By Sarah Cottle

With global travel still restricted by COVID-19, we’re all denied the priceless learning that comes from face-to-face meetings with customers and colleagues worldwide. However, we can put this enforced pause to use by carefully considering the words we use in video meetings and even old-fashioned email. Taking time to think hard about communicating with a truly global mindset is a sure way of accelerating progress as a global leader. It will serve us well, whatever the future of physical travel and business interaction looks like.

We can use language as a tool that creates clarity, inclusiveness and cohesion. It can inspire and unite people in pursuit of a single purpose. This must be our goal. Conversely, carelessness with words puts that harmony at risk and, however unintentionally, alienates or excludes others. Here are just a few examples, all of which I have seen in 15 years working outside my home country:

Self-centric references to time and place can confuse and alienate in a global business.

  • Let’s speak at 10 my time tomorrow and execute the plan by the end of Summer
  • How about we regroup after Thanksgiving/Ramadan/Easter/Lunar New Year?
  • I see you work for the international/domestic business

Be unambiguous and standardized. Use dates instead of yesterday, today, tomorrow, and months instead of seasons since they apply only to parts of the world. At the start of the year, fill your calendar with world holidays and events. Your teams will appreciate that you avoid asking to meet at moments in their year that should be dedicated to family celebrations or religious observance. It’s not a good look if you create the impression that you see yourself sitting at the center of time and space!

Locally specific idioms, slang or metaphors can challenge all of us.

  • Not my cup of tea. It’s in your wheelhouse. You’re off the hook.
  • He knocked me for six. She hit a home run. Blocking and tackling.
  • Jump on the bandwagon. More bang for your buck.

Neutralize your language by avoiding phrases that don’t work globally. Even when we are all communicating in English, use of sports analogies or other colorful terms can hinder strong relationship building. For sure, learning a new language is one of the most effective ways to understand the impact of your words on speakers of other languages. Look up some idioms from other cultures and experience the confusion for yourself! If you don’t already know these languages, even a few words each of Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi and Arabic could help you open a new conversation with 2 billion people in their native language.

So how do we all improve our communication across each other’s cultures?

  1. Be curious – observe the strongest leaders. They are successful, at least in part, because they are mindful of the words they use and craft them to work with, not against, their audience.
  2. Be kind – help others understand when they use language that alienates. They will likely see your feedback is a gift if it is gentle and well-intentioned.
  3. Be courageous – ask questions about cultures. The world will reopen. When it does, be ready to expand your global mindset, to live and learn somewhere new. It will take you a lifetime!

Sarah Cottle brings over 20 years of experience in the financial news and research space as a reporter, writer, editor and leader. During those years, she has lived and worked in London, Paris, Milan and Singapore. Currently based in Asia, Sarah manages over 500 employees across 19 offices worldwide in her capacity as Global Head of Insight at S&P Global Market Intelligence, a division of S&P Global.


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