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Cultural Miscommunication

April 5, 2012

Of course it’s an old chestnut, but it’s also extremely important and becoming more so. If you are speaking or writing to people from a different culture, (aren’t we all, most of the time now?) you have to choose your words carefully. Imagine you had to look your own words up in the dictionary. Would you be able to find them? How would you distinguish between ‘I can’t put him up’ and I can’t put up with him’?

Anyone who has done business abroad must have their own examples of putting their foot it in (there I go).

A carefully designed pension scheme almost caused the collapse of a nearly complete company purchase in Los Angeles until the name was changed to ‘pension plan’. Apparently the word ‘scheme’ is always negative in the US – and would sound to Americans as the word ‘scam’ sounds in the UK. Now imagine someone standing up and introducing the ‘pension scam’. How would you react?

One of the slides in a presentation I use bears the words ‘put yourself in their shoes’. I have learned not to use it in the Middle East.

I very much like this extreme example from fellow WordPress blogger Mich-Communication:

Choose your words carefully in cross-culture communication.

My conclusion is that the only way to communicate with people from other cultures (and that includes Yorkshire if you are a Londoner) is to keep it straight and literal – or check understanding as you go along. Boring maybe, and quite difficult, because we use metaphorical language so automatically, but safe.

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