How to Speak International: Communication in a Global Economy


It’s a small world after all. And I’m not talking about the never-ending, annoying Disney ride that can drive you insane. In the global economy we now live in, you’ll eventually have to work with people from different countries and cultures. This year alone I have been in Hong Kong, Sao Paulo, Singapore and Vienna working on projects and have seen first hand what a global economy looks like. Clear communication across the entire world has never been more important. As a communication professional, I often find well-meaning people commit grave errors because they don’t understand the cultural implications within a discussion. Most of the time, words alone fail to give you the true meaning of an international exchange. There are some lessons every business professional, pastor or even mission-bound volunteer should learn before they blow a deal, an exchange or, worst, start a war.

Global Communication Maurilio Amorim Blog Post

Bad translations will derail any negotiation. While accurate translation should be a given, I’m amazed at how many times meetings go south when the interpreter misses a nuance or a slightly different word usage and translates a concept incorrectly. If you’re in a situation where someone else is translating, make sure he or she understand the culture more so than just the pure language. On my recent trip to Vienna, our European host had my team eating at  “Heurigen” most every night noted on our advanced agenda. If you know me, you know how much I like to eat, and the idea of going all the way to Austria to eat at the same restaurant was just killing me. I must confess, I whined about it, a whole lot, only to find out “Heurigen” is a description of a winery-based type of restaurant in Austria. Every night we were treated to a different “Heurigen” with delightful specialty foods and their own specific wine. All my whining was unjustified because I miss understood one word. But in a tough negotiation setting a mistranslated concept can derail more than your dinner plans.

You must understand cultural values when engaging a potential business or ministry partner. Ok, these are over-generalizations and I’ll probably get hate mail from making some of these comments, but unless you understand certain underlying cultural values, you won’t be able to  engage successfully in business or ministry. For example, Brazilians will not likely trust you unless you’re able to go out with them after work, eat a late, late dinner of grilled meat (at least a half a cow) and party until wee into the night. Germans value precision, and a strong work ethic (a German-Brazilian combination will work and party you to death. Trust me. I know). Asians don’t like confrontation and hate to be embarrassed, so brash tactics can backfire quickly. Most cultures are not as loud as we, Americans, are. During my recent trip to Austria, the 3 of us from the US were responsible for 90% of the volume in public places. So be careful not to come across as a loud-mouth, know-it-all. Unfortunately, Americans have gotten that reputation and too often deservingly so.

Nothing replaces a face-to-face exchange. With the advent of email, video conferencing, Skype and other tools, it’s easy to get on an international call and have people from different continents participate. We do if often at The A Group; however, there are times that the wise thing to do is to spend the money, get on a plane and meet in person. Technology has yet to create a tool that allows us the same benefit of interacting with people who are so much more than a title, an avatar, or even a two-dimensional video representation of a complex, wonderfully created individual who needs to be experienced in order to be understood. Most conference calls I find myself waiting for my turn  in order to make my point and drive my agenda forward. Sitting across the table during an honest exchange with someone forces me to live in their moment, not just mine.

What has been your experience in a cross-cultural situation?

  • Great post, Maruilio!
    I agree you need to be armed with knowledge about the culture you'll be in – even if it is over-generalized (isn't any definition of "culture" an over-generalization of a group of people?). I think you do your homework before going in (so it's packed back there somewhere in your brain), but you take each person as they come. Strive to clean the slate for them to fill in however they please.

    Couldn't agree more with the need for face-to-face. Something ineffable happens when we're there live and in person!

    • Great point Geoff, each person is unique and if you seek to understand them, their "hot buttons" you can quickly build a personal bridge before a business one. No matter what culture I find myself in, a personal connection trumps the bottom line any time.

  • Jeff Moore

    I remember visiting Brazil a few years ago and I can relate to your comment on lots of beef and late parties. I could see a definite change in attitude from my Brazilian business host after I'd spent an evening with him visiting "barzinhos" or Brazilian bars. Great post.

  • I have been to places in Europe and Asia, and I have interacted with those same cultures here in the states. There has been a common thread that I have noticed. They always want to know that you take an interest in their culture. Which very often means you learn how to speak some of their language, and the correct way? I have learned to say a few simple things like "ni how…chi sow fri…shay shay" which is hello…chicken fried rice….thank you. It is amazing how much better my service is when say this at the local chinese restaurant. Or when I meet Japanese people I can say "watashe no namai wa Mitch des…hajimamashta” which is my name is Mitch…good to meet you. The fastest way to overcome language barriers is by showing an interest to understanding them in their culture.

    • That's an excellent point. Ethnocentric attitudes of a lot of English-speaking people have contributed to the poor image American's face overseas. Like you, I often try to learn a few phrases in the local language. However, in my last trip to Hong Kong, I found myself speaking English with a Chinese accent very loudly while bargaining with street vendors. My travel companion point it out to me while laughing out loud at my antics. I had no idea I was doing it.

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  • Steve Shantz

    Great insight from an "International Man Of Mystry"! As a Canadian, who grew up in Latin America, lived 18 years in Europe and now travels the globe, I've had to deal with cultures. I find it's a good idea to do a lot of listening. language is a bridge to the heart, so knowing some phrases is a good idea. Many cultures appreciate a bit of comic releaf. I once endeared myself to a crowd of Kenyans I was adressing (and brought the house down) by using a Swahili slang phrase to refer to myself a White Man. I checked the line out first though!

    I find some cultures difficult, but there is always some aspect of a culture which is superior to mine, such a putting value on relationship ahead of accomplishments and showing genuine hospitality to strangers.

    • Steve, You are truly the International Man of Mystery, I'm not even on the same "world-traveler league." Traveling with you is always great if I can keep you out of cheap Indian restaurants.

  • splester

    The church I have been a part of for many years has a membership made up of 35+ nationalities. Prior to ‘spinning off’ and planting churches, we had 5 separate language group services (now we have 3). This sort of diverse congregation was a natural for me since I have traveled all over the world and although my wife and I are American born, our two children are adopted from Russia and Korea.

    Our intent was never to simply ‘host’ ethnic congregations, but rather to become a fully integrated, multicultural body. That has worked and worked beautifully for more than 5 years now. Worship and fellowship in our faith community is like a little ‘slice of heaven’.

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