Even if everyone is fluent in English, business language is filled with nuances of meaning and is open to interpretation. For example, if a Brit says something “sounds interesting” he most likely means “I’m not that keen” but a German colleague may conclude that he is genuinely impressed.
There are countless anecdotes of words being misinterpreted and meanings altered and, as amusing as those stories are, retold over a cup of coffee, they can drive you crazy if you happen to lead a global team. “What you say can be magnified or minimalised based on your listener’s cultural context.” (Mayer)
Erin Mayer highlights in her article on Harvard Business Network how different cultures communicate. The more direct ones use what is referred by linguists as upgraders – words that reinforce the statement, such as: this is totally unprofessional, your behaviour is absolutely wrong.
Other less direct cultures use downgraders, words that soften the criticism. For example: “We are not quite there yet”, when what you want to say is “We are nowhere near completing this”.
One can imagine all the humour and chaos created by people from direct and indirect cultures working together. Mayer gives the example of a German who almost loses his job because he misinterprets the suggestion by his British boss that he rethink the way he does something as a choice, whilst it’s more of an order along the lines “Change your behaviour right away or else”.
1. It´s helpful to know when to use downgraders and when upgraders.
2. Use of images can ensure that everyone is on the same page. Images support and clarify words and communicate on a universal level, transcending socio cultural differences.