If you listen closely, there is a unique cry for help that can be heard within intercultural businesses everywhere. Those who work within such contexts, and who use English as a second language, are confronted with predictable challenges that they must face alone.
For example, soon after I met Thierry, a manager in a large international engineering firm, he shared his story with me. He had learned English in school years before. That had been sufficient for handling the occasional short emails and brief phone calls or for saying a few words at meetings with foreign clients. These were the only communication tasks in English required of him until an unexpected merger changed everything.
When the French company that he worked for was merged with an American firm, English became the official corporate language. Suddenly he faced new challenges. For example, he had to report to managers that had varying levels of English competence and were from a variety of cultures. He was also expected to write long reports that would be circulated among employees within the company, including native English speakers. And he had to host monthly video conferences with managers from affiliates around the world. Suddenly, whatever English competences he thought he had mastered seemed pathetically inadequate.
Even though Thierry never directly said “Help!,” it was the word I heard loud and clear the first time we met. In fact, a request for help is often the subtext when those using English as a second language face a new communication challenge. When that happens, what kind of help do they need? And who can help them?
The help most frequently suggested is additional English classes. But is that enough? As Anne, a manager of a multicultural department told me candidly, “Frankly Sherwood, I have taken years of extra English classes and I am still not confident that I am communicating effectively with my multicultural team.”
I heard from Thierry and Anne what I often hear from the competent professionals I work with: when you do not know how to adapt your way of speaking and listening to intercultural business contexts, you can begin to lose confidence in your own effectiveness. Once you have achieved an upper-intermediate or advanced level of English as a second language, the problem is not solved by more English lessons. After all, if perfect grammar and a huge vocabulary were the only requirements for good communication, there would be no miscommunication between people of the same culture and language.
During my career in Canada, prior to moving to France, my focus was on providing solutions for both internal and external communication problems for corporate clients. That led me to developing solutions to the problems of communicating interculturally, which I encountered repeatedly when I began working with multinational companies in France.
Even though English was the standard language of business, I was not looking for a solution that meant everyone had to express themselves like an Anglophone. In fact, native English speakers experience intercultural communication problems as often as anyone else, because they typically don’t know how to adapt their speaking and listening to intercultural business contexts.
So the priority cannot be to simply “speak English better.” Rather, it must be communicating as clearly as possible, so that we can understand each other more completely. Why is that important? Because I am convinced that without understanding, there can be no trust. Without trust, there can be no cooperation. And without cooperation, there is no future. From my point of view, we build our future together in the words we exchange today.
Because of that, communicating effectively is not a luxury in today’s fast-paced international business environment; it is a necessity. Perhaps communicating effectively is not difficult for you in your native language and culture. However, when you face new intercultural communication challenges at work and need someone to help you, think of me. I have provided several ways for you to stay connected, through my blog, Facebook and Twitter. You can also contact me directly. In all the services I provide, my aim is to help you maximize your speaking, writing and listening skills in English as a second language for your particular intercultural context.