How to Best Manage Multicultural & Multilingual Meetings
The importance and difficulties of knowing how to communicate with people with different languages and cultures
It is no secret that communicating with people from other countries has become more and more frequent. First because it’s getting easier but also (or at least one can hope) because it’s being recognized as something necessary. If we focus on business for instance (we could do the same with school, research, etc.) we can easily see that these relationships offer several advantages that also are impossible to obtain when dealing with people from a single country:
□ Reaching new markets through export (contact with foreign customers, distributors…)
□ Reducing costs or increasing a product’s quality through import (contact with foreign suppliers, with government agencies from different countries…)
□ Benefiting from new ideas, new skills, new sources of knowledge and experience by working with international teams (contact with the foreign members, locally or remotely)
These people however often have a different mother tongue and cultural background from us – two very important things to remember when trying to communicate in the best possible way. After all, getting one’s message through isn’t always easy when speaking the same language and sharing the same culture (how many times have we thought we were understood only to find out that the results aren’t the ones we expected? How many times our explanations can’t seem to be understood despite their simplicity? How many times do we experience difficulties in understanding a question to be able to answer in a clear and precise manner?), but it becomes downright difficult when we add differences in the languages spoken, a common language with various levels of mastery (for example natives on one side but not on the other, or a language that is nobody’s mother tongue with each person having his or her own level of mastery) along with different cultures (various expectations, ways of communicating, ways of speaking, etc.).
In order to make full use of the advantages that come with having international contacts, one needs to know how to handle the difficulties related. This article is here for precisely this purpose. It lists several aspects one should pay attention to during meetings that gather people from different cultural contexts and speaking different languages along with a couple of tips on how to best manage the meeting to facilitate communication and ensure the message goes through (note that a significant part of the challenges and tips listed here are also valid in other situations where communication proves difficult).
Some elements typical of multicultural and multilingual meetings along with the related risks
The first thing to think about when dealing with multicultural & multilingual meetings is without a doubt the differences in the languages spoken by the participants. This is something concrete, easy to identify (people only need to start speaking!) and with immediate consequences – if we don’t speak the same language we don’t understand each other. That’s also why this is the least problematic aspect. Any difficulty posed by differences in the language used is obvious and the participants will quite naturally look for a solution, several of them being quite common (language courses, translation, interpretation…).
Nevertheless let’s look at some scenarios and the risks associated with each and that we perhaps don’t think about:
Scenario 1: No common language between the participants
The most obvious solution is to use an interpreter. Although this will indeed deal with the language problem, it won’t be as efficient in dealing with cultural aspects as we’ll see in the following part of this article.
• Example 1: when a Japanese says “hai”, the interpreter will most likely translate it by “yes”, which is the literal translation. However when we know that Japanese people seldom say “no” even when disagreeing, can we truly assume the message went through?
• Example 2: interpreting a Swede that shies away from a heated debate among French people and doesn’t open his mouth certainly won’t help!
Scenario 2: A common language that isn’t the mother tongue of at least one of the participants
○ The participants that don’t have the common language as their mother tongue may make mistakes when using it, with more or less severe consequences.
• For instance: the word “globalement” in French can be used, though it seldom is, to designate a global phenomenon (“globally”) but also to wrap up and summarize one’s speech (“all in all”). Some French speaking English may tend to use “globally” when they actually mean “all in all”. Add to this a couple of conflict-avoiding Swedes who won’t highlight the lack of logic in the sentence or some Americans with English as their mother tongue and who don’t know French and thus cannot guess where the mistake comes from, and you’ll easily picture how a misunderstanding can happen!
○ The case of participants that “speak the language well enough”: there are of course several levels of mastery of a foreign language and we’re talking here about the specific case of people who speak the language of the meeting with no real problems but who could still find it difficult to say what they have to say, especially when faced with native speakers.
• We’ll quite logically assume that the person in front of us will have no real problem expressing him or herself during the coming meeting (and that an interpreter is not necessary) if we’ve already talked via e-mail, over the phone or even face to face. And yet, a meeting is quite a different context from the day-to-day life: more stressful, with objectives, decisions to make, arguments to present, perhaps even some debates… If some participants truly master the language (because it is their mother tongue for example) then it can prove difficult for someone who speaks “well enough” to take his or her place in the conversation. This person will most likely follow the discussion without any problem but may have a harder time actively participating. He would almost need to ask everyone to stay quiet to give himself time to expose his ideas!
The risk is then that competent people won’t speak up (let’s not forget that the level of intercultural & language skills has nothing to do with the person’s skills for his job) or that their lack of participation is interpreted as a lack of interest or as silent approval, which can be even worse (the “he speaks the language well enough so if he doesn’t say anything then it’s probably because he has nothing to say!” syndrome).
The second element to take into account when managing multicultural and multilingual meetings is the cultures of the participants. This is something much more theoretical than languages and much more difficult to identify since it is not obvious at first. Besides, the consequences often take some time to appear and remain more or less indirect (meaning that when problems arise it is difficult to link them to culture-based difficulties).
All of this leads to a general underestimation of the impact of the culture when communicating, even more so when the participants come from cultures that are considered “close” (European culture, western culture…) and/or when there’s a common language (the typical “we understand what the others say so the message obviously gets through” assumption, which is wrong as we’ll see further down: differences in expectations, in the use of the language, in non-verbal communication which accounts for at least 50% of the message, meaning it is as important, if not more, than what is actually said, etc.). On top of this the solutions are much less widespread and known than for languages and often demand long-term work and/or human skills that are difficult to teach (humility, open-mindedness, patience, tolerance…).
In the end it all contributes to making this aspect much more of a problem than the language.
Let’s have a look at some elements that are different from one culture to another and may lead to tensions, the wrong interpretation of the participants’ behavior, the wrong “reading of the room”, difficulties to earn your counterparts’ trust and respect and any other form of misunderstandings:
Potential misunderstanding 1: the goal of the meeting
Did we come to share information? Take a decision? Learn to know each other?
The goal of the meeting is one of the main sources of misunderstandings because although the participants all come with a clear idea of why they’re here, they assume (often unconsciously) that it’s the same for everyone, whereas that isn’t necessarily the case.
• Decisions in Sweden for instance are often consensus-based, which means they demand a meeting to be taken. Managers in France would instead tend to decide on their own (the meeting being used to exchange ideas).
• Still in France, a meeting that brings together people from different hierarchical levels will look a lot like top-to-bottom information-sharing rather than a discussion.
• During a first meeting, the Chinese will want to get to know their counterparts first and foremost. It’s useless to try to reach an agreement at that time! And the list of examples goes on.
Potential misunderstanding 2: ways of communicating
Is it best to keep a calm and neutral attitude at all times? Should I look the other person in the eyes? Can I oppose and debate with the other participants?
Each culture has its own way of communicating and it’s very easy to misunderstand the resulting behaviors.
• The French for example will want to expose their ideas, their arguments, then look for a debate and won’t hesitate to show their emotions. It’s easy for them to translate the stoicism of their Swedish counterparts as a lack of interest, just as the Swedes will tend to see this display of emotions as a lack of professionalism. And we’re not even talking about their reluctance at entering any form of debate!
• What happens when participants whose culture values looking other people in the eyes (a sign of attention, self-confidence and respect) meet with people who see this as aggressive? Answer: communication doesn’t work.
Potential misunderstanding 3: ways of speaking
Should I count on the other person’s knowledge and only share with him/her what’s absolutely necessary? Should I pick my words carefully and consider their impact on the other person?
The words we can/should or can’t/shouldn’t pronounce change from one culture to the next.
• Participants from the Far East (Japan, Korea, China, and even Sweden to some extent) will try to avoid using the word “no” or to oppose their counterpart, even if they disagree. Consequently their “yes” is closer to “I hear you/I understand” than “I agree”. In general, so-called “diplomatic” cultures will beat around the bush and seem unclear to more direct cultures which, in turn, will seem aggressive or as lacking refinement.
• We could also mention the “High/Low Context” concept introduced by Edward T. Hall where he explains that the amount of information shared for a given message/objective will vary between cultures, leading some people to explaining too much and others not enough.
And so understanding what’s being pronounced is very different from understanding what’s being said (which brings us back to the limitations of an interpreter as introduced previously).
Potential misunderstanding 4: relation to time
Is it mandatory to be on time? Are the other participants ready to stay longer than what was planned?
The notion of what’s acceptable or not when it comes to the time devoted to a meeting is one of the major sources of tensions among people with different cultures. Mostly because this is deeply unconscious.
• For instance most people consider being on time as polite (in French we say that “punctuality is the mark of kings”), however not everyone does and in some cultures it can be seen as being pushy and lacking patience. Additionally, tolerance to delay is very culture-dependent too: up to 5mn is acceptable in Sweden while the French may go up to 15mn (not even counting a non-professional context, like a party, where you shouldn’t be on time!).
• We could also mention the time allocated to the meeting: the Swedes will tend to stick to what was planned and try to do a maximum during that time with the idea that everyone’s time is valuable and that one can’t ask more from people than what was planned. On the other hand the French won’t hesitate to expand the meeting’s duration if they believe a better solution can be reached or if they enjoy the company of the other participants and wish to spend more time with them.
How to best manage multicultural & multilingual meetings
The previous part allowed us to highlight several sources of potential misunderstandings with language and culture differences as a base. To some, it may seem like too much to deal with, and it certainly demands some work to overcome the difficulties, not even counting the fact the results are uncertain and often appear on the long-term.
Yet here are a couple of tips to help limit communication problems between participants with different languages and cultures:
Tip 1: remember to gather information about the participants’ language and culture, but also yours!
To be truly efficient one must become aware of one’s own level of mastery of the common language along with every other things that happen when we communicate and that are mostly unconscious (expectations, behaviors, values, rules…). That is the only way you can identify (before or during the meeting) the differences between the others and yourself and thus potential sources of misunderstandings along with possible solutions.
So it’s not enough to know who you’re dealing with – you need to know yourself too.
Tip 2: try to prepare/study as much as possible before the meeting
Ask yourself the following questions for instance and look for answers:
□ Do the participants share a common language? What’s their level of mastery?
□ Do we need an interpreter (and for whom)?
□ Is there a risk that some participants will find it hard to actively participate in the conversation (or is there a risk that their contribution will be misunderstood)?
□ Do I know the expectations of the meeting’s participants?
□ What do I know about the way I communicate and the way the others do?
□ What do I know about my relation to time and the others’?
By gathering those information as early as possible you’ll be able to clarify and agree on many things beforehand (both internally and externally). You’ll perhaps even be able to reorganize certain aspects (who comes, duration, location…), and in the end you’ll help reduce the number of difficulties once the meeting starts.
The point, however, is not to force your way of doing things onto others or to be the slave of their ways of doing. It’s all about looking at how they do things, how you do things and then finding some kind of compromise that takes into account external constraints.
For example is you’re only staying in China for a couple of days, can you truly afford to use 75% of the meetings planned to build relationships? Or on the contrary, is it wise to only stay so little time in China if you know you must start by building relationships?
Tip 3: plan some facilitation/control work during the meeting
Even if you’re well prepared it’s important to pay attention to how the meeting goes to make sure no misunderstanding is allowed to develop. For example:
□ Make sure everyone has an opportunity to speak up and especially the participants that have been identified as having the most difficulties to take part in the discussion (which assumes some work beforehand to identify these people). If necessary, ask the person directly for his or her opinion, especially when the topic is about his/her expertise or if he/she seems to want to talk.
□ Make sure questions are understood and lead to relevant answers that are understood as well. In this case it can be helpful to rephrase or paraphrase questions and answers just to ensure they’ve been understood by everyone.
□ Since it can prove difficult to “read the room” or the participants’ behavior correctly, don’t hesitate to clarify anything that goes without saying or that is implied. In the same manner, ask for a clarification of anything ambiguous (especially people’s reactions and behaviors). As a French person, it may be enough to say “we’re ready to extend the duration of this meeting to find an answer. What about you?” to your Swedish counterparts to elicit a much nicer reaction than by extending de facto. Or to ask “do you understand how important this task is?” rather than taking their calmness for a lack of interest.
□ Have people repeat anything that isn’t clear. If necessary, rephrase it to ensure everyone understands the same thing (especially when there’s a language mistake – a sentence that is grammatically wrong may instill doubt in the audience’s mind whereas everyone actually agrees!)
Tip 4: get some help!
All the information necessary to properly manage a multicultural & multilingual meeting can be found via training programs – I have for example given French courses and educated professionals about the French culture.
The best solution however remains to call upon a consultant who knows about intercultural communication and especially the languages and cultures that will be found during the meeting. This person can help prepare the meeting beforehand (by asking the right questions, providing relevant answers, identifying sources of potential misunderstandings, etc.) but also – and this is even more important – he or she can participate in the meeting itself as a “moderator” who allows the participants to fully focus on what they have to say while ensuring that the message goes through (which basically means fulfilling the role described above).
Even better yet, his/her knowledge will allow him/her, among other things, to act as an interpreter to correct or rephrase sentences that aren’t understood because they’re wrong, his/her ability to correctly “read the room”/understand non-verbal communication will help steering the conversation in the right direction (“you should elaborate on aspect X because the audience is skeptical”, “please, tell us whether you agree with Y”, “Is this clear? Do you have questions?”, etc.), and so on. By contrast a non-specialist will have to stick with the method of clarifying his speech as best he can while staying focused on the meeting’s content.
Working with people from a different linguistic and cultural background from one’s own opens up fantastic opportunities but isn’t an easy thing. We’ve been through the specific case of multilingual & multicultural meetings and saw that one must remember many things on top of what must be kept in mind for any kind of meeting if he/she doesn’t want the project to fail on the shorter or longer term: teams that don’t cooperate, conflicts, loss of customers or difficulties to gain new ones, negotiations that fail…
The solutions aren’t easy to implement either, mostly because many elements listed above are unconscious. And so one needs time, experience, specific knowledge, a lot of empathy and to build new reflexes for oneself – reflexes that aren’t natural because they aren’t needed in a monocultural and/or monolingual context.
The best option thus remains to take on an open attitude and mindset, to study properly every piece of information available regarding the cultures one will be dealing with, to have a solid knowledge of the common language, to be deeply honest with oneself and one’s culture… and to get help from a professional!
Now what about you dear reader? What’s your experience of meetings gathering people with different cultures and languages? Do you agree with the difficulties listed here? Have you encountered other challenges? Do you think it’s necessary to deal with this kind of meetings in a different way than with monocultural/monolingual meetings? Why or why not?
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