Confessions of an Expat: Language barriers

conversationI’ve recently moved back to my hometown of New York City after living in the United Kingdom for several years. I thought this would be a good time to share some of my experiences whilst fresh in my memory – and yes, I said whilst.

Many people would assume that there wouldn’t be language differences between England and America but sadly, they (like myself) are wrong.

I started to notice the difference when people at work would say “Are you alright?” I didn’t quite understand why they asked me this and started think there was something wrong with me.

After observing Brits interact with each other, I realized that it was a passing greeting similar to when Americans say, “Hi, how are you doing?”

In the beginning, I was hyper-aware of words Brits used and decided to write them down to make sense of what was being said. My vocabulary log became very helpful when talking to my team.

I also found that using this vocabulary in my everyday speak raised my level of creditability amongst my employees – they started to see me as a reformed Yank.

Below is the list I’ve complied.

In addition to vocabulary differences, I had to quickly learn that the delivery/tone of how I communicated also needed to change.

In America, speech is interpreted literally and if there were a hidden meaning behind what was said, people would pick this up based on facial cues.

In England, however, people don’t always mean what they say and because facial expressions are minimal, it makes it difficult for a non-Brit to understand if a person is being serious or joking. For example,

One day, a direct report was debriefing me on an interview conducted earlier that day. In the debrief, this individual said, “that person was actually smarter than they looked” I was taken aback by the comment and said, “did you just say that person looks dumb?” My direct report immediately turned red and didn’t know how to respond.

Later I learned, that my employee was actually trying to make a joke and that my response turned it into a serious and embarrassing comment. From that point forward, I learned that I needed to ask probing questions and not interpret what is said at face value.

In summary, when leading or working with teams abroad it’s important to realize that people can speak the same language but have completely different interpretations to what is said.

I recommend that you research how cultural differences influence communication styles. This advanced homework will help you when you’re influencing or motivating a global team. As a starting point, I like to use the World Factbook published by the CIA and Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands.