Speak Globally, Think Locally

Date: June 9, 2015

If you ever find yourself thinking that you have all the answers, or if you are routinely frustrated that nobody else seems to understand what you’re asking them to do, I invite you to spend a month or two in another country – specifically one where you don’t speak the language.

You may begin to question whether you ever communicated effectively, even in your native tongue. When everyday chores become a challenge because you “don’t understand” and “can’t be understood”, and when you find yourself relying on the kindness of strangers to help you complete tasks that you would ordinarily do yourself with ease, you may find yourself wondering – is this how others feel when I communicate with them?

As part of Confluence’s acquisition last fall of Orfival, I have had the opportunity to do exactly that. Je ne parle pas très bien français, which means that I have needed to think quite carefully about how to express myself in many interactions. Although English is commonly spoken in much of Belgium, I’ve encountered a lot of people – at the grocery store, at the train station, or even at the front door of office buildings – where my typical speech pattern (English, spoken rapidly, and with overly complex words to express simple ideas) is completely useless. That got me thinking about whether that same speech pattern is even really all that useful for native English speakers. Are those I am speaking with lost in translation, even in English?

It’s all too common nowadays to talk about how the world is shrinking, how the global reach of companies is increasing, and how we always need to keep the big picture in mind. While all of that is true, I’d like to reflect on an alternate point of view – yes, the big picture matters, but only if you recognize that it’s comprised of many small pieces that need to fit together properly. Nowhere is that more important than when you are communicating across multiple countries… which is practically impossible not to do in a global organization, whether you’re an American business analyst writing a specification document for a development team in Asia, a coder in India whose software is to be implemented by a member of the UK team, or a German implementer who needs to transition a project to the Belgian support team.

So what do I mean by “think locally”? Well, for starters, think about your audience. Are you drawing on a shared cultural framework, or will something get lost in translation? I sadly confess that I have been unable to use my wide variety of 80’s pop music references while in Belgium. Are your words literal, or are you relying on idiom? It can be dangerous to communicate by metaphor or analogy if your audience doesn’t understand the reference. I learned early on that comparing “apples and oranges” doesn’t quite translate in Queen’s English; “chalk and cheese” is the preferred expression. Has local slang infiltrated your vocabulary without your knowledge? Apologies to some friends and co-workers in Pittsburgh, but no one outside a 50 mile radius knows what “yinz” are. Do you make hand gestures while speaking that distract or offend the other party? Did you know you shouldn’t cross your fingers while in Vietnam, and please don’t count to two in London with your palms facing you!

It gets even more complicated when you go from thinking about language and culture to thinking about individual people.  Whether you’re referring to Myers-Briggs personality types, DiSC profiles, or other classifications of communication styles, we know that even within the same culture, different people interpret and react to messages differently. Crafting communications that will be successfully received across such a broad range of variables requires a great deal of care and thought (and, perhaps, multiple versions of the same message, tailored for specific audiences).

In other words, before you hit “Send” on that next email, ask yourself – is this going to be understood by the person on the other end? Or, especially in a global company, will this message be “lost in translation”?