When the iconic “Got milk?” campaign was translated into Spanish, Hispanics wanted to know why asking someone if they were lactating was so funny. Language and cultural misunderstandings in the business world could cost you a contract or block your entry into a new market unless you take the time and have the foresight to do your homework.
While a language barrier isn’t easy to fix overnight, even learning a culture or just knowing there are cultural differences can make an impact.
“A language is a lot of investment, not just for the employer but for the employee as well. However, people are more forgiving about a language barrier than if you’re perceived as rude,” says Victoria Berry, program manager of Business and Performance Development with Corporate College.
Smart Business spoke with Berry about some of the pitfalls business owners face when working with those from another culture.
What is the value of learning a new language or culture in the business world?
It has tremendous value in a global marketplace. Even as a U.S.-based company, you have employees who are dealing with overseas customers, clients and partners. There also are more than 3,000 foreign-owned companies in Ohio, 275 of which are in Northeast Ohio and employ more than 30,000 workers. Even within your own company, you can have people from different cultures working together on high-functioning and cross-functional teams. The U.S. is an anomaly when compared to the rest of the world in that having more than one language under your belt isn’t part of our culture.
On top of the more visible language barrier, cultural misunderstandings can be just as dangerous. For example, in the U.S., a high-quality brochure typically has high-gloss or thick-stock paper, but in China, that comes across as cheap; you should use a thinner paper with a no-gloss shine to it.
People tend to overlook the fact that other cultures have different expectations, especially regarding business etiquette or meetings. For instance, in China, it’s considered discourteous to take someone’s business card and not look at it, or at least pretend to read the title. As another example, you wouldn’t want to call a Mexican company between noon and 3 p.m. when businesses are closed, or discuss business during lunchtime. Following these kinds of protocols will impress people from another culture and show you at least did some background work.
What is crucial to know when dealing with foreign businesses?
It’s crucial to know the greeting and how to approach a business situation. In the U.S., we tend to be demanding and quick, assuming people are in a hurry, and therefore, we sidestep some of the formalities. In most other cultures, the friendly bonds that business executives build with others weigh heavily on whether or not they decide to do business you. This is true especially in China and many Latin American countries, where personality and whether or not they feel like they can trust you are essential factors.
Another consideration to remember is that in American culture, we’ll work through breakfast, lunch and dinner. We often have the expectation that you’re going to work until this project gets done. In many other cultures, they work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then the lights go off. Family and personal time is coveted. In the U.S., we might say, ‘Family comes first,’ but how many of us miss a Little League game to be at work?
How do you know when learning new languages and cultures is worth the resources?
Any time you can foresee that you may be doing business either out of the country or in the country where you know there’s a large population of a specific culture, you probably want to get the employees you know will be in contact with these individuals acclimated.
Which employees might benefit the most from learning a new language or culture?
Depending on the situation and business, it could be your customer service, sales personnel, human resources and/or marketing professionals. Managers and executives who are making the decisions might not need to speak the language but definitely will need to know the culture.
What should employers be looking for to help employees understand other languages, cultures, customs and etiquette?
Some have a tendency to go for the free programs that you find online, but those programs are not always worth your time. A free program, for example, might leave you without the natural fluency and dialect you need. You get what you pay for; this program might cost $200 less but you’re just getting a PDF that someone copied.
Instead, focus on programs with quality instructors and a good reputation in the education/training field. The instructors should be fluent in the language and have teaching experience. Research the organization to find a program that has a history of providing good service.
Remember, even a little knowledge will keep you from inadvertently offending someone from another culture, which brings stress and tension among team members — whether it’s a long-term team or if you’re just trying to get the contract signed so you can do business together.
Victoria Berry is program manager of Business and Performance Development with Corporate College. Reach her at (216) 987-2906 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Insights Executive Education is brought to you by Corporate College
Documents written by lawyers are often hard to understand. They’re chock-full of arcane terms, and they systematically violate every precept of the “plain language” movement.
Lawyers have only themselves to blame. Most of them can, and occasionally do, write clearly. But should you insist that your lawyer always use plain English? No, says William Maffucci, an attorney at Semanoff Ormsby Greenberg & Torchia, LLC.
Smart Business spoke with Maffucci about when to insist that your lawyer speak clearly and when, instead, to leave legalese alone.
What is plain language?
Plain language is language that a listener or reader is likely to understand.
Lawyers in the plain-language movement reject the assumptions that legalese is indispensable, that every fact recited at the beginning of an agreement must begin with ‘whereas,’ and that every affidavit must end with ‘further affiant sayeth naught.’ They begin sentences with ‘and’ and ‘but’ rather than ‘moreover’ and ‘notwithstanding the aforesaid.’ They use contractions. Even sentence fragments.
Advocates of plain language prefer small words (provided they do not compromise meaning), short sentences (but not to the point of monotony), short paragraphs (ditto), and the active tense (except when the passive tense serves a purpose). They strive to ‘omit needless words,’ but they recognize that sometimes repetition itself serves a need.
Is plain language always preferable to legalese?
In a perfect world, everyone — lawyers included — would always use plain language. Even in our imperfect world, lawyers should use plain language rather than legalese when all other things are equal. But rarely are all other things equal.
Writing an original document in plain language is hard, and excising legalese from an existing document is harder. Both take time.
Sometimes you should insist that your lawyer take that time. Clarity is critical in some documents, such as employee handbooks. Plain language is sometimes mandatory in consumer contracts. And the ability to enforce a waiver of a constitutional right often depends upon proving that the other party actually understood the waiver.
But sometimes it makes no sense to require a lawyer to spend the time necessary to express a concept with plainer language or greater concision. Common commercial documents that conform to centuries of custom in an industry are likely to be understood by people in the industry. What would requiring your lawyer to rewrite them in plain English achieve, other than a higher legal fee?
Other times, a lawyer may be unwilling to buck tradition. Every term traditionally used in deeds, for example, has at some time been interpreted by the courts. The fact that the term still appears in modern forms leads lawyers to assume that the term serves some (often unknown) purpose.
Have the courts concluded that the traditional terms always serve a purpose?
No. Occasionally the courts have declared that some of traditional conveyancing words can be omitted without consequence. So have the legislatures.
By statute in Pennsylvania, the words ‘grant and convey’ are sufficient to convey real estate, so conveyancers no longer need include the other terms traditionally used for that purpose — ‘bargain and sell, release and confirm.’ But here’s a dirty little secret of the legal profession: Very few lawyers have memorized all of the authorized shortcuts. And I don’t think any court or legislature has ever handed down an opinion or enacted a statute specifying that the continued use of a term that has been deemed to be surplusage makes the instrument ineffective.
At the same time, there have been court decisions and statutes establishing that certain boilerplate phrases (think ‘small print’) are indispensable. One statute makes it important to include in certain contracts a provision specifying that, by signing the contracts, the parties ‘intend to be legally bound.’
And court decisions have turned on the distinction in construction subcontracts between the words ‘if’ and ‘when’ in the phrases ‘pay if paid’ and ‘pay when paid.’ Lawyers share horror stories of fortunes lost in court decisions interpreting such seemingly inconsequential terms. Naturally, the lawyers develop a reluctance to change words that have been used since time immemorial.
Is there a rule of thumb for deciding when to tell you lawyer to use plain English and when to leave legalese alone?
Never stop considering the context in which a lawyer is being asked to communicate. If the lawyer is drafting a loan-participation agreement that will bind only long-established financial institutions conducting business as usual, the lawyer should not be faulted for pulling a tried-and-true template off the shelf and making no effort to clarify it. If the lawyer is drafting workplace rules for a glass factory, the lawyer should be faulted for not using the vernacular of that trade. If the lawyer is drafting an agreement by which the client’s neighbor would grant the client an easement over the neighbor’s property, the lawyer should use language that is likely to be understood not just by the client but also by the neighbor — and by future owners of the properties, if the original parties intend that the easement last in perpetuity.
Consider the additional time that your lawyer would spend to communicate more clearly to be an investment, and always ask yourself whether the investment makes sense.