When in Rome

In the context of international engineering projects…

A coworker of mine who has worked with people from many different cultures was recently observing how impressed he was with the German engineers that he has encountered in his career. He glowed about how thorough their documentation was and about how smoothly their software or hardware ran. What he said was the most impressive, however was their English ability. He remarked that his German counterparts had impeccable talent with words and a college level grasp of vocabulary. While his anecdotal praise is certainly not universally representative of, or the exclusive domain of Germans, he did make an observation that struck a chord with me:

“Even when they were talking with each other, they were speaking in English”

What impressed him the most about the professionalism of his German counterparts was that they were considerate enough(and proficient enough) to speak the language common to all present in the room. If the Germans were to speak in English to the Americans, and in German to each other in the same conversation, an uncomfortable dynamic would inevitably be created. In my experiences working with Japanese companies, this has admittedly happened on numerous occasions, and it has been pointed out to me (in private) that it made the Americans uneasy, with this kind of undesirable reaction:

“What were they saying to each other?”
“Were they talking about us?”
“Were they strategizing?”
“Are they trying to keep something secret from us?”

So the best advice seems to be “When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do.” The problem is that when the language ability of your team members is not up to the task, and you must switch to your native language briefly to bring someone ‘up to speed’ or to discuss something in greater detail than you could do in the project language. It is not the best form, but it is OK to switch to your native language,if you tell them what is happening first, and in a way ask permission to do so.

For example:
“I think that we did not completely understand the last part of the conversation, so would you mind if we took a few moments to discuss the details with each other for a few moments?”

Unfortunately,the question that will be inevitably (and silently) considered in this situation is: “Why were these guys sent to the U.S. if they can’t really speak English?” This will probably be lightly considered if you have to resort to the above strategy, but it is better than the alternative and potentially damaging reaction that may occur if you don’t let your English partners know what you are talking about beforehand.

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Kevin Ready

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