Putting the brakes on deal-busting dialogue

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Putting the brakes on deal-busting dialogue

Adult students of mine who work for multinational companies regularly communicate in person, via e-mail, teleconferencing and video-conferencing with their counterparts overseas. Though they may command a solid grasp of English grammar and a good vocabulary, they still encounter roadblocks communicating in these professional settings.
One hurdle I often help them surmount is distinguishing between direct and indirect language ― the style used to express a thought, opinion, view or just a simple message.
Depending on the cultural context, the meaning of words and tone of voice used to express these ideas can be interpreted differently. The perception of what is harsh or gentle, specific or general language, may be quite different from one country to another.
Not long ago, a 40ish male student who was about to visit his pharmaceutical company’s headquarters in the United States broached the subject when he asked me about the appropriate language to use when communicating with American business associates. There would be colleagues from about 10 countries attending a three-week training seminar.
Despite his rich and extensive vocabulary ― some of it obtained during medical school and through multiple trips abroad ― he was nonetheless concerned about his word usage and flow. He habitually used expressions that were rather formal in nature and didn’t quite fix with a casual conversation, saying things like “Pleasure to make your acquaintance,” or “Hard work can be so invigorating.”
His stiff demeanor may also have contributed to the problem; he was a bit nervous about being in social settings where a group would be going out for dinner or drinks and just chatting in an informal environment. He shared his concerns with my class about issues like how to best introduce himself to his colleagues, and what topics of conversation are acceptable or taboo in American culture.
I advised the class that when first meeting an American, certain questions or topics considered normal among Koreans are taboo, such as “Are you married?,” “How old are you?” or “Do you live with your parents?” What may seem like a perfectly innocent question in one culture comes across as inappropriate or intrusive to Western ears. What seems all right to a Korean may very well be too personal, even offensive, to an American.
My suggestions? Stick to generalities unless it’s work-related. Use stock phrases like “How was your trip?,” “Have you settled in yet?” or “Is this your first time at company headquarters?”
These questions aren’t very intrusive, and leave it up to the other person to share more, if they want. It allows the other person the option to share personal information with you rather than being cornered by a direct question.
Feel free to share whatever personal information you want, I told them, but don’t expect the other person to do the same. North Americans generally feel very uncomfortable when personal questions are asked by strangers. As a general rule, if you’re not sure the question is appropriate, take the cautious route: DON’T ASK.

by Brenda Rotstein
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