Language in International Business

The way that we use language reflects cultural preferences for some types of communicative behaviour while discouraging others. Culture will affect, for example, the extent to which we speak loudly and animatedly or quietly, whether we use lots of ‘I’ statements, whether we choose very explicit language or whether we are indirect. Intercultural, or cross-cultural, pragmatics is the contrastive or comparative study of such communicative norms aiming to reach a better understanding of the cultural value or values that underpin them and it is a field we can all learn from.

When we help prepare managers to relocate we might usefully consider the role of communicative styles as part of the familiarisation process. The awareness raising could involve styles of communication: for example, the very explicit language used by low-context cultures–speaker-based cultures– as opposed to the imprecise and ambiguous language favoured by high-context cultures–hearer-based cultures.

Situation or context also dictates language choice. In linguistics various terms have been coined for certain types of key expressions that are related to specific contexts or situations. These conversational routines/prefabricated expressions/politeness formulae/situation-bound utterances could well be useful in raising clients’ awareness about the relationship between language and culture. In essence, they are expressions whose linguistic meaning is distorted because of the role they have in a specific situation: linguistic meaning versus use. When a British English speaker asks the question: how are you, s/he doesn’t expect a lengthy reply about the state of the respondent’s health. If an American says ‘let’s get together some time’, s/he may be saying no more than ‘goodbye’. If a Japanese speaker says ‘yes’ in a meeting, it is as well to understand that this is the politeness dictated by the situation and in no way indicates agreement or an undertaking to act.

If we consider the language area of agreeing, as another example, we might note how agreement is in fact signalled not so much by overt language use as by certain types of language ‘behaviour’ and by accompanying gesture and body language. The overall message is a combination of unspoken signals and carefully chosen words. Merely voicing agreement is not enough to tell you that somebody really is in agreement. This is because to express open disagreement could be difficult for all kinds of cultural reasons. In a very hierarchical society, it would be unwise to express open disagreement to a superior. In a group-oriented culture, it would be difficult to disagree if the group as a whole was going in the opposite direction.

In fact someone who is really in agreement is likely to take off into other types of linguistic behaviour such as asking questions, summarising, echoing, and perhaps offering to do something to take the matter further. There will also be aspects of gesture and expression that reinforce this. The problem for the listeners is that by relying on the explicit meaning of the message alone, they are likely to misinterpret apparent agreement, for the sake of politeness, as wholehearted agreement.

Asking questions, is another communicative activity to look at. By questioning we may be seeking to influence the hearer in ways beyond the apparent intention of seeking information. We can ask questions:to show we are actively listening to what someone has to say; in order to encourage them to elaborate and expatiate; to draw timid or less confident people into a conversation (open ended questions); to interrogate (yes/no questions).

Yet, if we really want to gain information, then techniques for eliciting, such as re-formulation or invitations to explain further are likely to be more effective than direct questions. People may become defensive or resentful if questioning techniques are too obtrusive. Activities are needed to help the international business person use questioning techniques more effectively and match them to an appropriate communicative strategy.

Alerting clients to the potential for misunderstanding, for giving and taking offence, for having progress frustrated, through not knowing the cultural norms of language use is surely a field those training managers to work across cultures should not neglect.

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