Sunday, October 10, 2021

Relatively rude – International communication


[Tower of Babel*]

The world may be becoming a global village but each of us has our own native language and culture. This tower of Babel, now just as then, creates infinite possibilities for misunderstanding, especially when negative emotions are expressed. For example, the line between acceptable annoyance and unacceptable anger is cultural and subject to interpretation. The manner in which people express these feelings vary by culture and even subculture, a factor to be taken into account when interpreting communication, especially written, and sending messages.

Each culture, however defined, has created its norms for the acceptable manner of expressing dissatisfaction beyond which the message is considered too angry and personal for business communication. Two factors in this framing are directness and registry. The Mediterranean and China are known for their direct approach in terms of syntax. “You have not paid me” is not considered rude but a fact, however unpleasant. Other regions insist on a more indirect, objective approach that would be laughed at by direct cultures. “I have no record of payment” sounds much less accusatory and more professional than the direct accusation to an American or Brit even though the message is the same. Not every country appreciates straight-to-the-point communication

Register also is a factor. For example, the form of the second person pronoun or lack thereof is part of the message. For example, the choice of the informal you (e.g., tu in French and du in German) would create a very negative reaction as compared to the vous and Sie, respectively. Likewise, Japanese business culture requires frequent use of honorific particles. The use of titles such as Mr. or Mrs. is obligatory in many cultures but even insulting in other ones. For example, in Israel, women under the age of 60 do not appreciate being referred to as “Mrs. So and So” as it that implies she is old. On the other hand, I sort of enjoy being called Mr. Rifkind in the United States even if I subconsciously look if my late father is near me as it means that I am receiving respect. In written communication, this formality is expressed in the closing. For instance, proper English letters should end in yours truly, yours sincerely or respectfully yours regardless how untruthful, insincere or disrespectful the letter is. Similarly, all formal French letter end in “Veuillez agréer l'expression de mes sentiments distingués”, be assured of the expression of my distinguished sentiments in English, even if the writer is threatening to send the receiver of the letter to jail. Noblesse oblige. As long as the rules of syntax and formality are followed, the message can sometimes avoid being rude but merely be highly unpleasant.

For the receiver of emails and memos from other culture, this variety of approaches means careful consideration of the form as well as the message in order to ascertain the actual emotional subcontext. For example, the sentence “I found many errors in your work” implies varying degrees of dissatisfaction. If an Israel or Spaniard writes this, it is probable that the receiving party will have an opportunity to re-establish trust. By contrast, this same line from an English or German would probably mean the end of the business relationship. On the other end of the scale, the sentence “we would appreciate delivery in the near future” coming from a UK agency is not a polite request but an order. It is an error to base interpretation of the message on the culture of the receiver as that of the sender is the determining factor.

It should be noted that most users (including writers) of English worldwide have a different native language, meaning they did not grow up in an Anglo-Saxon country. Their level of mastery of English and awareness of culture differences thus varies greatly. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the name of a person provides no clue to where they were born. Just because the first or last name may “sound” Spanish or Asian, for example, does not have any significance of their mastery of a language or cultural norms. As a result of this linguistic shuffling of the cards, it is a good policy to allow for cultural confusion in interpreting communication. In practice, the person writing the message may have no idea that their form of expression is rude. The worldwide village demands some tolerance to operate properly.

As for creating communication, business people must attempt to take into consideration the cultural background of the receiving party, if possible. The purpose of communication is to attain a goal, which generally does not include insulting the person or getting them angry. Therefore, it is advisable to apply some indirectness where appropriate, i.e., discuss facts, not personal intentions. For example, I would appreciate payment within seven days works much better than Pay me within seven days, especially if a hefty arrears interest is then mentioned. The message gets across. Likewise, it is important to always begin correspondence with a proper salutation and closing and maintain language-appropriate formality. The French are genius at polite nastiness. Let your words attain your goal without interference from your form. When in doubt, consult with an expert. Clear communication is a key for solid results.

Doing business worldwide not only requires language skills but also cultural awareness. Faced with the need to communicate effectively with someone on the other side of the world, geographically or culturally, business people struggle to express what they mean and understandably so. After all, “Isn’t that rude?” is in fact a very complicated and important question.

* Always label your pictures to allow the blind access to your posts.

Pictures: Image by <a href=";utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=5771062">Gordon Johnson</a> from <a href=";utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=5771062">Pixabay</a>