In our last article, we explored why misunderstandings might occur when native English speakers, with their supposed advantage in international communications, interact with their non-native counterparts.  The fact that we are generally monolingual can lead to a basic lack of understanding and empathy towards speakers of another language.  How can we redress this situation and derive maximum benefit from our interactions, leading to successful business deals and strong partnerships?

  1. Practise active listening, useful at all times but indispensable when interacting with a non-native speaker of English.  Listen carefully, trying not to rush to prepare your response in your head whilst the person is still speaking.  Give the speaker time to get their opinion across.  Ask specific questions to seek clarification if you are unsure of their meaning or paraphrase what they said to show your understanding.  Only then should you express your opinion.

“What I understand you’re saying is that  …..”  “Let me check I’ve understood: …”

  1. Be aware that some cultures may be too concerned about ‘losing face’ to admit not understanding and will nod and smile along despite feeling completely lost (we’ve all been there!).  Check that you have been understood and consider rephrasing in short, simple terms to create a second chance for them to hear your message. 
  2. Native speakers should not be dominating the conversation. Leave a pause before filling a gap in the conversation to allow a non-native the time to formulate an answer.  It can take just a little longer to process what they have heard and then put together an answer, so don’t rush the conversation, otherwise they will feel left behind and frustrated. 
  3. Consider carefully the difference between language knowledge and cultural knowledge (references to TV, film, literature, places, dishes, historical events).  Just because someone hasn’t understood your joke, catchphrase or cultural reference doesn’t mean that their English level isn’t good.  Take the time to explain the background if you make such references. Some examples include:
  • Computer says no
  • I couldn’t possibly comment
  • I have a cunning plan
  • Simples
  • She’s had a good innings
  • We’re on a sticky wicket
  1. Be careful with humour as it doesn’t always translate, and in particular avoid irony and sarcasm which might come across as condescending or plain rude.
  2. Simplify your language by avoiding idiomatic language and slang that may lead to confusion, for example: 
  • He needs to hold his tongue – he’s a loose cannon
  • Hold your horses
  • Close but no cigar
  • This is a piece of cake
  • This is driving me up the wall
  1. Try to use straightforward phrases instead of complex ones:
  • ‘What have you been doing?’ rather than ‘What have you been up to?’
  • ‘How is the project?’ rather than ‘How is the project coming along?’
  • ‘Why?’ rather than ‘How come?’
  • ‘Tell us’ rather than ‘Give us a run down’
  • ‘Have you visited the area?’ rather than ‘Have you been out and about?’
  1. Avoid abbreviations such as ETA, OOO, OTT, BTW, EOD, COB, TBD.  
  2. And lastly, if you really want to empathise with non-native speakers, avoid being cliquey and gain an insight into their experience, try learning a little of another language. As the saying goes, “You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” This can be very humbling and you will quickly appreciate those encouraging native speakers who take the time to listen to you and speak more slowly and clearly for you

Most of the points above come naturally with good communication skills and basic empathy, but it is nonetheless worth stepping back to consider your own style.  Maybe with just a few adaptations, you will come across as more open, trustworthy and inclusive, leading to benefits for you, your international partners and maybe your business too.