Who has the problem? How intercultural communication skills impact on international business

We are not all the same, despite the increasing appearance to the contrary from global brands and the internet. Most of us are using the English language to communicate at some point, in some form, online. But how does that translate to verbal communication?

Those of us who are native English speakers can take a great many things for granted. Our sense of rhythm and cadence within the language has been instilled in us from early childhood. We can recognize and understand different accents, dialects, place someone from subtle barely perceptible shibboleths.

For those who have learned English as a second or third language, the situation is different. Despite worthy dissemination of teaching materials by the British Council, BBC Education, Pearson, Macmillan and many other reputable agencies, the acquisition of English will have been influenced by the environment in which it was taught, the linguistic competence of the teacher, and perhaps crucially the environment in which the language is practiced.

In India, English became one of two official languages enshrined in the constitution in 1950. It has continually thwarted political attempts to make Hindi the national language because there are so many regions of India where Hindi is not spoken or is a secondary language. English is the language in which higher education is conducted in India. It is a crucial skill for access to well paid jobs, education and employment abroad. The importance of having a good command of the language is well understood on the subcontinent.

But what is good enough when working in a pressurized environment such as a call centre, dealing with calls from the UK and the US? Cultural factors as well as linguistic factors come into play. North Americans work in a time-pressured culture with a strong emphasis on efficient service. There is nothing in their mindset to allow for factoring in cultural differences, such as the slower, cyclical nature of time that weaves on the subcontinent. It is charming when you are backpacking around the Himalayas, and not what you need when you are trying to find out why all these bank charges have appeared on your statement out of the blue. Americans are generally direct and want a quick, straight answer, Indians not so, needing to check with their procedure and manager, not wanting to cause offence by not knowing the answer, and so on. The internet has speeded up our concepts of time and space and expectations of instant gratification. This raises the bar high for international communication skills.

Indian English is a third language, that has merited a book of its own by Lonely Planet. There are turns of phrase that imply Indian culture and are understood among Indians, but would not make sense to a native English speaker unacclimatised to India. Add to this a strong accent (I have Indian heritage and so can decipher most Indian accents in English, but most callers from the UK or US won’t have this advantage) and you have a recipe for delays, repetitions, a build up of irritation, an impression of poor customer service and at worst, aggression. People, alas, often have cultural stereotypes in their heads, which can exacerbate a pressurized communication situation.

At PronounceMe we set out to devise customized training that would bridge the gap between a speaker’s mother tongue and imprinted linguistic habits and a good, commonly accepted standard of English. Learning English in this way can enable the speaker to develop a good customer-facing persona, a crucial CV skill for many. You could call it aligning yourself linguistically with the customer’s values. The English we teach is part of an interface, a common lingua franca, a tool designed to help you conduct business more efficiently.

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