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Posted on Sun, Sep 20, 2009 : 5:41 a.m.

Effective global communication requires cross-cultural sensitivity

By david mielke

“Wait, you want to know what my husband thinks?” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton replied in an angry outburst to a student at a recent press conference. “My husband is not the Secretary of State. I am.”

It was not clear whether the French-speaking student or the translator made the error. Obviously, this was an embarrassing situation. What if this misunderstanding occurred during one of your important business meetings? Would you be able to correct the error and redirect the negotiation to a more positive tone? Better yet, how can you avoid the circumstances that created the problem?

Effective cross-cultural communication is a necessity when dealing with businesses in other countries. Global communication requires sensitivity to differences and appreciation for other cultures.

Some tips for effective cross-cultural business communication are:

•    Don’t use American slang or jargon. There may not be a clear translation or comparable word in another language. Think about the possible limitations in vocabulary for someone who speaks English as a second language. For example, there is no Chinese symbol for stock market. The literal translation is a market, like a flower or fish market that sells stocks.

•    Keep it simple. Be conscious of the use of “big” words. Can you state it in simpler words by saying the meal was very good rather than delicious?

•    If unsure of a question or an answer to your question, restate it. Restating your question, perhaps by substituting other words, can help to assure you understand what has been said. I understand you would like us to . . . .  Also, remember that “yes” can also mean “yes, no or maybe” depending on the culture. It can be interpreted as embarrassing to say “no” face-to-face.

•    Don’t speak louder. Speak slower. If someone does not understand something you said or there is a pause, repeat your comment speaking slower. It is unlikely a person has a hearing problem. In fact, practice speaking slower in general to give the person “extra” time to translate.

•    Confirm next steps. This is a good general rule in every business setting whether or not there are cross-cultural language issues. This can be especially effective after the meeting if you send an e-mail summarizing your discussion and what you expect will happen next.

•    Confirm the appropriate contact person. You may be meeting with an organization’s top executive or manager, but is that the correct person? There may be a more involved hierarchy and specific line of communication that is culturally acceptable.

•    Be patient. Patience is a necessity when someone is translating and dealing with other cultures. The American traits of “getting down to business” and quick and timely responses are not international norms.

•    Smile, be courteous and polite. Having awareness for cultural differences and realizing that everyone regardless of the location wants to be treated with respect is essential. Be sincere with an appreciation for how others do business and how that differs from American-style business. A “smile goes a mile”.

The College of Business at Eastern Michigan University has initiated an annual conference and business journal, “Global Advances in Business Communication,” to encourage academics and practitioners to research business communication practices. The first conference last June attracted more than 80 people from 15 countries to EMU. The first edition of the online journal will be launched in April 2010.

How can you become more effective in your international business? Is it to offer a better product, price or terms? All are important, but success also depends on your ability to communicate.  

David Mielke is dean of Eastern Michigan University’s College of Business and a leader of SPARK East, a start-up business incubator in downtown Ypsilanti. He can be reached at