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Virtual Working: Are you Minding your Language?

Matthew MacLachlan

22 May 2017

In today’s increasingly competitive, technological and interconnected business environment, global organisations rely heavily on virtual working to keep their operations running around the world.

Conference calls, web meetings, and emails are the cornerstone of international business interactions and enable us to communicate across borders with virtually no cost. When done effectively, virtual working brings disparate teams together, enhances innovation and improves work-life balance.

Virtual working – Are your virtual meetings similar to this Youtube parody?

This video has been doing the rounds for several years now. We have all experienced some if not all of the types of barriers and interruptions that occur in this video.

Globish – Are you speaking the right language? 

In addition to some of the technological (and animal) challenges that can be seen in the above video, companies are facing several other challenges resulting from virtual working. Among the most common is language.

When working across cultures, English is commonly the most used language in business. Unfortunately, we tend to forget that it might not be the mother tongue of many people we’re working with, and that might cause significant misunderstandings.

The use of idioms, subordinates, phrasal verbs or double negations when speaking to or emailing a non-native speaker can cause miscommunication and ambiguity.

That is why Globish – a simplified version of native English – is preferred by people working internationally and has been used in publications and business courses.

Also, a great amount of the meaning is expressed by tone of voice or facial gestures, so goodwill and patience are often not enough to fully understand what something means when we lack non-verbal cues in virtual communication.

The use of idioms, subordinates, phrasal verbs or double negations when emailing a non-native speaker can cause miscommunication and ambiguity

Writers often overestimate their ability to communicate as readers overestimate their ability to decode messages. An inappropriate use of language may cause confusion and miscommunication, but many strategies can be carried out and developed by a team working together to make the most of a common language without losing anything along the way.

Writers often overstimate their ability to communicate as readers overstimate their ability to decode messages

The communication style – how much do we say?

When considering the impact of culture on communication, Edward T. Hall’s theory of high and low context cultures may help us to get an insight into the huge differences people from different cultural backgrounds might experience.

  • High context cultures, including those in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America are relational, collectivist, intuitive and contemplative. In a business environment, their communication tends to be formal and indirect and is characterised by a flowery language. The burden of the meaning falls on the listener to understand and interpret the message.
  • Quite the reverse, low context cultures such as those in North America and much of Western Europe are logical, individualistic and action-oriented; their way of communication in business is more concise, straightforward and aims to be efficient. The responsibility, in this case, falls on the speaker, who has to convey the meaning accurately.

Low context cultures such as those in North America and much of Western Europe are logical, individualistic and action-oriented

It is not difficult to imagine what kind of situations and misunderstandings are likely to arise when counterparts from cultures showing differences in their communication styles try to communicate virtually.

High context cultures, including those in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America are generally relational, collectivist, intuitive and contemplative

The reader’s interpretation of a given message might be quite different from the original writer’s intention.

Directness can be interpreted as impoliteness and indirectness as vagueness or insecurity. An important amount of information can be missed when implicit or when one is not able to distinguish between different degrees of commitment.

Words run deep

Different cultural values generate different attitudes towards factors affecting communication processes

Writers are often under pressure and deal with emails as though they were speaking to anyone in the office without thinking of how a person from another culture might perceive or interpret their writing choices.

That’s why many people think that paying attention to the process and being careful with what is being communicated might be a good solution.

But even trying to make the writer read their emails from the recipient’s perspective can be tricky. Many of these problems have further implications: what is appropriate in one culture often is not in another.

Different cultural values generate different attitudes towards factors affecting communication processes which complicate all kinds of communication and especially the communication by email when it comes to:

  • Hierarchy
  • Time
  • Politeness

How to express politeness

Sentences like ‘as soon as possible’ may also be interpreted in many different ways according to the perception of time of the reader

For instance, in some places, politeness is an essential requirement to make requests or give orders, but in others, the use of polite manners can be understood as irony or mockery, since willingness to cooperate is implied in the communicative processes.

Sentences like ‘as soon as possible’ may also be interpreted in many different ways according to the perception of time of the reader and clashing attitudes towards hierarchy in a work team will probably make relationships between superiors and employees more difficult and less productive.

When these issues are not addressed properly, misunderstandings may be directly associated to the personal sphere. As a consequence, professional relationships can be seriously damaged by the rise of prejudices and the promotion of stereotype.

Frustration and low performance will follow, and the whole business can be seriously affected. Ensuring the effectiveness of communication processes in virtual working is, therefore, crucial to guarantee the success of any virtual working project.