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A guide to (mis)communication

The Financial Times June 14, 2014

In the UK, it is important to finish meetings by summing up key points; but in France they can end with an ambiguous 'Et voilà!'

In recent months, a wry little document called the “Anglo-Dutch translation guide” has been tossed between the email boxes of bankers, diplomats, business people and journalists. This lists phrases that are commonly – and completely – misunderstood when English and Dutch people talk to each other.

Take the expression “with all due respect”. If you are British, you interpret this as a polite way to say, “I think you are wrong.” But if you are Dutch, used to blunt speech, you think it means, “You are listening to me!” Similarly, “That is an original point of view”: to English ears this subtly suggests “That’s a stupid idea!”; a Dutch listener thinks, “They like my ideas!” Or again, “I am sure it’s my fault” to British ears means “It’s not my fault”; to the Dutch, it’s quite the opposite.

So far, so amusing, and none of these examples will surprise any British or Dutch people who have ever shared an office. But what is fascinating is not simply that these linguistic gaps remain widespread today – but also how widely they tend to be ignored, in the office or anywhere else. For as the world becomes more global – “a starburst of interconnections . . . a hum of interconnected voices”, as Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, recently put it – it is easy to fall prey to the illusion that you can communicate with almost anyone in the seemingly neutral sphere of the internet. Particularly since so many companies use English as a lingua franca. But ironically, the more that institutions become globalised, using that lingua franca, the more these subtle distinctions in speech patterns matter.

To get a sense of this, it is worth taking a look at an amusing new book called The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, a professor at Insead business school. It draws on theories that Edward Hall, an American anthropologist, developed in the mid-20th century to interpret the dizzy network of modern cross-cultural (mis)communications.

The starting point is Hall’s observation – made after living among Navajo and Hopi native Americans for many years – that human speech varies depending on whether there is a “high” or “low” level of assumed shared cultural context. In the former, people speak with a narrower vocabulary and more ambiguous style, since they do not need lots of words to clarify their meaning; in the latter, vocabularies are far wider and the intentions of speakers are clearly spelt out.

Social groups can vary on this spectrum within a single culture (long-married couples have a high shared context). But different cultures vary radically too. Meyer thinks, for example, that the US, Australia, Canada and Israel have extreme “low-context” speech patterns, followed by the Netherlands and Germany. In those countries people are expected to speak clearly or they will appear dishonest, incompetent or simply ineffective.

But countries such as Japan, Korea, India, Singapore and France are “high context”. There is assumed to be a high level of shared knowledge and thus less verbal clarity: everyone just “reads the air”, as the Japanese say. Spain, Brazil and Argentina lie halfway between. The UK is deemed to be lower context than France but higher context than Holland. Hence that wry internet guide.

Interestingly, these distinctions persist even when everyone is speaking English. And Meyer argues that they affect numerous aspects of institutional life: how managers give feedback to their staff, exercise authority, express dissent or build trust. Thus in some countries it is normal to use “upgrader” (reassuring) comments when delivering criticism; in others, not. In places such as the US and UK, it is important to finish meetings by clearly summing up the key points; but in France meetings can just end with an ambiguous “Et voilà!”. “I couldn’t help wonder, ‘but voilà what?’” Meyer quotes a British investor saying after one such occasion in Paris. “My French colleagues simply know what has been decided without going through all the levels of clarification that we are used to in the UK.”

. . .

And the miscommunications worsen in mixed teams, with, writes Meyer, “Americans who recap incessantly and nail everything down in writing, Japanese who read the air, the French who speak at the second degree [with secondary meanings], the British who love to use deadpan irony as a form of humour and the Chinese who learn as young children to beat around the bush”.

Is there any solution? Meyer suggests managers at multinational companies should use matrix planners that plot the position of different cultures on the “context” spectrum, to help them interpret each other. She also argues that everyone needs to keep international communication ultra “low context” – ie to spell everything out, as clearly as you can.

But personally, as a British person who has been trained in a mid-context culture to use humour as a social weapon (and mask), I prefer a less direct route. Instead of rewriting HR policies, why not just stick that “Anglo-Dutch guide” on to the walls of all company offices? Better still, replicate it with others cultural pairs? (Anyone want to write the Brazilian-Saudi translation guide? Japanese-Israeli?) Maybe that would cause offence. But the best way to avoid communication pitfalls is to keep remembering they exist – and then laugh together about the fact that nothing sounds quite as peculiar as when the English speak English.

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