Communicating Across Language Barriers


Crista Perlton

Crista Perlton


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Communicating Across Language Barriers

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Communicating across any type of language barrier presents challenges to the business and yourself. Finding a natural balance, Chōwa, makes this barrier rewarding, rather than challenging. I interviewed two of my colleagues to learn more about communicating across literal and technical language barriers.

Jump to actionable advice. This piece is part of our Chōwa blog series.

Renraku: Careful Communication

Renraku (pronounced ren-rah-koo) is written with the characters 連 (to lead along or to join together) and 絡 (relationship). Renraku roughly translates to “transmission of information.” Renraku is Inedo’s commitment to clear, precise business communication.

But how the heck can we achieve “clear, precise business communication” across not just an actual linguistic barrier but across expertise or technical language barriers too?

“Lost in Translation”

I sat down with two colleagues recently to discuss Renraku in action. One of my teammates, Yoshi, is a designer whose first language is Japanese. The other colleague I talked with is one of our engineers, Rich; I like to joke that engineers speak “developer English” much more comfortably than “American English.”

I asked Yoshi, “What is the biggest barrier to ‘clear communication’ when working in English, your second language?”

In the course of our conversation about this question, it became clear that safety is a non-starter.

Having to speak in a non-native language is very intimidating. It comes with extreme self-doubt, worries, and embarrassment about “getting it wrong.” Those translating their native language into a non-native language are already less likely to speak up in the workplace, and organizations that do not foster Anzen (safety) further discourage their non-native English-speaking employees.

Yoshi also shared with me the cultural difficulties of communicating across language barriers: Being aware of cultural differences and communicating deliberately is vital to avoid mishaps. For example, n Japanese culture, being kind and accommodating is very important; if American business people fail to recognize that, they will end up hyper-extending their Japanese colleagues. 

These perspectives are perhaps the “blinding genius of the obvious”: Once you hear them, you can’t unhear them because they’re so simple and correct. Another obvious fact that often blindsides people is that communicating across disciplines and expertise levels is also a form of translation.

I asked Rich and Yoshi, “What is the hardest part about communicating with non-experts?”

The advice that came through most clearly from both experts was that back-and-forth discussion is important for balancing technical precision and human readability. Non-technical people have limited understanding when learning about technical things, a bar much lower than if you were speaking to other experts. Sharing analogies and examples and teaching the learner the correct terminology to use helps both men communicate with me (I’m not an engineer nor a designer) and help me to communicate more clearly and quickly with them.

We also discussed the complications of communicating “across authority levels.”

All three of us have held positions that had people directly reporting to us, and we agreed that there is a lot of extra work that goes into communicating downward in a safe, trustworthy way. It’s easy to forget that, when you hold power, your words are “heavier,” that they’ll be taken more seriously, acted upon more urgently, and so on. Adding simple context like, “(just joking!)” or “Whenever you have ten minutes before end-of-day tomorrow” can make a huge difference to one’s employees.

Bridging the Gap

Renraku is an extremely important part of Chōwa, and it is really hard! Yoshi, Rich, and I put together some actionable advice to help you achieve clear, precise communication.

1. Ask questions!

This is THE most important piece of advice we can give. As a former college educator and as someone regularly communicating across expertise-language barriers here at Inedo, I can attest: You cannot learn if you don’t ask questions. To continuously improve, you must continuously learn, and you do that by asking questions.

Company leaders: Asking questions can be scary if it isn’t an obviously welcome part of company culture. Do the work to model question-asking and to praise employees who learn through asking questions.

2. Proofread written communication!

One of the number one complaints of modern employers is that their employees send emails that look like they were written with one eye closed. Proofreading at its simplest is re-reading your work with the spell-checker enabled and getting rid of the little squiggly red lines. Even better if you install a tool like Grammarly, which helps you actually learn why what you did wrong needs improving. The next level of proofreading is to ask “how can I make this clearer for my reader?” and revise from that question.

Company leaders: Model this behavior for your employees by always proofreading your own communication.

3. Think from the reader’s/listener’s perspective

“I was talking with Yoshi and Rich, and he was saying that…” Hmm. You should be asking, “which one of them is ‘he’?” As convenient as it would be for other people to be able to read our minds, that achievement has yet to be unlocked. Therefore, we always have to try to think as our listeners. Ask yourself things like:

  • Will they understand what I have said with no additional context?
  • Have I used the simplest, clearest language possible?
  • Have I avoided phrases or terms that will add confusion?

I would have said “put yourself in their shoes,” but see the next guideline.

4. Avoid colloquialisms, abbreviations, idioms, and allusions

Unless you know you’re communicating with folks who share your language and culture, it’s best to avoid “fancy” and “informal” language that can create confusion.

  • Colloquialisms: These are hyper-localized figures of speech that can easily confuse an “outsider.” For example, “can I get you a pop?” probably won’t register as “soda” for our non-Ohioan colleagues.
  • Abbreviations: I’m very guilty of using abbreviations like “SME” (“subject-matter expert”) or even “lmk” (“let me know”) because I type very quickly and abbreviations are convenient. But to someone who doesn’t know “the secret code,” they’re just confusing.
  • Idioms: An idiom is a saying that doesn’t translate literally. “Put yourself in their shoes,” as I said above, doesn’t clearly indicate “take their perspective” to a non-native English speaker. (“Sono al verde” is one of my favorite Italian idioms; it directly translates to something like “I am of the green,” but it means “I’m broke”!)
  • Allusions: These are references to books, art, movies, and so forth, that won’t make sense to someone who doesn’t know the referent. “Don’t be a Scrooge!” wouldn’t resonate as “don’t be stingy!” to those unfamiliar with Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

5. Prefer face-to-face communication when possible (even if that’s over video chat), and pay attention to the facial expressions you see.

If I had to rank them, I would put face-to-face > phone call > text-only. When you only have typed words, you have the minimal context to aid understanding. For hearing people, the voice adds some context, for things like agitation or excitement. The reason most experts, Inedo, and I all recommend face-to-face (even digital) communication is the visual non-verbals. For sighted people, visual non-verbals can tip you off to someone’s disinterest, confusion, and more. For your colleagues that are perhaps hesitant to ask questions, ‘reading their face’ and prompting questions can make a huge difference for good Renraku.

6. When you have to write, remember that tone is super difficult in writing, so share extra context.

Like the above advice says, add context. In Chōwa, we call this Taikyoku. Remember that most people tend to read emails from others in a harsher/stricter tone than intended. Do your part to help your reader by adding things like tonal or emotional context. You can also assist them by adding links to relevant information to which you refer in the communication.

Company leaders: Model this behavior, and take particular care to be clear and kind when communicating “down the chain of command.”

7. Receive criticism/corrections gracefully, not defensively.

If company culture has cultivated Anzen (safety) and Shintaku (trust), everyone will feel confident that when they share corrections with one another, they’ll do so kindly, respectfully, and constructively, and we’ll trust that the other person has our best interests in mind when we are corrected. Just the other day, our CEO, Alex, politely pointed out that I had used the Japanese -san suffix incorrectly and provided instructions for when it can be omitted or how to use it properly. I was a little embarrassed I’d done it wrong, but the correction was given privately and kindly, so I knew he had everyone’s best interests at heart, so it was no big deal.

You can find more actionable advice through many online resources, like these “9 Steps to Overcoming Language Barriers in the Workplace.”

Renraku: So What?

The big takeaway here is that, even if you’re communicating in the same language and nearly at the same level of expertise, effective communication is really hard. When you add in different cultures, languages, and specialties… buckle up, bro, because things just got a whole lot harder. It takes mindfulness, dedication, and patience to do Renraku effectively.

Get the Chōwa Book

Renraku is just one of the many elements of Inedo’s new cultural philosophy of Chōwa, or “natural balance.” We will be explaining the various elements of Chōwa here on our blog and on our social media (TwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn). Subscribe to these channels and download your copy today to learn about Inedo’s unique cultural philosophy of Chōwa.

Crista Perlton

Crista Perlton