The Language of International Business

Dr Qiu Wang
Lecturer in International Business Strategy, Sheffield University Management School
Jeremy Clegg
Jean Monnet Professor of European Integration and International Business Management
Hanna Gajewska-De Mattos
Associate Professor in International Management
Peter J. Buckley OBE, FBA
Professor of International Business

When applying for a job, most employees know what language they’ll be expected to speak. But what happens if that company expands, crossing countries, continents and languages?

With advances in technology making global teams a realistic option, managers need to be aware it’s not as simple as training your employees in a single language – there are emotional implications too.

In response to rapid growth and international development, some companies have opted for a common working language, meaning all employees are required to communicate in a single language, whether in a meeting or over email.

There are clear costs and benefits to a common working language, and this has been the focus of much past research. However, we suggest that unless the emotional impacts of communication are considered, companies will be unsuccessful in reaping the benefits of what a common working language can bring, for example cost reductions in transferring knowledge, creating common and collective goals, and fostering a sense of belonging to ‘one global family’.

In order to provide practical, experience-driven advice for managers when planning for the emotional impacts of implementing a single language mandate, we interviewed employees of a multinational enterprise with headquarters in China and offices in the USA, Europe and Australia. The common working language chosen here was English.

It’s not just about the words

The study of business communication is not solely about the words used, but the way in which they are used, with the latter often driven by a person’s cultural background. We found that Chinese staff spoke with their peers in a friendly and informal tone, but quickly switched to a more deferential and formal style once their supervisors joined the discussion. It is therefore equally important for managers to acknowledge cultural communication differences when driving linguistic change within the company. There should also be a consideration of the emotional implications for native and non-native speakers – conversations are interactions between two or more people and managers should be mindful of the linguistic impacts for all involved.

Non-native speaker emotions

For non-native speakers, communicating in an alien language can feel like a “mental disadvantage” when trying to describe concepts and ideas that could be done with ease in one’s mother tongue. A common working language has the potential to hinder the communication of problems or difficulties experienced in the workplace. For example, employees did not have the confidence to explain a problem they were experiencing because they felt they could not convey this clearly, resulting in feelings of stress, anxiety and exhaustion.

“Sometimes I hate myself for not having put enough effort and time in studying English in the University. Now, my poor English becomes my biggest embarrassment I try to hide in the company. But I can’t blame others but myself.”

Shame was experienced by non-native managers who were unable to express their ideas in the common language, particularly in verbal communications such as a video conference call or a project presentation. Such an emotion can lead to individuals avoiding similar situations, resulting in further communication breakdowns between senior staff members.

We also found that employees felt a sense of indebtedness, mainly during written communication, whereas non-native staff felt that they could not supply the same amount of information (eg, case studies, white paper, sales reports, competitor analysis) that they requested from native-speaking employees.

Some non-native employees said they saw it as a positive challenge to overcome language-related issues, with the sense of challenge overriding any embarrassment they experienced, perhaps when referring to a male colleague as “she”, or using too many “thanks” in an email. It also appeared that those who saw it as a challenge were more task-focussed when using the common language to converse, and tended to reframe their failure to speak perfectly, viewing it as something from which they could learn from. After all, a challenge can motivate staff to spend time and effort learning language skills, resulting in more effective knowledge sharing.

Native speaker emotions

When we interviewed native speakers, some said they felt non-native speakers too often used “fancy words phrased in long sentences”, when asked to explain or contextualise information, which they viewed as “completely unnecessary”.

Native speakers also felt they had to alter the way they spoke, for example, vocabulary, pace of speech and accent in intercultural settings. This led them to feel uncomfortable, awkward and unnatural.

“It took me quite a long time to read through an email from HQ and I eventually realised that it was simply a meeting request.”

Our interviewees pointed out that if a meeting involved more non-native speakers of the same language than native speakers, conversations sometimes (intentionally or not) switched to the dominant language – this led to feelings of anger and upset for native speakers. Resentment can then manifest in situations where the common working language is regularly overlooked or disregarded, and continued disregard can lead to the development of “in-groups” and “out-groups”, negatively impacting knowledge transfer.

Shared emotions

Frustration developed in native and non-native speakers when communications were misinterpreted, leading to confusion over what was expected. There was also a sense of helplessness when communications broke down because of language differences.

“Writing project report in English is an absolutely nightmare. I have to rack my brains to search the word or phrase due to my limited vocabulary. When starting to assemble them into sentences with right grammar, I feel already confused and exhausted about what I need to explain.”

Although more of a psychological state than an emotion, interest in a subject or situation can help to alleviate anxiety associated with the unknown. Feelings of compassion can also arise when employees look to help those who may be struggling to communicate. Frustration and confusion in being unable to understand discussions in a different language can be overridden by this sense of compassion when seeing and hearing that your peers or team members are conversing with ease in their native language.

We found that there are particular emotions that appear to dominate in workplace communications, for example, anger, frustration, compassion. Many of the negative emotions were experienced by only one party. This is in contrast to the positive emotions, which were expressed by natives and non-natives alike. Companies should use these findings as a starting-point to strategically “cool down” some emotions, or “warm up” (bring out) others.

What can managers do to address the emotional impacts of a common working language?

1. Embed linguistic and cultural familiarity – ensure there are employees familiar with more than one of the languages and cultures present in the workplace. These key members of staff can recognise, raise and address the emotional experiences of native and non-native speakers.

2. Offer bespoke training in the workplace – anxiety is the natural response many face when holding conversations with those who speak a different native language. Businesses should look to provide workplace support such as training to better understand any tensions arising from the adoption of a common working language. Training could also be tailored to the individual’s cultural background and focus on aspects such as meeting preparation, not taking things personally etc. The format of training could range from structured cultural awareness training, to indirect socialisation. Where the geographic range of teams permits, bringing people together from different cultures in a social setting will naturally lead to cultural knowledge sharing, identifying commonality, and helping employees understand the emotional implications of business communications.

3. Plan for the good and the “not so good” – intervention may be required from senior management to address any damage caused by their employees’ unwillingness to communicate across cultural boundaries and to prevent “cultural insulation”.

Find out more

  • Asset 25 This article is based on research published in the Journal of World Business
Asset 28 Back to top