The Negotiator Magazine

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Are Many Great Nations Divided By A “Common” Language?

By Steven P. Cohen

English is the lingua franca of international business and cross-cultural negotiation. While this may appear to give native English-speakers an advantage, that is not always the case. Differing regional or national usages can lead to confusion within the English-speaking community. For example when one mentions ‘grass’ to an American, most likely he or she will think of what is grown to produce a lawn. To a British person, ‘grass’ can be a verb applied to members of the criminal element who inform on others to law enforcement officials. In Nigeria, on the other hand, when some young men are discussing a young woman they don’t find particularly impressive, they may refer to her as ‘just grass’ – not to be taken seriously.

Within companies, people from different silos often have their own jargon that is confusing to colleagues who have other professional duties. Differing corporate cultures – and even such factors as age, education level, and gender further complicates this challenge.

Even for native English-speakers it is crucial to pay extremely careful attention to issues of mutual understanding. Asking questions about the meaning of words and phrases may be a fairly obvious thing to do upon hearing or reading something that doesn’t seem entirely clear. What is far more difficult is moving past the assumption you understand another party simply because you share a language.

Native English-speakers are particularly vulnerable when they negotiate in English with folks for whom English is not the primary language. Since information is the most important commodity exchanged in any negotiation, it is critical to be wary of apparent agreement by parties who may not want to risk embarrassment by asking such simple questions as “What exactly do you mean by that?” The English-speaker’s dilemma is to find ways to avoid insulting others by asking “Are you sure you understood me just now?” while still taking strong efforts to collaborate with their negotiation partner to make certain that the information one party has presented has the same meaning to the party who’s on the receiving end of the communication.

This whole situation gets even more risky when the negotiation partners are both using English as a common language because neither has the capacity to converse in the other’s language. Outside of creating the profession of English Language Monitors For Business Discussions – which might bring employment to thousands of people worldwide – non-native English speakers need to find ways to ascertain that there is mutual understanding as they negotiate business deals.

No matter which situation applies, it makes sense to have a series of questions to ask to make sure that comprehension reigns, rather than confusion:

Probably the first thing to do is establish one’s bona fides by telling your negotiation counterpart, “I have no interest in saying or doing anything you will find confusing or offensive. You could do me a personal favour by telling me if I say or do something that doesn’t make sense or might possibly cause offense”

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December 2005