Speaking, writing and listening seem complex when you use English as a foreign language within an intercultural business context. You can feel like you are swimming in a sea of words. When I introduced this water metaphor in one of my intercultural communication seminars, a participant joked that sometimes it felt more to him like he was “drowning” in a sea of words.
I understood what he meant, because when you view communication as just vocabulary and grammar, it can truly feel overwhelming. There will always be more words and grammatical structures that you do not know. It really is like a bottomless sea.
In addition, when you focus on all the differences that arise within intercultural business situations, you can get even more discouraged. The good news is that there are some simple and fundamental things that we all share in common, which you may currently fail to see.
There are five things that all cultures share. Regardless of your cultural background or the language you speak, you coordinate activities with others in the following five ways:
These five speech acts – requests, offers, promises, declarations and opinions – allow us all to coordinate activities with each other. We were all able to use speech acts when we were children, long before starting school. So for all of us they are the fundamental building blocks of communication. We all use them in our everyday life, as well as to conduct business locally, nationally and globally.
So the sea of words is channeled into five distinct speech acts, or speech streams as I like to call them, to continue with my water metaphor. They are a part of everybody’s native language and are included in most foreign language training methods. By using them, we work together effectively within an intercultural business context. Regardless of the language we are using, we all understand this simple universal language.
Seen from this perspective, communication is actually very simple and we are not all that different after all. The world over, we all swim in a sea of words.