Language and Cultural Context

Years ago I took a course on doing business effectively in foreign countries. One of the attendees of the class was a Japanese woman who had been working in the U.S. for 10 years. She and the instructor had a fascinating conversation about how cultural norms influence what people say when doing business with people from other countries.

Though we might be using a common language to do business globally, how colleagues respond to questions may not mean the same as what we hear and understand based on our own country and culture. The Economist article, “Brazilians: Portuguese for the perplexed” reminded me of this fact:

What Brazilians say: Yes (Sim)
What foreigners hear: Yes
What Brazilians mean: Anything from yes through perhaps to no

What Brazilians say: Perhaps (Talvez)
What foreigners hear: Perhaps
What Brazilians mean: No

What Brazilians say: I’ll be there in ten minutes (Vou chegar em dez minutinhos)
What foreigners hear: He’ll be here soon
What Brazilians mean: Some time in the next half-hour I’ll get up off the sofa and start looking for my car keys

What Brazilians say: I’ll show up later (Vou aparecer mais tarde)
What foreigners hear: He’ll be here later
What Brazilians mean: I won’t be coming

We have blogged  before about creating a common language to align everyone with the change and what the future world will look like. If your company spans multiple countries, ensure that what the change team hears is what the impacted stakeholders actually mean. Taking the time upfront to understand cross-cultural differences can mitigate rework or an all-out unsuccessful change.

About Michelle Smeby

Michelle Smeby is CEO of wHolistic Change, Inc. with more than 10 years of experience implementing enterprise solutions at Fortune 100 companies. Michelle specializes in helping corporations deliver transformational change.
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