“What are you going to do to compensate me for 10,000 malfunctioning intercom systems my company bought from you?” I barked at the Spanish business executive seated across the conference table from me. In my role as actor in a training simulation, I had been venting my complaints to him about his lousy products for the past 15 minutes, and I was not planning to leave the meeting empty handed.
He looked down at his notepad sheepishly, sweat forming at his temples, and I could see his mind was racing but he hesitated to speak. Finally after an excruciating silence “We ……um…I not…….we can’t…um….the intercom…..we not taking intercoms….and you get…um.. descuento?”
Javier had been tagged as a ‘high potential’ by the multi-national consumer electronics company he worked for. He graduated from one of the top business schools in Spain and had been recruited right away to join the sales team at the company. Well-liked by both colleagues and customers, he had exceeded his sales targets three quarters in a row, and had managed to entice a key account away from the companies’ main competitor.
Yet none of these credentials could redeem Javier when it came to negotiating in English, a language in which he clearly was not comfortable. The poor guy was visibly embarrassed about his performance, and his eyes pleaded with me to put him out of his misery. I tilted my head and gazed at him thoughtfully. “Could you send me a proposal?” I asked softly. Instantly, his distressed expression evaporated, and a warm Latin smile spread across his face, “Yes, yes when you want I send it?”
The assessor looked at his watch and gave me a nod. I popped out of my chair to shake the Spaniard’s hand and congratulate him on hanging in there during a tough conversation. Although I was glad I had been able to end the roleplay on a positive note, I was aware that he had been communicating way below his level of knowledge and expertise. A missed opportunity not only for him, but also for his company.
When doing business globally, the decision to establish an official company language, such as English, solves some problems, but creates others. If the latter are not proactively addressed by those in leadership roles, crucial perspectives, expertise and information will slip through the cracks, needlessly diminishing the collective power of the organization.
Statistically, there is a direct correlation between mastery of a language and the amount of time one gets to express ideas and opinions in a conversation. The most likely scenario in a meeting where one speaker communicates in their mother tongue and other speaks a foreign language is:
• The native speaker speaks 75% of the time.
• The non-native speaker speaks 25% of the time.
• The 50% of non-native speaker’s time is spent clarifying what native speaker said.¹
This lopsided exchange gives an unfair advantage to the native speaker, based on nothing more than an accident of birth. So the question is, how can we compensate for differences in language proficiency in the workplace, so that every individual is heard, and their talents and skills are optimally channeled to achieve company goals?
Creating a level playing field of communication
There are several approaches to creating a level playing field of communication in organizations, so that exchanges between native and non-native speakers are balanced and inclusive:
1. Offer flexible language training solutions: The most obvious step in improving understanding and expression in a foreign language is devoting time to learning it. However, companies need to be sensitive to the fact that their employees may already feel stretched by their responsibilities, so a one-size-fits-all solution may not be welcomed.
Offering a variety of options such as on-line or blended learning, short intensive courses, or personal individual instruction, will lower the bar to integrating language study into an existing workload.
2. Lead inclusive conversations: The person leading a meeting should practice deliberately inviting each person to speak, so that the conversation does not revert to the default mode of dominant native speakers. Leaders who facilitate inclusive conversations are great role models for others. They demonstrate the value of attentiveness and patience in creating a welcoming atmosphere for non-native speakers to express themselves, ensuring that their contributions are not lost.
3. Invest time off-line: Even when directly asked for their input, some non-native speakers might still hesitate to share their thoughts in a group situation. This could be because they are not yet proficient enough in speaking the language, or they are shy or lack confidence to find the right words. In some cases, just concentrating in order to follow what others are saying takes all of their energy. Cultural backgrounds which value a strong hierarchy and indirect communication may also be influencing reticent participation in meetings. So another option is to speak privately with these individuals before or after the meeting, in a more relaxed situation. In this way you can be assured that their valuable input will be taken into account.
4. Decrease speed, increase eye contact: There are couple of simple practical tips for maximizing understanding when speaking to non-native speakers, especially in a group situation. If you are a person who tends to talk fast, deliberately slow the pace of your speech. Secondly, be aware of spreading your eye contact as you speak, especially to non-native speakers. Looking in the direction of where you want your message to “land’’ increases its impact. Also, noticing facial expressions can help you to gauge to what extent a non-native speaker is following your story, providing valuable clues about the need to slow down and repeat some information, or a heads up that all is crystal clear and you can move on to the next topic.
5. Reward expression, ignore mistakes: When interacting with non-native speakers it’s important to focus on what really matters – their knowledge, expertise and humanity – not the flawless mastery of a foreign language. If we can think in terms of not “speaking’’ a foreign language but “managing’’ in a foreign language, space is created for infinite variables of competency, accent, style and culture when it comes to getting a message across. When the pressure is off to speak a second language perfectly, individuals can focus on the content of what they want to say and be more authentically themselves. It also becomes easier for non-native speakers to accept friendly feedback about pronunciation, vocabulary, etc. when appropriate. A rousing “Well done!” to a non-native speaker after a presentation can do wonders for building confidence and motivation to keep developing their foreign language skills.
¹ Source: Communicating Internationally in English, Bob Dignan, York Associates
Eating and Aging, Giving and Receiving
Sharing a guest blogpost I wrote for Akteos Cross-Cultural Training.
The Dutch belief that not only you, but everyone close to you is to be congratulated when it is your birthday took me some time to get my head around.
Part I of this blogpost focused on the rituals of celebrating birthdays at work in the Netherlands and the USA. In Part II we look at some of the more “touchy” issues related to birthdays in the USA, as well as what birthdays reveal about the meaning of relationships in both cultures.
In the USA where fairness and equality are fiercely guarded rights, employee birthdays have become breeding grounds for other polarizing issues. There are passionate debates about whether or not it is good to encourage eating calorie loaded cakes in an environment where there is an obesity epidemic. Others will take issue about their right to privacy about their birthday, as ”age discrimination” is a hot topic in the workplace these days. It all boils down to the belief that ”what is good for one has to be equally good for everyone.”
Many clues about the relationship between the individual and the group are revealed in the contrasts between Dutch and American birthday celebrations. Being put in the spotlight on the day of your birthday in the Netherlands is literally not a free lunch. It does entail certain obligations to others – such as providing cake and paying for drinks. In the states, however your birthday is celebrated either work or at home, others are expected to provide for all your needs, nothing is expected in return.
It's not only my birthday!
The Dutch belief that not only you, but everyone close to you is to be congratulated when it is your birthday took me some time to get my head around. I remember the first time I answered the phone on my Dutch boyfriend’s birthday. It was his mother on the other end of the line, enthusiastically wishing me “Congratulations!” Completely confused as I was, I was at first silent and then said,”……um, yeah, it’s Martin’s birthday.” I get it now, and on cue, whenever I attend a Dutch birthday party, I shake hands and congratulate everyone in the room, even if I don’t know who the hell they are, just to play it safe.
The shared sense of achievement at having reached the birthday milestone is another expression of the unique attitude of the Dutch regarding the individual/group relationship. On the one hand, birthdays are seen as sacred occasions, which must be recognized as meaningful both in the workplace and at home. In Dutch culture, your own birthday or the birthday of a family member is accepted as a perfectly legitimate reason to avoid or cancel business appointments. Americans on the other hand, are incredulous if you would even suggest to miss an important meeting because of a birthday celebration.
It’s not that Americans don’t find birthdays important, it’s that it is considered a more private and individual affair. As Americans tend to split up their relationships into groups and categories – work relationships, sports relationships, school relationships etc., they confine their birthday celebrations to the appropriate group. Birthdays are generally celebrated at home or in a restaurant after work hours with family and a select group of friends. There tends to be a lot of flexibility about the date. The preference is to choose a date for a celebration when most people will be available; the birth date itself is not so sacred. In this spirit, people will often plan large birthday celebrations several months before or after the date of their birth.
How to deal with birthdays in an intercultural working environment
Because of the different meanings cultures give to birthdays, being dismissive about them can cause friction on international teams. The seeds of resentment and apathy are sown when people feel that what is important to them is being disrespected. The task-oriented American business executive could be blinded to the sensitivity of this issue, and risk some diminished commitment of colleagues and direct reports.
On the other hand, when doing business with Americans, it’s important to recognize the ”work comes first” attitude, and to appreciate that it has contributed to the drive and success of US companies worldwide. You may not get your day in the spotlight at the office, but if you tell an American it’s your birthday, you can count on an expression of good wishes, and once business is taken care of, a free drink!
Cohesion Creator or Productivity Destroyer?
Sharing a guest blogpost I wrote for Akteos Cross-Cultural Training.
Don’t get the wrong idea: the circus has not come to town, and nobody has gotten a promotion. The big news is that someone you work with has a birthday today.
If you are an expat employed by a Dutch company, sooner or later you will discover an unusual installation upon your arrival at the office in the morning. Somebody’s desk area – it might even be your own – will be festively decorated with strings of colorful hanging flags suspended from above, while the chair may be festooned with paper streamers and balloons. When the desk’s occupant enters the office, everyone will immediately approach him or her, beaming with smiles, offering a handshake or a hug and warm congratulations. Don’t get the wrong idea: the circus has not come to town, and nobody has gotten a promotion. The big news is that someone you work with has a birthday today. It’s a signal to put them on a pedestal, take time out to honor them, and enjoy some communal coffee and cake together.
Star for a day
The ritual of celebrating birthdays in the work place is deeply embedded in Dutch business culture. Every department secretary is responsible for keeping an updated list of employee birthdays, and he or she decorates their work station before they arrive on the morning of their special day. If it’s your birthday it’s your moment in the spotlight, and you deserve extra attention and appreciation from your colleagues. The birthday ”star” is also expected to behave according to time honored rules. It is essential that he or she brings a respectable cake to the office, which is shared by all at coffee break at the end of the morning. During this communal moment, songs may be sung, birthday plans revealed and optional gifts presented. If in addition, drinks will be shared at the end of the day either in or out of the office, it is the birthday celebrant who pays the bill.
This charming tradition with its decorations, sweets and songs, resembles a condensed and streamlined kids birthday party. It is a sincere expression of the Dutch view of professional relationships, which strikes a balance between valuing the person as well as the tasks they are responsible for. Although taking time out to celebrate birthdays on a workday, however briefly, does present a distraction and interruption of the workflow, it provides a context for warm and personal social contact. This creates cohesion in the group. Thanks to your birthday, you are at least one day a year seen, heard and respected just for who you are, not for what you do.
Birthdays, time and money
In contrast to the cozy Dutch tradition, birthdays in the workplace in the USA are regarded as something that is okay to acknowledge if you have the time, but above all, don’t let it interfere with productivity. Because in the States time is money.
So if you’re lucky you might hear a hearty “Happy Birthday” said out loud by someone within earshot at the office, but don’t expect them to take their eyes off of their computer screen as they convey their best wishes to you. Or they might not waste time with that and just send you an email from across the room. If it’s a significant birthday, you might be dutifully joined by some colleagues for a drink after work – and lucky you, they will pay the bill!
Not all companies are as unfriendly in their view of birthdays. The ROI of employee appreciation is not overlooked, and so many employers will take the route of presenting a plant or a gift card to show they care, or post birthday greetings on the company intranet.
Birthday Team Building
Other U.S. companies will seize the opportunity for team building activities, by bundling all birthdays into once a month lunchtime celebrations. Sometimes it will be a pot-luck affair, which requires everyone to volunteer to contribute something to the meal. Employees can hone their leadership skills by rotating the role of coordinator of the event. Once the large buffet meal is laid out, those who have a birthday that month get the privilege of being first in line to pile the food onto their plates.
Unlike the Netherlands, bringing your own cake to the office on your birthday would be considered somewhat pathetic. Either someone else is thoughtful enough to bring it in your honor, or it just doesn’t happen. This can be stressful because it becomes a litmus test of one’s popularity at the office. People are left wondering if anyone will remember that it is their birthday, or if anyone in the office likes them enough to care about it. If a colleague does supply a birthday cake, there is generally no special moment of togetherness to share it. The cake is sliced without any fanfare, and left on a plate in a back room, where employees are free to help themselves to a piece throughout the day.
In Part II of Dutch vs. American Birthdays in the Workplace, we will cover some of the polarizing issues related to this topic in the USA. We’ll also take a deeper look at how celebrating birthdays reflects the group vs. individual preferences of both cultures.
Lisa Ross-Marcus, founder of In-Coaching, is an executive life coach and a intercultural trainer.