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What Your International Team Needs To Know To Communicate Better

accents + dialects business english conversational skills humor Jun 08, 2023

For non-native English speakers, navigating an international business setting can be daunting. Their brain is constantly on the alert, learning jargon and idioms, as well as understanding cultural nuances. Having to shift from being a confident expert to one struggling to understand a foreign language is a challenge.


Recently, I chatted with Candice Lee on my podcast, English for Engineers. Candice is an expert in international business communication and a real estate agent in the New Jersey metro area. Working with leaders moving to another country has helped her become more aware of the challenges they face. She shared with me what she does to help them feel more comfortable.

Whether you're a native speaker trying to be more inclusive or a non-native speaker wondering if what you're going through is normal, here's what you need to know.


Challenging Things For Non-Native Speakers

Even if someone’s English is good, they likely struggle with these things.


Jargon and idioms 

If these phrases stayed the same from region to region, business to business, they wouldn't be so difficult. Native speakers often don’t realize how many idioms they use in everyday conversations.


Tip for non-native speakers: Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification if you don’t understand. In international business settings, this is expected.

Tip for native speakers: Think about different figures of speech that you use regularly. In international business settings, use these phrases sparingly and/or offer clarification.


Speaking with nuance 

When non-native speakers try to say anything, they often think less about the best, kindest way to say it. They’re just happy to be able to express themselves with the vocabulary they have at hand, even if it isn’t elegant.


Tip for non-native speakers: This is ok and expected, but try using tone or facial expressions to soften your words. You want people to interpret what you’re saying in a friendly way.

Tip for native speakers: Always assume the best intentions.


Speaking automatically 

Native speakers might have said something a million times in their native language, but now they have to translate it. Often, they don't know the exact words they want to use, so they have to be creative and compromise to get their point across.


Tip for non-native speakers: This takes a lot of energy. Give yourself grace!

Tip for native speakers: Give non-native speakers more time to talk.


Feeling confident 

While non-native speakers might be confident in their job skills and ideas, they’re not confident in the language. They’re hesitant to express themselves for fear of being misunderstood.


Tip for non-native speakers: 99% of the time, you’ll be understood, especially with an international team. Let your ideas shine through!

Tip for native speakers: Don't judge someone by how well or poorly they speak!


Writing in English

Written English is not the same as spoken English. Translating the culture and words into another language takes time to come naturally. For example, German email writing in English is blunt and rude to an English speaker but perfectly acceptable in German.


Tip for non-native speakers: An email where the spelling and grammar is all off, but is nice, will get you further than the opposite. 

Tip for native speakers: If something comes off as rude, they probably didn't mean it that way. Ask for clarification or offer to speak on the phone.


Understanding the culture 

Knowing the English language isn't enough. If you didn’t grow up in the culture, miscommunication can happen often. For example, some cultures are blunt and to the point. Others don’t like even using the word “no.”


Tip for non-native speakers: The best way to not make social gaffs is to watch and listen. You’ll pick up a lot.

Tip for native speakers: Help translate the culture if you see someone struggling.


Meeting someone who gets it 

There are times when a non-native speaker wants nothing more than to talk freely. Moving to a different country or working with an international team is draining. Being forced to think in a different language helps them learn faster, but it means they can never relax.


Tip for non-native speakers: Finding a community of native speakers is especially important if you move. Even if they aren’t from the same country, being able to speak freely can help release stress.

Tip for native speakers: Find ways to help newcomers feel welcome and comfortable by being a good friend. Show them around the city, let them know about any community events, and help them meet new people so they feel less alone.


Checklist for International Teams

Is your international team inclusive? Here are 5 ways to help non-native speakers feel more comfortable.


1. Speak slower and with more thought. Speaking slower and more clearly can be very helpful for non-native speakers who may need more time to process what is being said. It can also help them better understand the language's pronunciation and intonation. Additionally, speaking slowly can help to avoid using too much jargon or idioms.


2. Make language something you talk about. Encourage open discussion about language and communication in international business meetings. This can include discussing the differences between English dialects and other languages. You'll create a more inclusive environment where everyone feels comfortable and valued.


3. Listening and giving time. Non-native speakers may need more time to articulate their ideas in a second language. Giving them time and space to express themselves can help them feel more comfortable and included. Additionally, actively listen to what they say and seek clarification when needed.


4. Building common ground. Asking non-native speakers if they know a particular saying can help them learn something new. This can also encourage other team members to be more mindful of their language.


5. Assume the best intentions. It is important to remember different cultures have different communication styles and etiquette. Cultural differences may come across as blunt or rude in written communication. Rather than assuming negative intentions, approach situations openly and ask for clarification.


Non-native speakers, what would you add? Let me know via [email protected]


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