How to Best Manage Multicultural & Multilingual Meetings
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 or doesn’t care!” 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!
► Another example: 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.