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The question of culture

I recently spoke about language needs with a person who works in a multinational company. She mentioned that although English was the official corporate language, and all employees in different countries spoke it, issues arose when non-native speakers communicated with each other. The problem was not with special terminology, which everyone knew well, but rather with an incorrect tone of the message.

My native Finnish is a good example of a language which is quite different from e.g. Latin languages. We use a lot of the passive tone, and rather straightforward sentences, with little or no flourishes. When “translated” literally e.g. into English, the message can sound curt or commanding, due to lack of words like “please”, “I would like to…” etc. A Finn could happily say “I want a steak” in a restaurant, without thinking that it sounds different from “Could I have a steak, please”. On the other hand, a Finn would find a typical US user manual with its extremely exact instructions almost offensive to his or her intelligence.

A translator or an interpreter knows such cultural differences and takes them into account. But an increasing number of people communicates daily with each other in a non-native language. (All the worse when the communication is done mainly via email, where short sentences, typos and too many recipients on the cc: line add to the problem!) Knowing the special terminology is essential, but not enough. This also means that companies need to think about testing the language skills of their employees, and about giving them language and cultural training. After all, a satisfied customer would expect to hear not just the right words, but the right message.

1 Comment

  1. Rusty Weston

    This is an interesting point, Kaija. I think one way to deal with this is to insert into messages a standard greeting and closing, which help set a friendly tone for the communication.
    (Hi Kaija, I hope you’re doing well. I wanted to follow up on our recent discussion with these action points. Number them … then close with something like. Thanks! If you have any questions or suggestions I hope to hear from you soon, etc.)
    Americans are often considered to be blunt communicators. We don’t mind direct instructions but the instructions should be tempered by friendly words if possible.

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