There is remarkable difference between English taught in schools and what the workplace demands
We all learn how to communicate in English at school. Despite using English for years, employees often find themselves uncomfortable using it at the workplace. For many, English training was never tailored according to communication demands at work. Writing an e-mail, negotiating with a vendor, making a sales pitch, participating in a meeting, talking to an overseas colleague rarely form a part of the school and college curriculum.
That is when efficiency starts getting affected despite employees possessing the required skills and motivation.
While a general course in English can help understand the basics of language like grammar, vocabulary and sentence structure, Business English is a different ball game altogether. It is because in business situations context matters! The tone of your e-mail needs to vary based on the profile of the recipient (customer vs colleague, superior vs peer). Similarly a thank you e-mail ought to be set in a different tone than a condolence e-mail, a presentation should be worded differently than an e-mailer, conversing with an American/native English-speaking colleague will be different than how you would convey the same idea to an Indian colleague.
Geography plays an important role in building culture-specific contexts for professionals. Especially today, when MNCs have setup offices in India and Indian organizations are becoming global, businesses often realize the need for inculcating cultural sensitivity in their employees for varied situations. These can range from a business trip to the company headquarters, a consultant being sent for an offshore assignment, a simple conference call with peers in other countries or an important mail to an overseas client.
Edward Hall in his book Beyond Culture speaks of high and low context cultures.
High context culture – Contextual information is of utmost importance here. People in these cultures associate high importance with interpersonal relationships. Building trust is an important first step to any business transaction. The Japanese culture exemplifies a high context culture. Culture, tradition and conformity make up the Japanese mindset.
Low context culture – Contextual information is not as important. Actual words used in communication have more value than background information gathered. North American culture is said to be a low context culture. The American mindset is based on freedom, equality, opportunity and independence.
Given that different countries have different expectations from the same situations, it becomes pertinent to understand the context in which your business actions will be conducted.
Here are some insights1 on cultural contexts that are important to remember while doing business in cross-cultural environments:
1. Pauses between communication: Silence is something Swedes are comfortable with in communication, so one need not be put off by long pauses in conversation. On the other hand the Americans for whom communication depends on actual words, may misinterpret your long silence as rejection or things going in a negative direction.
2. Meeting times: In Spain, to arrive on time for meetings, while recognizing that actual starting and finishing times might be flexible helps. For Germany, punctuality is important - being even a few minutes late is considered very rude.
3. Socializing after work: The Spanish day has no rigid divide between work and play and much business may be done over lunch or dinner. On the contrary, though the Canadians are hardworking, their leisure time is greatly valued and is kept quite separate from the workplace.
4. Decision-making: The Swedish may seem to take a long time to make decisions; this is because of their consensual approach. In America one needs to focus on being decisive and getting things done quickly. The correct approach in America is that time is money, and a missed opportunity is wasteful.
5. Effective presentations: Modesty is of prime importance while giving a presentation in South Korea. One should not give a grandiose speech about your personal achievements, or those of your company. Emphasizing the human aspect of an idea should precede details on profit. Americans are taught to be bold and confident when presenting. This can often be interpreted as overly self-assured by others but is expected in America. Showmanship is not critical (although it can help) but confidence, clarity and a lack of distractions from things like faulty equipment, nerves or inadequate preparation are all-important.
The above examples are not meant to convey rigid frameworks within which to perceive cross-cultural interactions or stereotype individuals based on their national or cultural identity. Contextual knowledge is useful to keep in mind as overall and fluid frameworks to ensure optimal outcomes that keep the context, cultural or otherwise, in the foreground. These examples throw light on the importance of getting the context right without which even technically appropriate English language skills will not be of much help. Organizations work hard when selecting their employees and invest in equipping them with appropriate technical, people or leadership skills. However, communication is the thread that ties all the necessary ingredients together to accomplish business goals. Contextual appropriateness and language proficiency together make good Business English skills and contribute to positive business outcomes.
When your communications skills program takes care of this important aspect, you ensure that whatever the context may be, the employee would be able to communicate effectively and effortlessly.
1. 1 From Pearson English One – Culture Notes section on Business Etiquette, Essential Tips, Meeting Culture and Effective Presentations.
About Pearson English One: Pearson English One, from Pearson TalentLens, is a leading online solution for English language training, offering learning content that is comprehensive, covering all proficiency levels and skills which learners must master in order to use English effectively at the workplace.
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