Language and Cultural Issues MATTER!How many times have you had difficulty with communicating with a non-native speaker of English or understanding someone with a heavy accent? Can you recall the frustration by both parties? Imagine what happens when miscommunication happens in the workplace and the impact it has on productivity, efficiency, and morale. Financial losses can result from errors, safety, lost time, or HR issues. Differences in language and culture affect business operations on the plant floor and in the office, with customer service and communication with vendors. Ultimately, these communication issues affect the bottom line.
Using idioms or jargon can cause problems. Native English speakers take them for granted, but for people whose first language is not English, they are confusing. We speak too fast for people who may be “translating” in their head as they listen to us. Even between people whose primary language is English, misunderstandings or misinterpretations occur on a regular basis. Asking “Do you understand?” or telling someone to “call me if you have questions” are often not effective because employees may genuinely believe they understand what is being asked of them and do not ask any questions. The absence of questions can be a result of fear—fear of looking incompetent, fear of jeopardizing their jobs, fear of losing respect. The result can be that the error caused by miscommunication is not fully realized until the task has been completed.
Behavioral differences also create misunderstandings and tension. There are many variations of appropriate behavior regarding personal space, eye contact and physical contact. A worker looking down to show respect when speaking with a supervisor can be perceived by the supervisor as being dishonest or “hiding something.” Sensitivity to cultural differences where you work or travel substantially reduces risk, misunderstandings, or lost business.
If you employ or market to a multicultural workforce, consider how you can assess and improve workplace communication issues:
- Would it be helpful to provide facilitators when introducing programs or training to your workforce?
- Does the customer service department speak clearly and slowly to make doing business with your company easy?
- Are safety advisories marked with universal symbols?
- Have customers or valuable employees been lost because of language or cultural misunderstandings?
- When planning to upgrade sytems or equipment, will your loyal long-time workers get the training they need in a language they can understand to succeed with the new challenge?