Creating cultural identities when communicating in English - Part I
When non-native speakers communicate with business partners they often have to construct their “identities” using English or another common language. When little or nothing is known about the cultural background that someone comes from then it is important to present an identity that partners feel they can trust.
Constructing an identity in a second language doesn’t mean that you have to define a new personality; rather that your conversations reveal what your values, biases and beliefs are. The words or phrases a speaker uses help to reflect how that speaker sees him or herself and how they wish to portray themselves to their partners. Consequently, “similar” and “dissimilar” are important concepts to identify and share in order to understand and be able to react appropriately. This may mean investing more time in small talk and finding common interests to understand the other partner’s personality, or by simply being sensitive to “different ways of doing things”.
A native speaker of English brings their previous knowledge and experience of the language, but they too may have to adapt their cultural identity when working internationally. They can’t rely on native speaker knowledge about the hidden and implicit rules of communication in English as this can be culturally biased, e.g.:
“I was wondering if you would mind telling me when you are able to do the report”
This sentence can be seen as a very polite question or an instance of overly formal language serving as sarcasm. Further contextual clues may be required to decode its meaning such as voice intonation and an understanding of whether the partner culture prefers to communicate directly or indirectly. This makes “reading between the lines” in a second language an essential skill.
Equally, because much communication is virtual a lot of checking and re-checking for understanding is required, not only by email, but listening skills are also an essential component. This may result in needing to communicate more intensively “to get the job done”.
Some cultures value being talkative, yet others see silence as showing respect and giving each party time to think. In fact, clarity or being able to focus on the essence of the message, and politeness seem to be two essential factors to having a positive, friendly and constructive working relationship.
As a result, your ability to communicate in a second language now depends not on grammatical accuracy, but on your ability to create rapport, establish credibility and trust.