“Fools rush in” should be the motto for anyone leading a global, matrixed, or virtual team. While many projects and firms are going to English as a common language, many colleagues simply won’t have the background to know how to express nuances or translate cognates. Sometimes the results are funny — in Singapore, I had a French counterpart spend ten minutes grilling me about the meaning and derivation of middlebrow.
Too often, however, the results are time consuming at best and disastrous at worst. Having a sense for when a colleague is struggling to express an idea is essential for cross-cultural communication. One of the benefits of learning a foreign language as a youth is a sensitivity to translation problems, especially when trying to express complex ideas. Here are three approaches that have worked for me:
- Now, when my counterparts say something that sounds “off” or awkward, I ask a clarifying question about the phrase or word — often they’re trying to translate an idiom from their native tongue.
- If a clarifying question doesn’t work, then I try to re-state their position myself and highlight where I am unclear about their intent.
- Finally, sometimes the misunderstanding is driven by a literal translation. I’ll ask straight out — How do you say “fill in English word in question”? — in their native language.