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Five Tips for Communicating Across Cultures

Posted by Chad O'Connor  April 17, 2012 01:00 PM

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When I was getting my MBA at Trinity College in Dublin I was famous for putting my foot in my mouth. Despite my fairly decent command of the American English language, I could always be counted on to accidentally say something on a Tuesday afternoon that was completely inappropriate.

One of my most famous incidents involved me getting up in front of an entire class and one of Ireland’s most beloved economics professors with a goal of clarifying the dress code for a social event. Instead of telling all the women it was a dressy occasion I accidentally told them not to wear underwear. Turns out “pants” does not mean the same thing on the other side of the Atlantic. While my language malfunction still makes for a good laugh among my friends, the same mistake in a business setting could have permanently damaged my reputation with potential clients in a new market.

I recently learned that just one percent of US firms export and of that one percent only half export outside North America. With the economy still lagging we’d all like to see that number go up. As the world gets wealthier the demand for the skills and services of our highly educated workforce will grow; Washington is hard at work encouraging American firms to look overseas for new customers.

Whether you’re looking to bring Boston to the world or your part of the world to Boston, doing business outside your home country is always a challenge. Technological advances in transportation and communication may make logistics easier but the age old problem of cross cultural communication remains. So before you explore the opportunities outside your home market here are five basic tips that I want to pass along.

1. The weather is not the catch all topic you think it is, neither is sports. Both are a favorite way to start a meeting here in Boston (It’s 100 degrees! Did you see the game last night?) But if you’re doing business in a climate with very little variation or extremes, the weather is probably not something people naturally discuss. It’s also worth noting baseball is a sport where we play a world championship against ourselves and possibly Toronto. Once you leave the continent most people just don’t care.

2. Just because everyone speaks English doesn’t mean you are all speaking the same language. You’ll want to avoid slang, irony, and double negatives. Analogies and metaphors rarely translate, keep in mind Americans have over 400 sayings that derive from the above mentioned baseball and the Brits have 250 sayings from their own sports (Who doesn’t love a Cricket metaphor?) If you have to use a metaphor stick to nature, it’s the one thing we all experience and understand.

3. Americans love to learn new things but surprises don’t work in all cultures. When I present I almost always include something the audience likely doesn’t know. In many countries your potential customers or colleagues may want to know exactly what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it before you’ve even booked your flight over.

4. Approach a language you don’t speak or understand lightly. There is a joke about an American businessman who goes to Japan and at the last minute decides to welcome the audience in Japanese. He sees both men’s and ladies’ room in the back of the hall and asks his translator for pronouncers on the signs. He greets the audience, gives his speech, and sits down to tepid applause. When he asks what went wrong, the translator replies “your speech was very interesting but why did you greet the crowd with ‘good morning toilets and urinals’?” Not so funny if it’s your business meeting.

5. Fight the urge to compare and contrast. Yes, “In America” we have a store just for containers, and smart white boards, and delivery at 2 a.m. but your new business partners don’t want to hear about it. Make a point of showing interest and knowledge of their culture and country.

Obviously every cross cultural communication experience will be different and the tips and tricks you’ll need for a specific country can take some time to research and learn, but if you put the effort in I think you’ll find you hit it out of the park! (sports analogy intended)

Kellyanne Dignan designs and leads the media, public speaking and presentation training programs for Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications clients. Prior to joining Rasky Baerlein, Dignan worked in broadcast and digital communications producing content for major media outlets. She can be reached at

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