How To Overcome The 'One-Inch-Tall' Barrier And Improve Cross-Cultural Communication

Although Chinese is the most commonly spoken language, some quip that broken English must be the most spoken language in global business. When only 20% of the world population speaks English and fewer than one-third of them use it as their first language, there are ample opportunities for miscommunication and frustration.

“Speaking English is exhausting,” says Pope Francis’s character in the Netflix biographical movie The Two Popes. “A terrible language — so many exceptions to every rule,” responds Pope Benedict, played by Anthony Hopkins. Even as they both spoke multiple languages, they shared a common distress of non-native English speakers who use English as a foreign language (which is different from using it as the second language). I can relate. During my first year as an international student in the United States, I often had to take a Tylenol after a three-hour graduate seminar. Trying to communicate in a non-mother tongue caused my head to spin.

Although Chinese is the most commonly spoken language, some quip that broken English must be the most spoken language in global business. When only 20% of the world population speaks English and fewer than one-third of them use it as their first language, there are ample opportunities for miscommunication and frustration.

Richard Lewis, author of Cross-Cultural Communication, argues that diverse backgrounds, different traditions and taboos, as well as accepted manners of communication, interfere with comprehension for speakers from different cultures. These challenges hinder talent management, team collaboration, customer service and supplier relationships at home and abroad. In his book Jack: Straight from the Gut, the late Jack Welch admitted that in his early days he had hired candidates in Japan who spoke English well. He soon learned that it was a marginal idea.

A client of mine, a director of product development for a company that was recently acquired by another U.S. company, offered further insights. After attending a post-merger leadership meeting led by a new combined team leader, she shared her first impression of him with me: “It was very hard to understand him because of his heavy accent. I was scheduled to meet him later to discuss new strategies. I hoped my colleagues got his points, but most of them didn’t either.” While poor English or accents are frequently cited as a barrier to cross-cultural communication, global teamwork requires mindset shifts and cultural competencies of all team members.

Years ago, I co-facilitated cultural transformation workshops for global leaders of a Fortune 500 company. Participants in Asia and Europe identified the “Not Invented Here syndrome” at its U.S. headquarters as one of the most serious challenges to inclusion and innovation. The HQ leaders’ belief that all great ideas came from the U.S. caused them to resist ideas from anywhere else, which created a sense of exclusion and stifled innovation.

Accepting the best foreign-language film award for Parasite at the 2020 Golden Globes, director Bong Joon-Ho said, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Global leaders who strive to inspire and leverage all talents would benefit from asking themselves what the one-inch-tall barrier to tapping into amazing ideas could be. Assessing their own mindset, they must encourage teams (especially native English speakers) to practice overcoming any unconscious bias. Here’s how:

• Reflect on your own culture. Our cultural inventory provides us with valuable insights for understanding our beliefs, values and assumptions. Examine how your cultural background affects your work, communication style and perception of various groups.

• Seek to understand. Show a genuine interest in different cultures and people. Make personal connections to create psychological safety for open communication. Suspend judgment and try to see the merits of others’ perspectives. Creative tension from thought diversity makes interaction rewarding.

• Check assumptions. Native English speakers may assume that non-native English speakers must fully understand them if they can speak and write English. Listening comprehension can be harder than speaking or writing. Some also assume that everything will be fine if they treat everyone with respect. How to show respect varies across cultures. Direct eye contact or firm handshakes can be perceived as presumptuous in certain cultures.

• Listen and speak with positive intent. Don’t make up your mind based on a speaker’s look or sound. Listening to accents is an acquired skill. Listen attentively. Read the context, body language and emotional undercurrent of a counterpart. Adapt your pace and style to your audience. Have empathy for those who try to speak in your language. Keep sentences simple.

As communication is a two-way street, non-native English speakers can also benefit from the following advice to improve their influence and impact.

• Check if there’s an imaginary mental barrier. After winning the Oscar, Bong acknowledged that the one-inch wall had already started crumbling thanks to streaming and social media. In a connected world, your fresh idea can have a universal impact.

• Have the courage to speak up. Form an opinion and say it with conviction. Don’t just say what others want to hear. Agree or disagree with a reason. Miky Lee, executive producer of Parasite, credited Korean moviegoers’ straightforward opinions for Oscar awards, noting that their candid feedback encouraged directors and creators to never be complacent and to keep pushing the envelope. Challenge the status quo with candor. Courageous voices awaken us all.

• Work on presence. Sharon Choi, the Parasite team’s translator, impressed a global audience with her poise. She admitted that it took tremendous effort to appear that way because she was naturally nervous. “Fake it until you become it,” suggested Amy Cuddy in her TED talk. Pace yourself. Enunciate clearly. Pause for impact. You don’t need to apologize for your English.

• Commit to improving the language of global business. Study common expressions used in your field. Watch good TED talks and copy the traits of effective communicators. Make a habit of being brief. Ask for clarification, if someone’s message is unclear. Don’t take it personally if you are asked to repeat something. Record yourself to review your communication. Seek feedback and act on it. Practice will make it perfect.

Together, we can create a more inclusive world where all can contribute to innovative solutions for the world’s pressing challenges.

By Eun Y. Kim first published on on March 16, 2020