The first time I meet with new clients or a group of seminar participants who use English as a second language within an intercultural business context, I ask many questions that no one has ever asked them before. The first one I usually begin with is, “What is your unique communication style?” While most people cannot immediately answer that question, they are intrigued by it, since it opens the possibility of looking at something that most of us fail to notice.
Communication is like the air we breathe; it is transparent. When we are speaking our native language we all assume that how we communicate is good enough. Few of us consider that how we write, speak and listen has evolved over our lifetimes. There are five key influences that have formed our style: genetics, family, culture, education and profession. The particular blend of those influences is unique for each individual. Not surprisingly, within intercultural contexts we all bring our unique communication style to using English as a second language.
For example, at a recent international conference I listened to presentations in English about global projects and related problems between the participating French managers, German scientists, American politicians and South American engineers. If you think back to the five influences on communication style that I pointed out above, you can see that there were no common points of speaking and listening for these professionals with such diverse backgrounds, even though they were all speaking English.
What was obvious to me during that two-day conference was that no one was even aware that they had a unique communication style. Nor did it ever occur to any of them that it was not their English skills that were creating confusion and undermining their credibility; instead, it was the unique communication style that they had learned and never examined for its appropriateness to an intercultural context.
My point is not to criticize these speakers or their unique communication styles; their styles worked well in other contexts. But when contexts change, it does not make sense to just keep speaking, writing and listening in the same way. New contexts require new actions. I am convinced that we must stop ignoring the need to adapt our unique communication style to better fit whatever intercultural context in which we find ourselves.