When Your National Language Is Just Another Language

By McIntyre, David J. | Communication World, May 1991 | Go to article overview

When Your National Language Is Just Another Language


McIntyre, David J., Communication World


Take the example of a US business team in recent negotiations with a Japanese group in Tokyo. Things seemed to be going well. Then there was a pause, the Japanese apologized, and began speaking to each other in Japanese. The US businessmen suddenly felt isolated and frustrated, whereas moments before they had been an integral part of the action. The advantage was with the Japanese because they had two languages and the Americans but one.

Another example - this one in Hong Kong. Employees of a Hong Kong-based, US, owned bank were talking about an opportunity they had to acquire an important Taiwanese account. However, knowledge of Chinese was paramount in the negotiations. One young man, a recent employee, let it be known that he spoke Chinese and had learned business Chinese while studying in the United States. Subsequently assigned to the negotiations, the young man's knowledge of Chinese language and culture made the difference. The account was secured and he received a bonus. As a story in the Christian Science Monitor noted several years ago, "You can buy all the Hondas you want in the United States without knowing Japanese, but try to sell Buicks in Japan without the language and a knowledge of the culture." It just doesn't work.

Recently a major US pharmaceutical company expressed interest in expanding its business into Eastern Europe. But, they realized, they had no one who understood the European-let alone the Eastern European-market in their international department. And the only language capability anyone had-other than English-was a little Spanish.

Traditionally, few companies have placed much value on employees with a second language and experience living in another nation. That situation is changing. Today the MBA with real international experience is in increasing demand, and more schools are beginning to internationalize by building an understanding of the language and culture of other nations into their curriculum. Survivors in a Changing World Everyone who has conducted international business or diplomatic negotiations recognizes the importance of understanding the person across the table. Further, they know that accuracy is vital. An inappropriate word here, a misinterpretation there, a wrong assumption, can ruin a carefully developed relationship.

This is especially important to business communicators. When a firm needs to communicate with its employees, its customers or clients, its vendors and suppliers, it is important to know enough about the culture and the language of the message recipient to avoid misunderstandings.

Public relations practitioner Philip. Lesly, in his book, "How We Discommunicate" (published by AMACOM, a division of the American Management Association), cites many pertinent examples of how communicators misstate information and present it in ways which create misunderstandings.

"We take for granted the imprecision of communication. In fact, a speaker who selects his words and phrases carefully often is considered pompous and pedantic. Strong feelings arise against the elitism of careful expression which can lead to some of the worst instances of discommunication, such as the quite content-less utterings of the 'You know .I feel like .you get what I mean?' variety."

Dealing in an international community, getting your message across correctly increases in importance. Lesly cites an example by author Stuart Chase:

"A Japanese word, mokusatsu, may have changed all our lives. It has two meanings: (1) to ignore, (2) to refrain from comment. The release of a press statement using the second meaning, in july, 1945 might have ended the war (World War 11) then. The Emperor was ready to end it, and had the power to do so. The cabinet was ready to accede to the Potsdam ultimatum of the Allies-surrender or be crushed-but wanted a little more time to discuss the terms. A press release was prepared announcing the policy of mokusatsu, with the no comment interpretation. …

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