Monday, June 30, 2014

Dealing With Communication Barriers At Work

Driving in Tunisia, where the main languages are
Arabic and French.
We once went on vacation to Tunisia. That was in October of 2010, just before the Arab Spring started there. Yes, really.

Now, why do I relate that? Well in Tunisia the dominate languages are Arabic, French, and then everything else. In general though, you speak Arabic or French to get along. My wife and I do not speak Arabic, she speaks French fluently, and I speak French apparently (an instructor once told me but I think she was lying so I would sign up for another class).

So, to say the least, my wife did the talking. The thing about Tunisia it that it is a male dominated culture so woman, though having freedom not held in many Arab countries, are still expected to take a back seat to their husband when in conversation. So it was funny when my wife would talk to a man in French and he would answer me, the guy who had no idea what he was saying. It was uncomfortable and funny.

If that was not bad enough, police stops for routine license and registration checks are common. Like, expect one per 2-4 hours of drive time. Ya, seriously.

I felt just a little bit out of my element using my limited French to answer 2 police officers questions. Why was I in their country on vacation? Why was my wife driving? And other fun questions.

Thankfully, once I told them I was from Canada the conversation always went to Montreal, Canada Dry, and how cold it is there! Thank goodness for their relatives being in Canada.

So, I have been on the wrong end of communication breakdown and it is not fun. I have walked in those shoes and did not enjoy it.

For me it is ridiculous that in high tech, a bunch of highly educated people lack basic common courtesy. As a Canadian in the US, and a Newfoundlander at that, I have had my fair share of double takes from fellow native English speakers who are suddenly unable to process what I just said.

That pales in comparison to the crap I hear non-native speakers take. It blows me away that people talk so poorly to others that are struggling to communicate.

Here's what I have learned while working with non-native English speakers and those from different cultures.

  • Chill Out: It is a lot harder for them to understand us and get their point across than for us. So, don't lose your cool because someone can not speak at your high level of native nuance, "Ok, Bro, 'nugh said?"
  • Read the Cues: Start to read people's expressions. Did they all of a sudden raise an eyebrow or go kinda blank? Maybe they have no idea what you are saying or missed a word. I find it common to use terminology that seems basic or normal to me which others do not catch. Ask if there was something you said that they did not get. Don't be a jerk but be helpful and offer to explain.
  • Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Do you think they enjoy working in a language that they may struggle with? Probably not. Have you ever tried learning another language and then using it on vacation? Ya, that 2 weeks sucked and your grasp of the language sucked worse. Give your coworker some slack.
  • Be Polite: If they don't get it, then don't be a jerk. I have heard people raising their voice and belittling non-native speakers that are misunderstanding a topic/bug/feature. Instead, look for more constructive ways to come to a common understanding. After you explain yourself, try asking the other person what you said. And tit-for-tat, when they explain something to you, repeat back with, "What I am hearing is…" Repeating back what you heard is a great way to see if both parties understood.
  • Learn Some Culture: Go to lunch with your non-native coworkers. Get to know them and their culture. Some cultures say yes but mean no, maybe or yes. Three or four yeses means yes in some, whereas one means not likely. Do some research on culture differences/hazards and then keep your newfound knowledge to yourself (check out the hand gestures in this one for a laugh). But use your knowledge to try to help you understand your coworker better.

I've done all of these to be more effective with colleagues from different language and cultural backgrounds. I enjoy working with them as much as anyone else. I find that as we learn to communicate better we grow in our relationship and come to trust each other since we can cut through communication barriers to be effective.

People appreciate when your show respect, are willing to take the time to understand them, and learn about them. It's make work easier and more fun.

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