Navigating Language and Cultural Barriers in the Global Workplace - Part 1

Navigating Language and Cultural Barriers in the Global Workplace - Part 1

Unraveling Common Language Misunderstandings


3 min read

Having worked in a global environment from the beginning of my career, I’ve encountered numerous situations arising from language and cultural differences. Over the years, I’ve realized the importance of maintaining an open mind, giving the benefit of the doubt, and seeking clarity earlier than later when you sense a misunderstanding. It’s not easy to speak up in these situations, but it helps resolve issues amicably and quickly.

Over the next few weeks, I aim to share a three-part series on communication challenges in the workplace and how to overcome them:

  • Part 1: Unraveling Common Language Misunderstandings

  • Part 2: Decoding Cultural Differences

  • Part 3: Essential Strategies for Global Professionals in Foreign Environments

Today, let’s dive into the first part of the series: common language misunderstandings and tips on mitigating the impact.

Language gaps non-native speakers often face are:

  1. Idiomatic Expressions: Phrases like "hit the ground running" or "ball is in your court" may baffle non-native speakers due to their non-literal translations. Many common American idioms originate from baseball and other sports, while some older ones come from sailing, military, agriculture, and card games.

  2. Phrasal Verbs: English is riddled with phrasal verbs such as "give up" or "look into." Altering the preposition can drastically change the meaning. For example, "run into" means to unexpectedly encounter someone or something, but if you change the preposition, "run over" can mean to hit something with a vehicle or to briefly review something; "run through" means to practice or rehearse, but it can also mean to pierce something with a sharp object.

  3. False Friends and Cognates: Words resembling each other in two languages can have different meanings. For example, "sensible" in English denotes "reasonable," but in French, it means "sensitive”; "actual" in English means "real or existing in fact," but it means "current" or "present” in Spanish.

  4. Formality Levels: Some languages have distinct formal and informal modes of address. Misjudging the formality level in English can lead to awkward interactions. For example, in many English-speaking countries, you generally don’t add people’s titles like “Manager Jack” or “Vice President Shekkar” when addressing them or call them “sir” or “madam/ma’am”.

  5. Active vs Passive Voice: While some cultures prefer directness, others lean towards subtlety. In English, the active voice is more straightforward and reduces confusion. For example, “I submitted the complaint.” is clearer and sounds more confident than “The complaint was submitted (by me).”

  6. Use of Emoticons: Emoticons might be standard in some cultures, but in English-speaking nations, they can be perceived as unprofessional, so it is best to avoid them unless you are having a casual exchange of messages.

Misunderstandings can lead non-native speakers to misinterpret conversations or tasks. It is important to seek clarity and encourage colleagues to use simpler language. However, since phrasal verbs have fewer cultural roots and may be more difficult to avoid for native speakers, it would be a worthy investment for non-native speakers to learn more of these expressions.

The onus isn't solely on non-native speakers. Native speakers also play a crucial role in promoting inclusivity in communication. Leaders can mitigate misunderstandings by providing language and cultural training, championing transparent communication, and nurturing a culture where employees feel comfortable asking for clarifications.

I’m excited to see more individuals and teams collaborating across the world with the global remote hiring trend in countries like the US. Using tools like Tabbi AI, more global professionals will be able to access opportunities previously unavailable to them; they will not only have increased access, but will also be able to excel in their roles.