10 things to consider when working with people from a non-U.S. background

Working effectively with associates from other countries requires an awareness of potential misunderstandings. Calvin Sun offers some advice on how to make sure communications go smoothly.

In today's global society, U.S. workers are interacting with people from countries all over the world. To avoid mistakes, misunderstanding, or embarrassment, keep these factors in mind.

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1: Literal translations

Learning a different language, particularly that of your business associates, is generally commendable. But be careful when trying to translate English idioms directly into the other language. You may end up with a phrase that, to the other person, sounds nonsensical.

The German phrase gleich geht es los means "Soon it will begin." Years ago, the German statesman Heinrich Luebke was attending a concert with Queen Elizabeth. He wanted her to know that the performance would soon begin, but said to her, in English, a literal translation: "Equal it goes loose."

In the same vein, be aware that some languages have different structure and word order from English. If we want to tell someone from China that "I was born in New York," we end up saying to them, in Chinese, the equivalent of "I in New York born was." If we maintain English sentence structure when we speak the other language, we could cause confusion (or at least amusement).

2: Personal space

All of us have personal space, that is, the area around us that is "reserved" for us and which, if intruded upon, could offend or upset us. That space varies from person to person. However, it also varies by culture. Be aware of this concept and be sensitive to body language and other indicators that you might be intruding on another person's personal space.

3: Idioms

People from outside the United States might not understand English idioms. So be careful, for example,  about wanting to "punt" on a project or telling your staff that they need to "throw a strike" if the project is to succeed.

Last year, I met one of my former students and her boyfriend, both of whom came from China to the U.S. to visit. A few weeks later, while messaging with her, I asked about the boyfriend, asking if the two of them were still an item. She replied, "What is 'item'?"

4: Humor

Also be careful about using humor. Depending on where they are from, people from outside the U.S., even those who understand English, might fail to recognize humor, take things literally, and be puzzled or even offended.

For example, telling such a person, "Well there's bad news and there's good news. The bad news is that the car went over the cliff and crashed. The good news is that it got 30 miles per gallon on the way down" might lead to this reaction: "What is funny about an accident?"

5: "Yes": Agreement vs. understanding

In the U.S., people who respond to a statement with "yes" mean that they agree with the statement. But in some cultures, a response of "yes" means merely that they UNDERSTAND the statement. That is, the "yes" doesn't necessarily signify agreement. Be sure to clarify any such "yes" response you receive from a non-U.S. person.

6: Time differences

When scheduling meetings or telephone calls, be aware of time differences. In particular, make sure your non-U.S. associates understand Daylight Saving Time. If they don't, they could be an hour late or an hour early for the call. In particular, keep in mind that some countries, for example China, have no time zones at all. The entire country, regardless of how wide it is, all observes the same time.

7: Holidays

If your associates are in the U.S., make sure they know of important holidays so they don't show up only find a locked office. Similarly, find out if they might want to take time off to observe their own holidays, because you might not be aware of them. Follow this same approach if you are in another country. Make sure you know about their holidays and that they know about yours.

8: Names

Dale Carnegie said often that a person's name is the sweetest sound in the world to that person. Make an effort to learn the "true" names of your non-U.S. associates. Do so even if they have taken "American" given names. By attempting to speak their names, even if you initially get it wrong, you will make a tremendous impression. If you need help with the pronunciation, simply ask the person. Few if any people will be offended at your trying to learn how to pronounce their name.

9: Politics

In any context, politics is a dangerous topic for discussion. Stay away from it when talking with your non-U.S. associates, particularly with respect to political matters in their own country.

10: Currency

Other countries besides the U.S. use dollars. They include Australia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. To avoid confusion and potential legal complications, be clear whose currency you are using or referring to. In particular, distinguish between U.S. dollars (US$ or USD), Hong Kong dollars (HKD or HK$), Taiwan dollars (NTD or NT$), and Australian dollars (AUD or A$).