Culture Clash

Closing gaps between different worlds is crucial to building team trust. By Mary Brandel

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While it's difficult to eliminate slang, companies should train global staffers to speak a "neutralized, denuded and precise English," suggests Erran Carmel, associate professor and chairman of the IT department at the Kogod School of Business at American University in Washington. So instead of "Let's wrap up the project by June," say, "Let's complete the project by June," he suggests.

There are also more formal approaches. At Sunterra Corp., a resort company in Las Vegas, Norbert Kubilus develops a glossary for multinational projects containing industry-specific language that differs from country to country. Kapur suggests employing a documentation manager to search all documents for local nomenclature.

"IT terminology is relatively universal; however, this is not true for business terminology," Davidson says. For instance, in some countries, the word deployment is used to describe the user testing stage, not general release. To overcome that, Manpower has created an IT governance system dubbed "The Manpower Way." It describes the processes, methods and tools used to manage projects, people, assets, investments and budgets.

But sometimes it's nearly impossible to make an interpretation without being intimately familiar with the culture. Danback only recently realized that the British "cheers" means more than goodbye; it also indicates that the speaker feels the conversation went well.

And in India, when you ask when something is going to be finished, don't hold your breath when you hear "10 to 15 minutes," as Avi Huber, an Israeli software engineer who has worked in the U.S. for eight years, discovered. "It just means, 'We're working on it, and we think we have a solution,'" he says.

Israelis and Americans can have their own miscommunications. When a colleague of Huber's was called into his manager's office because of a big problem, the colleague responded with, "No problem!" Although it sounds blithe, the term is actually a direct translation from Hebrew that means, "I'll do whatever needs to be done," Huber says.

Glitches can even occur among speakers whose first language is English. "If a British person says, 'That's interesting,' it can actually mean he thinks your idea should be trashed," explains Jay Crotts, CIO at Shell Lubricants/B2B in London, part of Royal Dutch Shell PLC.

Americans are similarly guilty of not saying quite what they mean. For instance, two words in U.S. business-speak -- "issue" and "challenge" -- are actually code words for "problem" or "difficulty," but their loaded meaning would be lost on a nonnative speaker of English, Carmel says.

Eastern cultures can be even less direct, particularly when it comes to saying no. In Japan, the most negative response you would hear would be something like, "That would be difficult," says Mike Rosen, practice director at Cutter Consortium in Arlington, Mass. "We might interpret that as, 'Buck up and do it,'" he says. Similarly, in China, "We'll consider that" is a polite way of saying, "We'll allow you your opinion," Kubilus says.

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