Define Your Terms to Solve Cross-Cultural Communication Problems

By Ethan Becker, author of Mastering Communication at Work

So you think you can do business internationally just because you send your employees overseas? You’ve sent your employees to the HR cross cultural class. They learned how to kiss, bow, and shake hands, and now you’re ready to do business internationally, right?

But … wait. Something’s wrong. Why isn’t your international business thriving? Why are you still running into problems with your international counterparts telling you “yes” one day and then not following through?

After working with clients in South East Asia since the 1990’s and living in Malaysia with my family for almost a year conducting research and coaching senior leaders of some of the largest organizations in the region, I’ve gained insight into this pesky long-lasting conundrum that so many international teams have faced: cross-cultural communication problems. Not only have I explored the communication psyche of the senior level executive, but I’ve also studied the perspectives of the multiple levels throughout the ranks. So my insight into this problem is well rounded. I’ll share the problem, and most importantly, how to help minimize it.

The Problem.

The cross-cultural communications problem is a breakdown in the meaning of verbal language and body language. Here are some examples:

• A manager from India speaking to a colleague from the United States comes across as condescending and arrogant without knowing he is conveying that attitude. The Indian feels he is simply showing confidence. To the American, he is being offensive. The American doesn’t respect the manager. How likely is it that the two can form a productive working relationship?

• A man from Singapore meets with a woman from the United States. To him, research means that, if three friends agree on something, it’s a fact. To her, research means paying a firm $50,000 to call and poll people for a month. The man and the woman leave the meeting in agreement that they will research a new product and then go to market with it, but they never discuss the meaning of the term “research.” What do you think will happen when they meet again at the end of the month to do a progress check?

• A manager from Germany delegates a critical job to an Asian subordinate. The subordinate says “yes” after the delegation is complete. Upon the due date, the work is not done. The manager asks “Where is the work?” The subordinate replies, “It’s on my desk.” The manager continues, “Is it done?” Subordinate: “Yes.” Manager: “Can I have it?” Subordinate: “Yes.” Manager: “so where is it?” Subordinate: “On my desk.” Manager: “So why is it on your desk?” Subordinate: “Because I’m still working on it.” Manager: “But you said it was done.” Subordinate: “Yes.”… Sound familiar? The manager becomes frustrated and associates the “yes” comment with deception or incompetence. In reality, it’s a fear of sharing bad news with a source of authority. How can the German manager foster an environment where the Asian subordinate is comfortable enough to transcend her upbringing about disappointing authority to be honest?

• A woman from Malaysia meets with a man from England. They are designing an event for the company. The man from England is discussing the take-aways from the event, and he is referring to lessons that people take away and retain. The woman from Malaysia believes that “take-aways” refer to hand-outs and gifts that people will take away from the event. Do you think the meeting is a productive one or simply causes confusion?

The Fix.

Fortunately, there’s a fix for cross-cultural communication problems. It involves these three actions:

1. Paraphrase. Repeat what others say in your own words to confirm your understanding.

2. Define terms. When it’s your turn to speak, invest time in creating common definitions of terms. It’s okay to stop the flow of the meeting to do so. Taking time now to define your terms – even if it’s only by asking a simple question such as “what do we mean by take-away,” and then answering it – can save time and energy later on. Be patient, and plan for extra time for this.

3. Never assume. Don’t take it for granted that everyone is using terms in the same way. Tone of voice may suggest understanding, but that doesn’t prove that you’re on the same page, so always double-check.

It’s true that communication problems can crop up in non-multicultural environments. But in multicultural environments, communication problems are significantly worse. If you’re prepared for them, you’ll avoid costly communication breakdowns and strengthen productivity in meetings.

Pay attention to the fix, and you’ll thrive. Don’t, and you’re wasting valuable time.

Ethan F. Becker is the author of “Mastering Communication at Work” (McGraw-Hill) and President of The Speech Improvement Company. Visit him online at

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