer. I feel like I'm her publicist or something. I read it later than I should have. I didn't know about it, but I wish I'd read it sooner. Because a lot of things were explained by the examples she used in that book, I understood many things that happened in my past corporate life a lot better later. But yeah, just know your audience. And don't take yourself too seriously. People make mistakes, and that's okay, and just, you know, recover from them and speak to people if you think you did something wrong, or even if you didn't, just check in.


Olivia Augustin 18:31  

That's excellent advice. My advice–regarding swear words–would be just don't use them. Just totally don't use it. Till you know your audience. And even then, don't.


Ama Zbarcea 18:39  

Well, yes, of course. But we all slip up when it comes naturally in our sentences, and you know, things happen.


Olivia Augustin 18:46  

True. Wow, we covered quite a lot today. But I think we should wrap it up now. Is there anything else? You want to say? Did I forget anything? Maybe?


Ama Zbarcea 18:57  

I think you had a question for me earlier that I interrupted. Is that right?


Olivia Augustin 19:00  

Yes, I do. I do. So many of my engineers have to read contracts and struggle their way through those English contracts. And I know, I mean, you're such a generous person. I know you've created a freebie that takes care of some of the troubles they might encounter. And wanted to ask, would you mind sharing your resource with my engineers?


Ama Zbarcea 19:19  

Oh, absolutely. So my website is called On Your Own Terms. And go to this website, www.onyourownterms.net/contractcheatsheet. You can download for free a little cheat sheet I put together that explains the simple, most common terms for a contract in simple English for business people, not for lawyers. Now, for your engineers, they might see that it's geared a little bit more towards people who are business owners. Still, it is absolutely useful for anyone who needs to read a contract and understand it quickly. So I hope that they find it useful. If you just go to the front page as well. They'll find the link right there on the front page if they can't remember the full URL


Olivia Augustin 20:01  

And I'll make sure to put the link into the podcast transcript. Thank you so much, Ama.


Ama Zbarcea 20:06  

I'm really glad that you can do that. And that, you know, I might be able to help some of your engineers as well. But before we go, I think you have something that might be useful to all of my small business owners as well. I know you teach mainly Technical English and Business English to engineers, and English for Engineers is your tagline sort of. Still, you teach English to many different people who have structured thinking, don't you?


Olivia Augustin 20:28  

Yes, absolutely. That's the main thing with engineers, actually. They are solution orientated and very, very structured, indeed. 


Ama Zbarcea 20:35  

And I think that certainly describes small business owners. So for any of my audience that are small business owners who have English as a second language or are based in a non-English native speaking country, I think they could benefit from some of your expertise as well. And I think you offer some free resources that would really benefit them. Can you tell me a little bit about that?


Olivia Augustin 20:55  

Of course, I think the one resource they will profit from the most is 'How to boost your email writing skills'. Because even though I work with engineers, a big part of doing business is about communication, communication with clients, with subcontractors, all the different stakeholders, and just getting your message along. And I've put together that free resource, and it's about how to write eloquent and structured emails. And it does not only teach you a simple structure that you can use for emails in any language, but it also helps you to find the right tone for your emails. And if you're in a hurry, you can just use that PDF and copy and paste useful phrases and sentences and use them in your business communication. And I'm delighted to share that with you all. The link is marcode.org/linktree. There you find this one and other freebies. Feel free to use it because it's a simple structure. And it just makes communications so much easier.


Ama Zbarcea 21:58  

Wow, I think that could benefit a lot of people and maybe not just non-native speakers. I think all of us could have used that when we first started writing business emails, and it fits so well with what we talked about communication today. So thank you again so much, Olivia. It's been fantastic talking to you. And I hope we can do this again soon. But in the meantime, I will see goodbye for now.


Olivia Augustin 22:19  

Thank you so much. Um, I had a blast doing these two episodes with you. 


And that was it for today. My friends. This was once again English for engineers. I'm your host Olivia Augustin. Talk to you soon.