Foreign-Born Professionals in American Business:
Communication Breakdowns Can Take a Heavy Toll
by Maria Guida
© copyright 2005 by Successful Speaker, Inc. All rights reserved.
Reprinted from HR Techknow
(Published by the Society for Human Resource Management)
Directors of Human Resources and Training routinely contact me with compelling tales of the communication challenges of some of the foreign-born professionals at their organizations and the negative impact these problems have on business relationships and the projection of a positive professional image.
When a Foreign Accent Isn’t Charming
The foreign-born professional with a significant pronunciation problem can cause distraction, confusion, and misunderstanding in business conversations, meetings, presentations, and phone discussions. Most non-native speakers of English do not receive the benefit of separate pronunciation classes during their study of English in the native country. To compound the problem, many who do attend such classes study with instructors who, themselves, are non-native speakers of English, speak English with a foreign accent, and have nevertheless been hired to teach American English pronunciation! One of the many difficulties faced by native speakers of other languages is that American English is not pronounced the way it is spelled. Without proper training, many foreign-born speakers use our spelling system as a pronunciation guide. This strategy usually causes mispronunciation and/or miscommunication, which can jeopardize one’s professional image.
Krzysztof, a network engineer from Europe, had speech problems with clearly traceable causes. His miscomprehension when Americans used contractions in speech and his mispronunciation of numbers were the source of professional embarrassment and costly delays within his department. Krzysztof had the responsibility of ordering thirteen new computers for his department. When all the equipment had been delivered, he discovered that the department had received thirty computers. The American listeners who had been involved in the ordering process were sure that Krzysztof had ordered thirty computers and their paperwork reflected this, but Krzysztof was sure that he had said the number “thirteen”. It became obvious that he had trouble pronouncing the number. True, the purchase order had not been checked carefully enough, but the initial problem happened in conversation and was caused by Krzysztof’s mispronunciation.
On another occasion, Krzysztof asked a colleague about software that she intended to use on a specific project. The co-worker said, “I don’t have it”, but Krzysztof understood “I have it.” Krzysztof’s inability to comprehend the contraction “don’t” in rapid speech had a direct correlation to his difficulty pronouncing that contraction. (The way one understands spoken English is closely related to the way one pronounces it, and vice versa.) Krzysztof’s listening comprehension problem caused major delays within his department, because he failed to deliver the software script that was needed immediately.
Krzysztof later confided that he felt guilty and embarrassed about these situations and worried about appearing to be unreliable because of his pronunciation difficulties. He finally said, “Situations like these make me feel less intelligent and prevent me from making the best impression for my company.”
While it is seldom admitted, many Americans subconsciously limit (or even avoid) conversations with foreign-born professionals who have significant pronunciation problems. Sometimes, this appears to be happening even when it is not. Whether real or imagined, conversation barriers can damage business relationships.
Tova, a chemist and researcher working for an American pharmaceutical company, wanted to reduce her foreign accent after her new boss asked her to describe a seminar she had attended. After listening to her detailed account, the boss said, “Well, I still have no idea what the seminar was about. But, anyway, have a good weekend.”
Tova was disappointed that her boss never again mentioned the seminar. In fact, after a number of conversations, it seemed to Tova that her boss was engaging her in conversation less and less frequently. Tova said, “I believe that my boss feels that it’s so difficult to communicate with me, that he wants to talk with me as little as possible. The result is that I have lost opportunities to talk with him and improve my work.”
Even if Tova was mistaken about her boss’s attitude, she certainly had a problem. Tova’s perception of the boss’s behavior impacted her relationship with him, her self-confidence as a communicator, and her effectiveness on the job.
Business Conversation and Writing
Choosing appropriate words and setting the right tone in American business communication are difficult assignments (far more sophisticated than, for example, using correct grammar). These tasks require a wide vocabulary, a deep understanding of cultural norms, and the ability to “finesse” American phrases to suit a given business communication situation.
Jen’s story is not uncommon among foreign-born professionals in the American workplace. She sought help for a type of communication that challenges many immigrants and ex-patriots. Born and raised in Asia, Jen was a senior computer programmer working for a large American firm. Her problems with English were the direct cause of professional embarrassment to herself, her boss, and her whole department.
While working with a number of computer consultants, Jen realized that the consultants were not doing a good job in coding and that the project they were working on would be delayed. Jen felt it necessary to e-mail her supervisor about the problem. She did not want to write harshly about the consultants and, at the same time, did not want her boss to fault her own performance as project supervisor. Jen’s problem was clear: how could she write assertively and tactfully at the same time? Unsure of which American words/phrases to choose, Jen sought help from an American consultant from another group.
“I thought that my helper did a wonderful job,” Jen said. “But the next day, I got a call from by boss, who asked me if someone had helped me write the e-mail. I was so embarrassed! My boss said that I should never have told that consultant the details of the project or mentioned the problems we were having. It turned out that the American consultant who “helped” me was someone whose bid for the project was rejected in the beginning, and he was very happy to make our consultants look bad.”
Jen’s next comment went to the heart of the matter. “I felt so foolish for what I had done,” she said. “If I hadn’t had a problem with English, I would never have asked for that consultant’s help in the first place.”
Mastering the conventions of American business communication is no easy task, because the communicator’s purpose, level of formality, and relationship to the listener/reader all significantly affect communication style. Native-like proficiency in English is seldom achieved solely by living and working in the United States.
How Training Can Help
Sadly, costly communication breakdowns and related troubles with English often continue in business without being addressed. Many corporate decision-makers are unaware that good training can be very effective in solving communication problems. Human Resource and Training professionals should consider
- the broad scope of linguistic and pronunciation challenges that English presents to native speakers of other languages
- the close relationship between American culture and the way we use English
- the often poor quality of English language teaching abroad
Unfortunately, it takes much longer to become a successful communicator in English than most people recognize.
When American companies hire foreign-born professionals, they can help to ensure success by honoring the fact that language and culture are two sides of the same coin. Two areas that are most often associated with cultural differences are values and politics. Less obvious, but equally true, is that our grammar, usage, and communication style are all influenced by culture and by the way we see the world.
The way we use American English reflects a distinctly American point of view. For example, one American notion of things around us is that they can either be counted or not counted. This affects grammatical structure and the way we use articles, nouns, and even verbs in English. Consider the following examples. We do not add an “s” to pluralize the word “furniture”, and certain English nouns (such as “patience”, “Catholicism”, and “tennis”) are never conceptualized or expressed as plural. The concept of count/noncount nouns is not shared by people of every culture, however, and many languages do not reflect this concept at all.
When compared with that of some cultures, American communication style is generally viewed to be quite direct and assertive. Many foreign-born women who have been conditioned by their native cultures to be reserved or soft-spoken are challenged by corporate America’s expectation of directness and assertiveness (and sometimes even a volume level they are not comfortable using). Men, too, are challenged by American norms of communication. One common example is the foreign-born male professional who, in an attempt to be “polite”, misuses (or even avoids using) the word “should”, because he does not know what is linguistically correct in a particular situation.
It is very difficult to learn an aspect of American English grammar, usage, or communication style when one has no point of reference for the world view that formed it. The metaphorical “switch” inside the brain that must be “flipped” in order to communicate in a second language is connected to a vast and complex territory. Not surprisingly, some studies have revealed superior intelligence in people who are truly bilingual or multilingual. It is a tall order for the brain, requiring time and training.
The cost of neglecting communication problems is too great to ignore. Foreign-born professionals in American business have an opportunity to contribute fully to their organizations when they receive the necessary support. Effective communication skills training programs create a win-win situation for corporations and for their personnel who have come to the United States to share their professional expertise.
© copyright 2005 by Maria Guida. All rights reserved.