How To Work With An International Team: Practical TipsSep 20, 2022
"I don't understand what you're saying!" Whether or not you tell a coworker this, you've certainly thought it before. Maybe the person is a foreign language speaker, maybe they're from a region that has different jargon, or maybe they're not in engineering at all.
Learning to work with an international team is difficult no matter the industry, but language and feeling comfortable in a group are essential to safety in engineering.
Recently, I spoke with Becky Paroz about her experience working with engineers from all sorts of backgrounds and her advice for English-as-a-second-language engineers. Here's how to ensure your message doesn't get mistranslated, whether you speak your native language, English, or something else.
The One Thing To Avoid: Jargon
We love jargon in engineering.
According to the Oxford dictionary, jargon is a special word or expression used by a particular profession or group and is difficult for others to understand.
It comes from the same word that gibberish (nonsense) comes from.
The problem with jargon is that it varies greatly not only among trades but also between regions like Austria/South Germany and the North of Germany. The only jargon that people understand between groups is typically cursing.
The first step to using language that an international team can understand is cutting out the jargon – but that's not all.
The Difficulties of Working With An International Team
Even if you're working with a domestic team, you've likely come across a poorly translated document. With international relations, this problem is even worse. You've seen the two types of documents: one is translated by an actual translator. The other was by a tech person.
You can tell immediately if someone has seen a transonic oscillator or not, based on the translation. An English translator or a "language person" doesn't realise some of the intricacies of the tech world. They don't put jargon in the right spots. While it might flow, telling someone to "screw it in" (tighten a screw) is completely different advice from "Turn the screw 10 times, tighten, and then break back off."
The result can be a completely different outcome with simplified instructions.
When you get a document translated by a tech person, often, it's choppy and doesn't flow like a book – but you receive pertinent information, and that's what's most important.
Checklist: Will Others Understand?
How to write a document that everyone understands? To avoid a mistranslated document (or instructions that just don't make sense), here's how to make your writing easily understandable by those who don't speak your native language or know the region's jargon (this isn't just for when you're writing technical English!).
Words can have multiple meanings. Becky always puts definitions to even basic words to make sure everyone understands. Even within a language, this can be helpful. For example, a word like 'tolerance' can have multiple meanings.
✓ Double-check everything
You might think you understand what's happening, but you don't. In Australian English, for example, everyone says, "no worries." Spoiler alert, this doesn't actually mean no worries. It can mean several different things, depending on the context. So, if it doesn't make 100% sense, double-check.
✓ Clarity over capability
One of the reasons why jargon is so popular is it makes us feel important. We know the ins and outs of the industry and a secret code that no one understands. The problem with choosing technical jargon over clear language is others outside your trade or language bubble might not understand you. While it's wonderful that you can use complicated technical language, opt for clear words that everyone can understand.
✓ Include a picture
Even when we think we've been as clear as can be, miscommunication can happen. That's when a picture is the best bet. The saying, "a picture is worth a thousand words," applies to engineering with an international team.
Bonus Communication Tips
So, you've written a document that others will understand. Now how do you talk and get along with an international team on a daily basis? Here's what Becky recommends.
1. Slow down and be present
Let others know that you're learning the language. People are often a lot more understanding if you bring this up. Remember that it's ok to make mistakes. You're not there to be a language whiz; you're there because of your technical knowledge.
2. It's not just about language
Sure, a language difference can make communicating difficult, but cultural differences are even more challenging. In some cultures, young professionals are taught to respect their elders, making it difficult for them to speak up. Others might lack confidence or be confused in a culture where everyone is direct and confrontational. This can be a problem in an industry where listening to your gut and speaking up is vital to safety and success (keep reading for more tips on how to build rapport).
Keep this in mind when communicating with an international team: you might understand the words coming out of their mouth but not their true meaning.
3. Learn their stress word
Being comfortable at work is vital to a safe engineering environment. But when you're working with an international team, this can be difficult. So, what's the easiest way to make sure things aren't going south on a project when you don't speak the language? Learn a cuss or stress word from their language.
Hear me out: I'm not saying learn how to swear. But learn to recognise it. Why? Because: health and safety. If you ever hear one of your workers or colleagues using one of those words in their mother language, you know something worth your attention happened and you should check immediately.
4. Curiosity over frustration
Working with an international team can be frustrating. Miscommunication will happen no matter how careful you are. The important thing is to see those times as a learning experience that brings you together.
Want to hear more tips? Listen to the podcast episode, Junk the Jargon, here.