Software

How IT consultants can deal with language barriers

Verbal communication can be a challenge when you're working with resources all over the place as an IT consultant, but you can't abandon it entirely. Get pointers for handling this potentially dicey issue.

Clear communication is a challenge in any IT consulting engagement. Every business has its own unique culture and “language,” and you never know if what you are saying will come off as constructive give-and-take or a personal attack. Compound this persistent unease with an actual language barrier, like those you may run into while working with international dev or BPO resources, and things can get real dicey, real quick.

Obviously, you must get or pass on information precisely. But you must also build a trust relationship with all parties despite several hurdles, not the least of which is the fact that you are the “outsider” in the equation. Harsh reality: In most international sourcing relationships, there is cultural friction inside the company, and much of it centers on the use of language. If, assuming you are a native English speaker, you blurt out “I really can’t understand what you are saying” on a conference call, you are going to jump on about a dozen raw nerves.

This may seem like one of those “soft skills” that get blown out of proportion -- until it blows up on you. Strong English-language skills are considered a key professional differentiator, particularly among managers, in many international IT labor hubs. It’s no small matter to question them, even innocently. Take it from me: Having grown up in a family with deep roots in rural Kentucky, I’ve been known to slip in an occasional superfluous “r” into words (“we need to plan a trip to “WaRshington to discuss this in detail,”) and more than once I have been steamed when someone on a call feels the need to correct me or chuckle. Sure, it’s an insecurity, but it’s real.

So, what do you do when you genuinely can’t understand the spoken language of a team member in a meeting or a direct call? Often, it’s what you don’t do that counts the most. Here are three pointers that I rely on when faced with this problem; they tend to be a tad disingenuous, but then again, a lot of client wrangling is. All for the greater good.

  1. Take most of the blame for the communication problem. Simply say that you are unclear on a couple of details and would like an email follow-up. In team meetings, this will manifest itself in you pushing to establish an additional layer of meeting documentation, but that’s usually a good thing, anyway. In one-on-one conversations, it’s more work, but needed.
  2. Do not rely solely on email. Obviously, written communication is a necessary recourse when the verbal option breaks down. (In fact, it’s the backbone of any successful consulting gig.) You can limit verbal exchanges and push for more email, but completely abandoning quick phone calls sends the wrong, potentially insulting message.
  3. Do not talk to the team leader about the issue. If communication completely breaks down, this may prove necessary, but talking to the team leader about the issue should be your absolute last recourse. Your client organization is dealing with these issues; it will expect you to do the same. And if the team leader is in the international location, they’ve probably been involved in a similar breakdown over the course their career. Again, just a ton of raw nerves to be avoided here.

About

Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRe...

8 comments
Brian Barker
Brian Barker

The long term solution to the language barrier must be an international language. So which language should it be? The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese and the Americans prefer Spanish. Yet this leaves Mandarin Chinese out of the equation. A neutral non-national language which is also easy to learn is needed, and we have it with Esperanto :) Significantly Google Translate has added Esperanto to its prestigions list of 64 languages. Only a few people know about it but http://www.lernu.net is currently receiving 125,000 hits per day. That can't be bad :)

BEV KAUFMAN
BEV KAUFMAN

The tech might be the brightest star in the galaxy and know exactly how to solve my problem, but it does me no good if I can't understand a word he's saying. I had one issue that kept me going back again and again to the same tech, and I think I was actually having panic attacks whenever I've hear the boss say, "Get _________ back on the line." It would have been so much better on both of us if we had handled it through email. I would have had his words in front of me to refer to again as needed, instead of hearing them once being pronounced in such a way that I could interpret them into meaningful sounds.

avindia
avindia

Good Pointers, It is also very important that if we are more than one person with different skills on one side of the conf call,Only person should talk who has complete picture of the situation.

Suresh Mukhi
Suresh Mukhi

I am surprised that a topic like this only has 3 tips and mentions nothing about sarcasm. In many Asian cultures, American sarcasm is lost especially when said with such a straight face that it sounds literal and serious. Asians will get sarcasm if the person's facial expression conveys it as well, like with a smile or a smirk.

CIOandManager
CIOandManager

This is likely to occur as most of the younger generation who are blasting their eardrums with music at great volume... deafness! I have the misfortune to be hard of hearing and even with hearing aids it is difficult to follow rapid conversation. Most of the time I have to work out what the person said, before beginning to interpret it and formulate a response. To say the least, it is frustraing for everyone - especially when I have to ask the speaker to epeat what was said... In this instance, I definitely prefer email and sometimes even telephone conversations as my Bluetooth interface feeds the phone conversation directly through my hearing aids into my ears and amplifies the frequency ranges that I have difficulty hearing. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy - and so frustrating to see the younger generation risking their hearing like that!

v r
v r

When a British manager asked a project team to, "go commando" in its approach to a particular issue, we in America had a bit of a chuckle. I knew him well enough that I knew he did not intend to tell the Americans to dispense with wearing underwear, as the expression would be interpreted. Because his ego would not allow an American to point out the cultural interpretation, I had to gently mention the faux paux to a British colleague who passed the information to the manager. Big grins here.

Marc Jellinek
Marc Jellinek

Humor does NOT translate well across languages or cultures. This tends to be a fallback when things get tense, but can actually make things MUCH worse if the joke bombs (or worse, offends). Idiomatic language is something to also stay away from. The author mentions his Kentucky roots; I'm from the NY/NJ area. There are many sayings (and individual words) that I use in casual conversation that don't appear in any dictionary (except for, perhaps urbandictionary.com). I've worked all over the world (primarily Europe and Latin America, with side-trips to Asia). What I've learned: keep the conversation bland and speak slowly and clearly.

jonathan_alvarez
jonathan_alvarez

Apart from all you said, there is a particular sensitive area 'Slangs'. As they are different by regions, countries and even religions, It's hard to follow the real meaning behind the phrase. So just try to avoid Slangs, even when they are normally funny and icebreakers. (Unless you are 100% sure everybody will understand it) When you said "assuming you are a native English speaker" you are separating a big bunch of people working around (counting me as well), but that is another topic tough.

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