Overcoming Cultural and Language Barriers to Effective Communication – AXIOM Insights Podcast

Overcoming Cultural and Language Barriers to Effective Communication - AXIOM Insights Podcast

Culture and language can create barriers to understanding, to team cohesion, and to organizational culture. 

In this episode of the AXIOM Insights Podcast, we’re joined by Lauren Supraner, founder and president of CAL Learning, a New York-based intercultural communication training, coaching and consulting company, who works with global professionals to help them communicate clearly and effectively across cultures.

“My motto is clarity of message, clarity of speech,” Supraner says. “The message itself has to be culturally appropriate, and people have to understand you speaking.”

Listen to this episode here:

“Both sides of the conversation are missing out,” says Supraner. “We are all different. The American style of communication is just a style of communication. Native speakers of any language, not just English — the combination of their culture and language sets up their frame on the world, and how they interact.”

 Supraner explains that language is both the words that are used and how they are used. “How do you say no? How do make a request? How do you make a suggestion? How do you interject in a meeting?”

All of these things are not taught explicitly to non-native speakers. Generally, they are learning the words and the grammar, and not necessarily the nuanced language functions, how to be persuasive, and how to be direct and not rude, Supraner explains.

Beyond the words used, each individual’s cultural perspective affects how people interpret communication.

And communications styles and preferences vary substantially between low-context and high-context cultures.

“In general, low-context cultures… are direct, they are explicit. The context does not carry the information, the words do. They words that you say are what’s important.”

But, Supraner says, Americans may not realize that their low-context expectations are the global exception, not the rule.

In high-context cultures, Supraner explains, it’s much more indirect, because there’s a greater concerns about the relationship and the hierarchy.

Additionally, conflict may also be created by a low-context communicator who is task-focused, when interacting with high-context communicators for whom the task is secondary to the relationship.

Audience Awareness

Understanding who you’re speaking with and their expectations is important, Supraner says. “Listen to the person speaking. Understand them from their perspective. It doesn’t mean you have to agree, but you do have to respect, and you do have to listen.”

“Once someone feels heard, that changes everything,” Supraner says. She advises: listen, pay attention, try to see from another’s perspective, and be willing to learn.

Audience awareness requires attentiveness to words and body language, Supraner says. “It’s also helpful to give the person an opportunity to express themselves… ‘tell me more about that’ is just the greatest sentence ever. It acknowledges the other person, it gives you a change to figure out what’s going on without jumping to a conclusion.”

Episode Transcript

Scott Rutherford
Welcome to the AXIOM Insights podcast. My name is Scott Rutherford. This podcast talks about trends and best practices in supporting organizational performance through learning. In this episode, we’re talking about communication, with a focus on how culture and language can create obstacles both to understanding, but also to team cohesion and organizational culture. We’ll explore how both language and culture can be obstacles to effective communication, and how both native English speakers and non-native English speakers can help themselves better understand and be better understood by others. My guest for this episode is Lauren Supraner. Lauren is the founder and president of Cal Learning, an intercultural communication, training, coaching and consulting company based in New York.

Lauren Supraner
I work with global professionals, and help them to communicate clearly, persuasively and appropriately across cultures. So basically, my motto is kind of clarity of message, clarity of speech. The message itself has to be culturally appropriate, and people have to understand you speaking. And those are two things that I work on a lot. Primarily, my clients are in pharma, biotech, life sciences, things like that.
I got interested in it, it was just a natural progression, really. I had traveled abroad, I lived in Asia for two years, and I worked there teaching English and loved it so much, I came back without a degree in it and worked as a university director directing programs in it and had a real immersion in the language and culture for you know, my entire career. And then 9-11 happened. And that was a game changer, for many reasons. And I just decided shortly after I would go start my own company, so I would not be separated from my family, again, surprised by surprise, and it was just one of those leaps of faith – just set up a desk in your corner of your bedroom and get to work. And that was 2004. So that’s how I got here.

Scott Rutherford
So I’m interested to explore with you a little bit about the nature of language and culture as they come together around a business context where everyone’s speaking business English. And maybe you could talk us through, what are the dynamics there that perhaps a native English speaker, would not be aware of? What would someone like, and I’ll put myself in that boat here for the purposes of the example. But you know, I’m, I’m American, if you can’t tell it by my voice, I grew up speaking English as my first language. What would I miss? What am I not seeing?

Lauren Supraner
So I think what’s really interesting is it’s not just the English speakers are missing, it’s both sides of the conversation are missing out. And very often, Americans very often tend to think of diversity as the other people, you know, that they are different, when in fact, we are all different, right?
And that the American style of communication is just a style of communication. And non-native speakers and native speakers have to find a middle ground. The thing is that native speakers of any language, not just English – their language kind of sets up their frame on the world, and how they interact in the world, the combination of their culture and language, and they’re completely oblivious to it, because they’re native speakers. That’s just the way things are.
So in business communication, there are two areas that really impact communication, cross-cultural communication. So one is communication itself. They’re called language functions, right? So let language is like the words and the ways, right? The words are the grammar, and the vocabulary and the spelling. And the ways are really the cultural component.
So language functions are the how our culture uses those words. So for example, how do I say no, is a really hard one for a lot of non-native speakers. Right? And as an American, you say “no,” right? I mean, but that’s how do you say no? Is being direct difficult? How do you make a request? How do you make a suggestion, how do you interject in a meeting, and all of these things that any native speaker would know and be able to do easily, are not taught explicitly to non-native speakers.
Non-native speakers, when they learn a language generally are learning the words and the grammar and not necessarily the nuanced language functions of how to be persuasive, things like that.
But also another problem is being direct, but not rude, is very difficult for both sides of that spectrum. Because English is so direct, and a lot of non-native speakers say, I know I’m supposed to be direct, but you know, what’s the language? How do I say it? And they might come across as rude.
Americans who are just being very direct in their natural conversation might be perceived as rude. So that direct speech is also one type of problem. And from the cultural orientation, because there’s the communication, right? How do I use the language, the language functions, and then the cultural orientation?
So that really creates the mindset of how you’re interpreting what’s going on and how you’re interacting and situations will be based on your cultural orientation? How are you viewing this interaction? What are you expecting of the participants? What are your interpretations of the people and events. So that’s really where the caught the miscommunication comes in.

Scott Rutherford
And Lauren says an important part of this are the differences between high-context and low-context cultures, and how that influences how people interpret the dynamics of communication.

Lauren Supraner
This is a very general framework that I always encourage clients to use kind of as a first best guess, when you’re in an interaction for cross cultural interaction, but it’s really important to remember, it’s not binary, there’s, you know, multiple dimensions of it, it’s on a spectrum, there’s a personality involved. So it’s not cut and dry.
But in general, low context cultures are Germanic language cultures, so like English, German, Dutch, things like that. And low context cultures are direct. They’re explicit. The context of the setting does not carry the information, the words do. The words that you say are what’s important, not necessarily what the context is.
And in high-context cultures, which is basically the rest of the planet – that’s one thing Americans and English speakers don’t know is that their communication style is absolutely the minority communication style on this planet, that direct task oriented. And so basically, everyone else, all the other cultures are high-context, which is where it’s much more indirect, because you’re concerned about – the relationship is important. The hierarchy, you know, where am I within a business setting? Where do I fall in the hierarchy? How do I respond to the hierarchy? Those things are very important.
So you have this, like three main areas of the differences in these that really I have repeatedly seen conflict as the sources of conflict in the business setting is the difference between the low-context, direct, concise, explicit communication, and then the high-context, which is indirect, it’s digressive. It’s often very flowery.
And so those two different communication styles, right? One seems rude, being direct and the other. You know, what are you saying? What’s your message? I don’t understand what you’re talking about. There’s so much digression, it’s so indirect.
So the communication style of direct/indirect. Task versus relationship is a huge source of cultural conflict. Or am I am I focused on the task and the outcome, that would be low-context like Americans, or am I focused the relationship, which will be high-context? So that is, I can even give you examples, you know, if you need but that’s a huge source.
And the last one also, is the difference of the low-context American, my rights and my needs me the individual versus the high-context hierarchy. You know, how do I offer an opinion to someone higher up the ladder than me, for example. So those three differences [are] just constant sources of conflict cross culturally.

Scott Rutherford
And as we were, as we were getting ready to sit down and record this podcast episode, you used the phrase, I’m going to probably misquote you, so you can correct me. But the dynamic, which I thought was fascinating was the idea of two groups of people or a group of people all coming in from different perspectives and speaking in different languages using English words.

Lauren Supraner

Scott Rutherford
And I thought that was a fascinating way to put it.

Lauren Supraner
Yeah, it’s really interesting. I had I told you this, but I had an interview with a company and the man I was dealing with was Indian, Hindi speaker. And we were talking about business writing, and he was saying about, you know, I really like the fluff. I like the fluff of business writing. And I like that ‘how have you been and how is your family?’ And I said, okay, but in Business English, the very first thing you cut is the fluff. And he was not having any of that. But what I realized after what he wanted to do was have Hindi communication with English words. And that’s a real source of miscommunication, right? You think, oh, they’re speaking clearly. But their cultural style is completely different, how important you know, their perception of what’s going on. And, and if you’re being rude, or if you’re being indirect, all of that is through your cultural filter. But people say, well, why are we not communicating or speaking with the same words? Right, but it’s that cultural orientation, that cultural filter?

Scott Rutherford
Absolutely. And to maybe take that example a little bit further what someone coming from India might think of as appropriate and necessary to set the context of a communication, you know, I might consider oversharing as an American.

Lauren Supraner
Absolutely, that’s another thing I try to share. Because I think it’s important, like I said, it’s not just the Americans learning about them, it’s them learning about America, it’s everyone learning about everybody, right?
That goes back to that task orientation. I don’t want to share my relationship information with you. I’m here for the outcomes of a task, and that’s it. I don’t want to have to tell you how my kid’s doing, it’s my personal business. And so that’s also another, you know, that affects the relationship. You know, like you said, I don’t feel like sharing.

Scott Rutherford
So are there any tips that you could think of that, if someone’s listening to this, and some of this is resonating, as I’m sure it is, with anybody who has a diverse group of colleagues or business counterparts, as I think most of us, if now we all do, at some point in our careers – where do you start to is just understanding that these dynamics is exist? Is that the first step? How do you get your arms around this, because it does seem like it could have massive, infinite facets, right?

Lauren Supraner
So a couple of things. You have to have audience awareness. Like it’s all about audience, who am I speaking to? Where are they from? What are their what are their expectations? What’s their, like, you have to have to be aware of the other person, I always say, you can’t have in order to have audience awareness, you have to remove your ego, because it’s not about you, and you have to listen to the person speaking.
So I’m just going to give you one example. A lot of people have problems with Muslim women who want to wear hijab. Listen to the women who are wearing it, and listen to their reasons, and understand them from their perspective. It doesn’t mean you have to agree, it doesn’t mean – but you do have to respect and you do have to listen. And that’s like the baseline.
Just the idea that you don’t have to agree to be respectful, I think is really a big thing. Listening, paying attention, removing your ego from the situation, being quiet and listening. Just be quiet! It’s the greatest advice I can give.
Yeah, so those are just general – and the willingness to learn the willingness to see from someone else’s perspective, or at least try to get a better understanding. And once someone feels heard, that just changes everything right? Then they really feel like they belong.

Lauren Supraner
Like, if you if you’ve ever heard anyone has who’s listening has ever presented and you look at your audience, and you can see their body language is saying, I’m not understanding you. I’m not following this. This is boring or whatever. That’s – audience awareness isn’t just listening to their words is paying attention to their body language to their energy almost writes with Japanese called Reading the Air. Reading the Air, which I love, which we don’t do at all Americans don’t do that at all.
So that would be your first step. It’s also I have found helpful if you think things are going sideways, to try and clarify and understand give the person an opportunity to express themselves fuller. “I’m a little unclear about this. Could you please tell me more about…”
“Tell me more about that” is just the greatest sentence ever! Because it acknowledges the other person. It gives you a chance to figure out what’s going on instead of jumping to your conclusion. And then you can kind of tweak it. You know, I’m not gonna say this, I’m gonna say this, but being fully aware of their responses, not just their words, their body language, their energy. You know, can you tell me more about that? Even things like that really be helpful.

Scott Rutherford
Tell me more about that. And then listening and reading and reading the air, I think it’s the phrase you use, which I like. So taking the time to absorb what you get back.

Lauren Supraner
Right. And also learning I mean, you have to actively seek to learn about the different cultures, like that’s kind of walking into any general problem that you’re saying, you know, we’re going sideways, but start looking for, I call them generalizations, which are different than stereotypes. Generalizations are when you’re looking for common patterns that you might be able to expect. So you can least I call it the first best guess, right?
So for example, if I start the communication with someone who’s from Latin America, I’m going to guess that there’s going to have to be some small talk relationship stuff, and that I’m not going to talk business over lunch, I mean, I’m going to have certain expectations. That’s my first best guess if that person doesn’t fit that generalization, then I’m open to learning and changing, but it really helps to get be like, Oh, okay, you know, my experience is that Canadians will behave this way and my experience, and that kind of gives you a way of judging how you should react. For example, I’ve, you know, I know if I’m talking to a Hasidic man, I don’t put my hand out for him to shake it, because they don’t shake hands with women. And so why would I want to make him uncomfortable, serves no purpose. So even that just building up an awareness kind of a file, it will keep me a list of, you know, traits that you recognize and perhaps expect, and how can you be comfortable within that and make them comfortable within that as well.

Scott Rutherford
Which is a starting point, I imagine. And then then, of course, in the moment, you respond to how that how that sort of unfolds, because as you were saying earlier, it really is about meeting, everybody meeting in the middle. And so you can have a starting point of how you expect that might go and then react to how the other person might be trying to adapt to you.

Lauren Supraner
Yes, and the most, I mean, this is so basic, I can’t believe I have to say it, but so many people don’t realize it, the only person you can change is yourself. That’s it. Full stop. So if you’re waiting for the, you know, shy Asian person to suddenly just start volunteering information in large group settings, you’re not going to have as great success as a trainer than if you put them in smaller groups to start where they don’t, they’re not on display, this has been my experience, just that type of awareness, and what’s the best way to make that person feel comfortable, so that the interaction that you want can continue successfully.

Scott Rutherford
And so I wanted to ask Lauren more about how this type of training and coaching changes depending on how it’s being delivered, whether it’s coaching one-on-one, working with a small group, or trying to facilitate broader change within an organization.

Lauren Supraner
The one-on-one stuff is very specific to the exact needs of the person I’m coaching. Some of them do a lot of presentations. Some of them don’t, you know, want to work on their clarity of speech, because they give so many public speaking events. So there’s a variety of things.
The group work that I do, is very often really foundational. I mean, maybe it’s foundational to me, because I do this all the time, but it’s very eye-opening, just to be bringing awareness as kind of a foundation of oh, okay, you know, your direct speech, how does that translate into business writing? Well, we put the purpose of our sentence, purpose of our email in the very first sentence, many non-native speakers put it at the very end. So that could be confused. Like very specific, how is the language used? I do with groups like they really need the language to use what to say the words because they understand the ideas, they say, every culture training that I attend, they say, you know, speak directly. What does that mean? What do I say? And how do I do it?
So a lot of very practical language that they can use. I use a lot of case studies, because I find that people relate to them. And they’re more quick to volunteer and analysis of the case study than to share their own experience, especially if they’re in a company and they’re talking about their manager, right, and everyone knows who it is. It’s very different than a typical experience that everyone shares. So that’s kind of helpful.
With groups, a lot of it is about cultural awareness, the basic differences, how that affects communication, a lot of self-assessment, you know, where do you see yourself and all of this is very important. And basic things like, you know, the whole direct, concise and explicit in speech, in your writing. So that’s one part.
Another part is also, like I said, In the beginning, clarity of message and clarity of speech, there are a lot of non-native speakers who really are just not understandable. And that depends on your job. How important is it to be understandable? So for example, a bench scientist who’s just working with his team has very different needs for clear speech than someone who has a public face for the company.
And I could give you one example that I love is working with this Chinese team. And they were telling me about a project “aintuna,” was their project. And I said, okay, the name of your project is “ions tuner,” it’s not “aintuna.” So they said, Look, if everyone on this team wants to call it “aintuna,” what difference does it make?
And I thought that was really eye opening? Because it’s true, like, they just need to communicate on their team. So the whole team, they’re all Mandarin speakers, and they all want to say “aintuna”? Who cares? They’re communicated, right. So what’s their need, as well? And for people who have clarity of speech problems, the whole set of workshops, again, based on very practical, what are you saying, you know, how do you give a presentation? That’s clear, you know, the stress, the stress and intonation is the bulk of it really was very important to English and often absent in other languages. And, you know, I think that it’s so important that it’s not just about teaching global professionals how to work in America, it’s about teaching Americans how to work with global professionals. It’s a it’s a community, it’s not just us in them.

Scott Rutherford
It’s interesting talking about this in the context of some of the broader issues that we deal with, and learning and development, you know, talking about DEI, obviously, is also many-faceted, including issues about generational communication differences, you know, a, someone who’s of the Boomer generation speaks and, and prioritizes messaging very different than someone who’s a Gen Y, or even, you know, someone who’s an X or Millennial, whoever, that so there are there are opportunities for meeting others in the middle or understanding communication styles and preferences, even within a culture among generations, right?

Lauren Supraner
Right. Definitely. And I think it’s important when I say about a culture, that it’s a very broad definition, because, you know, how are gender differences seen within that culture? How are age differences seen within that culture, racial differences, all of those things affect this whole entire way of communicating the language functions that you choose.

Scott Rutherford
And of course, as you mentioned earlier, age is one element of standing that’s important in Asian cultures, but that can create a conflict with U.S. business culture, where a focus on age is actively discouraged.

Lauren Supraner
Right? Absolutely. And that plays to what I said one of the biggest conflict areas is hierarchy. Age, absolutely falls under hierarchy, gender falls under hierarchy. With age falls under hierarchy, you know, your position in the company, of course, itself on the chain of command is hierarchy.
But I have a really great example that I’d like to share about that. I was working with a Korean woman, she was young, she was a dynamic go-getter zooming up the corporate ladder. And she had a male Korean, she had a Korean man who was a direct report, who was 25 years her senior.
And if you don’t know much about Korean culture, it’s very hierarchical, really, really hierarchical. And so there were so many issues at play here, right? She was a woman, he’s a man. She’s younger, he’s older. She’s the supervisor, he’s the direct report. And she had so much difficulty assuming a supervisory role over him in particular, and he had so much trouble showing her respect. It was really an ongoing conflict based, in my opinion, primarily on their cultural orientation of, you know, males and females and age and hierarchy in the company.
And so they were in a — they’re in a meeting, she was speaking and he reached over and he snapped his fingers in front of her face. And my jaw almost hit the ground. I said, What did you do when he did that? And she said, Well, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t want him to lose face. Which goes back to that relationship thing that we do not see that they everything is the relationship. And for us, it’s so much more the task. And I said, Well, do you realize that you completely lost face in front of your team, by not responding to that. That stuff has to be called out immediately, on the spot, you don’t have to, you can say we’ll speak about it later. But you certainly should say to him, do not snap your fingers in my face. And we will talk about this more later and get back to it. And even though she knew that as a supervisor, the overlay of that age and gender and the hierarchy just, she couldn’t break away from her cultural orientation. Which I just found that an amazing example.

Scott Rutherford
Now I can imagine in that moment, that the to be to be really put on the back foot is going to be very difficult to respond appropriately, not accepting, you know, that sort of gender dynamic in the workplace is foundational now.

Lauren Supraner
Right? Absolutely. And one of the things that I recommend, because I’ve heard repeatedly, and it tends to be the common communication that I’ve seen frequently, is a being Chinese woman, who has a Chinese male supervisor, and she wants to speak in English, and he wants to speak in Mandarin. And for language itself is hierarchical, versus the language itself, emphasizing the quality in English.
And so I always recommend to have your conversations in English, because you’re allowed to be direct, you’re allowed to focus on the task, you’re allowed to discuss your personal rights and needs, it changes the whole dynamic.
And so, you know, that’s kind of a not a popular – I don’t know if it’s a popular opinion, but I always say if – say that, I really want to work on if they keep switching to your native language to assume the upper hand, I really prefer to practice my English in the workplace, I really don’t get a lot of opportunities, whatever. But bringing in that whole native language, native culture, then it’s very hard to be using a different one.

Lauren Supraner
One thing that I thought is really fascinating, just from a linguistic standpoint is the growth of English due to globalization, right. So now, you have, you know, daily Zoom calls, where no one on the call is a native speaker of English, but they’re using English to communicate. And that’s now very different in many ways from native English speakers, I was just checking an email for a client that he had asked me about and I scrolled down, and it’s written from a Chinese woman from, you know, China, and she signs off like, “thank you very much, so kindly for your attention, with best and kind regards.” I mean there’s just like, “sincerely!” And so that is now an accepted norm, because that’s what high context people are agreeing that native speaker speech is pretty rude. And we don’t want to use it the way they use it. I had a soup of an I was coaching a person and I got an email from his supervisor who’s also a non-native speaker, right? And it gets confusing with the whole chain of command or non-native speakers. And she was really angry. She said, you know, what is this email below? I got this on a Saturday. What is this, he can’t write like this. This is completely inappropriate. And I scrolled down and he had written to his supervisor, “do you want to cancel the meeting? I want to cancel the meeting.”
And I was like, Oh, my God this woman is flipping out over this. And I thought, okay, you know, maybe because he’s a subordinate, I want to do you want to cancel the meeting? “I would prefer,” right, you can offer his preference.
But I said to her, it is 100%. Okay, in any context at all, for an American to ask, do you want and it is not rude. We’re actually just seeking information so we can help you. And her response was, Well, I know but I really don’t want to have him lose his kind of his kindness or whatever. And so it’s really interesting, this idea of, you know, native speakers not owning the language, which is actually kind of like a comeuppance, it’s kind of a karmic comeuppance, to have other people changing your language.
I was reading this the other day on LinkedIn, this was great, non-native speakers having a whole discussion of whether it’s “take a decision” or “make a decision.” Now I know Americans say to make a decision, I don’t really care which because my whole thing is like, if it doesn’t interfere with understanding, it’s irrelevant. That’s you’re going to understand the message either way. But there was this whole long explanation by non-native speakers who were just 100% sure that you take a decision when it’s just your own. No, no, you make a decision when it’s your own. But you take a decision when it’s two or more people, and the native speakers like what are you all talking about? Right, but the everyone’s agreeing on it. So I think it’s really just fascinating to see.

Scott Rutherford
Well, we don’t even agree on that in native English, the American “make” versus the British “take” a decision.

Lauren Supraner
Right? And it’s irrelevant. That’s the thing for me. As long as it’s understandable, I always say does the difference make a difference.

Scott Rutherford
Right, I do love the dynamic of having a group of people who are trying to operationalize absorb English as a second language, trying to make sense of some of what, frankly, are the arbitrary and nonsensical rules of the English language, I find that part of me finds that really deeply amusing

Lauren Supraner
So glad I don’t have to learn English. Like just phrasal verbs alone, I could build a whole entire life around teaching phrasal verbs.

Scott Rutherford
Probably a whole different podcast episode.

Lauren Supraner
But just in terms of the native English versus Global English, Americans need to learn Global English. They do. They can talk native English among themselves. For example, I’m a New Yorker, you don’t think I keep my mouth under control? Every time I interact with my clients? I do, because I’m really sarcastic, I’m really witty, I’m really direct. And that just doesn’t translate across cultures, you know, that’s not going to be perceived for what it’s meant. So Americans have to realize that even if we’re speaking English, we’re speaking to people with a different lens, a different orientation, and you have to adjust your own communication to be better heard by them.

Scott Rutherford
Thanks to Lauren Supraner, the founder and president of Cal Learning, a firm that’s focused on helping learners develop language skills, cultural competence, and the confidence to participate fully and successfully in a multicultural workplace. Lauren is the author of the book Accent Reduction for Chinese Speakers, which can be found along with numerous other resources on the Cal Learning website, callearning.com. If you have feedback, or if you’d like to suggest a topic for a future episode of this podcast, please use the contact link at our website, axiomlearningsolutions.com And thank you for listening to the AXIOM Insights podcast.

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