Do you expect to be comfortable using English as a second language when writing an email, making a phone call, expressing yourself during a meeting, writing a report, giving a presentation, and so on? Which gives you the most discomfort — writing in English or speaking in English? Are you more uncomfortable with certain individuals, in front of small groups or large groups? Are you more comfortable with people you work with frequently or those you work with infrequently?
My clients give me many explanations for their discomfort. For example, some are convinced that if they just had enough vocabulary or the mastery of complex verb tenses, they would be comfortable. Others say that they are intimidated by native English colleagues who speak too quickly or unclearly. Others are convinced that they lack confidence in front of groups. What is your explanation for your discomfort?
While I am not saying that practical linguistic competences are not needed, and a large part of what I do is to equip my clients with those competences, something else is needed. If you want to do something that will make a much bigger difference than anything else, then examine your discomfort.
In the face of the unknown or the unfamiliar, human beings experience discomfort. As you are already aware, there are countless differences within intercultural business contexts that you are constantly being challenged to adapt to: different accents, different body language, different tones of voice, different cultural communication styles and different professional standards, to name just a few. In fact, with all that going on, it is actually unrealistic to expect non-stop comfort.
The big “secret” within intercultural business contexts is how uncomfortable everyone is but pretends to not be. This is rarely spoken of directly. Instead, we often silently blame our discomfort on others. They are talking too loudly or too softly. They are too aggressive or not assertive enough. They are standing too close or not close enough. They are making too much eye contact, or too little eye contact. They are too much of this, and not enough of that.
As you know, you have no power to change any of that. Others will speak the way they speak and use the body language they use and respond the way they do on cultural autopilot, like you do. Just because you are all speaking English does not mean that you leave your cultural communication habits behind. They are part of you and how you communicate, just as they are part of everyone’s communication style. Our culture speaks through us whether we are using English as a native or second language.
So amidst all our differences, this is something fundamental that we share universally: experiencing discomfort, explaining our discomfort and trying to “solve” our discomfort. Once you look at discomfort in this light, you realize that you will never “solve” discomfort. As we say in English, it goes with the territory. In other words, within intercultural business contexts you will always experience discomfort in certain situations.
Accepting that discomfort is normal and that there is nothing to fix or hide, and no one to blame, can be a huge relief. Acceptance does not mean that you will ever like discomfort. I’m sure all human beings prefer to feel comfortable all the time but that is an unrealistic expectation.
However, if that is your current expectation, I recommend that you practice accepting discomfort, instead. This will take practice, since acceptance of discomfort does not come naturally to most of us. So if your goal has been to eliminate or avoid discomfort, I encourage you to set a new one: accept discomfort.