February 25 2022

How to overcome the language barrier when working with international employees, suppliers, and partners

Article updated 26 Feb 2022.

The globalisation of trade and the advance of technology have accelerated international growth for many businesses. The world has also become significantly more multicultural thanks to global communication and trade. While this opens most of us up for new encounters, new food, and new colleagues, it can be difficult to deal with language and communication barriers.

As many companies are increasingly multinational, it has become more common for most people to work with colleagues from another country. Working with people from other countries can be a challenge when it comes to communication. While there may be an “official language” in the company, there will still be miscommunications from time to time. These miscommunications are more common when a large group of workers are not working in their native language. For example, if your company operates in English but is contracting with a Spanish company.

An Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) survey of nearly 600 executives from around the world revealed that 49% of them had experienced cultural and communication barriers when conducting business across international borders.

So, how do businesses overcome the language barrier to achieve effective cross-border expansion? Here are six methods that should be part of your international communications strategy.

1. Understand the Differences

There are roughly 6,500 languages spoken in the world today and thousands of unique cultures. While no-one can be expected to understand them all, it makes good business sense to be aware that one person’s needs and concerns may differ from another’s elsewhere in the world.

For example, small talk and humour are considered valuable business communication skills in some cultures—the United States and the UK, for example—and a frivolous waste of time in others, such as in Finland and Norway, where business conversation is reserved for meaningful exchanges only.

Even after translation, it’s easy to see how a business interaction could be misunderstood. To communicate effectively with people beyond your own borders, it’s essential to address cultural as well as linguistic differences.

2. Create a Common Culture

As well as adapting communications to suit a diverse range of local norms, there is also a need for a dispersed global team to adopt corporate-wide norms. This corporate culture provides a shared environment in which global communications can take place effectively.

For example, L’Oréal, the world’s largest cosmetics company, has implemented a company-wide technique called Managing Confrontation to provide its global team with a systematic approach to expressing themselves during the decision-making process. This allows employees who normally work in a subservient, hierarchical structure to contribute on equal terms with employees who are more used to sharing thoughts and ideas freely without fear of rebuke.

By creating a common, company-wide culture, L’Oréal reduces the likelihood of cultural misunderstandings and enables individuals from around the world to make a positive contribution within the organisation, regardless of the expectations of their local culture.

This approach can also extend to a common corporate language, where particular words and expressions are clearly defined to ensure there is no unnecessary confusion or unintended confrontation.

For example, if engineers in a company use different words to describe the same component or process, there are bound to be misunderstandings. Using standardized, clearly defined terms instead enhances the efficiency and effectiveness of their work.

3. Keep it Simple (KISS)

If your international business communications are riddled with complex language and jargon, or are full of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, it’s not surprising that even a fluent speaker of the language may misinterpret the intended message.

To communicate successfully, especially with a non-native speaker, keep your message clear and proofread everything beforehand. This is a good lesson for all written exchanges, not just international communications.

4. Be a Multilingual Organisation

One of the most fundamental ways for an international business to demonstrate a commitment to its employees, customers, and partners around the world is to create multilingual online content.

Whether it’s a customer-facing website or a company-wide intranet/extranet used by employees and partners, successfully localized content is important for all aspects of business communication, providing a visible, readable embodiment of a brand’s message and ethos.

Communicating in the native language of each market in which a business operates, with an intrinsic understanding of each local culture, not only showcases the company around the world, but it also creates a cultural comfort zone for users in each market.

When implemented effectively, the company will be considered local by people in different parts of the world, will rank on local search engines, and will become part of the local culture itself.

5. Be Multiplatform

In today’s multimedia world, international communications should not be limited to just one or two channels. Cross-cultural interactions can take place via newsletters, brochures, videos, online material, and social media.

Communication using all of these methods in your partners’ native language helps to facilitate a deep level of engagement. In each case, you must convey your company’s brand while simultaneously taking regional cultural nuances into account. This means foregoing literal, word-for-word translations in favour of more thoughtful messaging that genuinely considers your audience.

For example, international news and media company BuzzFeed posted an article in some of its territories titled 24 Things Men Will Never Understand. The version that was localised for Brazil ended up being 20 Things Men Will Never Understand. Culture and tradition meant that four of the points didn’t apply in Brazil.

6. Partner with Professionals

Dealing with the translation of often complex business communications can result in mix-ups and mistakes, as well as unintentional impoliteness and offence. If not properly handled, this can impact productivity and damage prospects with clients and business partners, which could permanently stall a business’s attempts to enter overseas markets.

No-one knows your company, its goals, culture and mission more than your own employees, so why not enable them to become professional communicators and help them on their learning journey at the same time!

Partnering with a language and communications service provider with expertise in your industry can be a very worthwhile investment.


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