Speaking Globally

Be polite and respect cultural differences.


“All people are the same. It’s only their habits that are different.”
-- Confucius.

Botched international presentations can result in much more than misunderstanding – they can cost millions in missed sales and scuttle important relationship-building opportunities. The challenge isn’t to learn how to work with translators or interpreters, but to communicate more effectively with audience members of other cultures – no matter what their native language may be.

Here are some tips for cultural sensitivity by Dave Zielinski, based on his article “Speaking Globally” published in the Toastmaster magazine:

  • Simplify and clarify your content. Use simple sentences, make clear transitions, avoid digressions and synonyms, and reduce use of potentially confusing pronouns. Speak slowly and deliberately and use pauses.
  • Screen out jargon, idiomatic expressions and acronyms. Familiar figures of speech can be confusing or even offensive in other cultures. Have your text and visuals pre-screened by someone intimate with the local language, business norms and taboos.
  • Limit ethnocentric references and examples. Avoid referring to sports -- such as American football or baseball --- that may not have worldwide appeal, and be sure any examples are relevant to the host country. So in Brazil, France or Germany, for instance, try to relate any sports metaphors to World Cup soccer rather than the World Series.
  • Be aware of different values and lifestyles. American speakers might make a sarcastic remark about a manager having his whole family on the payroll, but in other cultures nepotism is an accepted way of doing business.
  • Pay attention to personal space. Arab people tend to be comfortable with standing close to you, and Asian people may prefer a wider space.
  • Run humor through a “cultural scan.” If you’re really looking to dig a hole, tell an Irish joke when you’re in Dublin. Most foreigners object to an outsider attempting to make jokes about their culture – even if the same joke would result in hardy laughs when delivered by a local.
  • Understand that body language is far from universal. Pointing with the index finger is considered impolite in most Middle Eastern and some Asian countries, where speakers use a fully extended hand or closed fist to indicate direction. The American “OK” sign – a circle formed with your index finger and thumb – is considered obscene in Brazil. The “thumbs up” is considered a rude gesture in Australia; in Greece and Bulgaria, a head nod indicates no rather than yes. In places such as Scandinavia where audiences tend to be more reserved, fist pounding and other emphatic gestures may impair your credibility.
  • Change your eye-contact habits – to a point. Direct eye contact, a key to establishing credibility in the United States, can be considered an invasion of privacy in Asian countries. Instead, sweep your gaze across audiences in those cultures, rather than embarrassing individuals by focusing on them for too long. And smile! It’s a form of communication understood by everyone.
  • Rethink audience participation techniques. Participatory techniques that shine a spotlight on individuals – frequent questioning, games or role-playing – need not be abandoned with multicultural groups, but they often need rethinking. If you want to keep sessions interactive, don’t call on someone unless you feel confident they want to be called on. Limit debate, as any kind of open disagreement ruins group harmony in collectivist cultures.
  • Follow the formality protocol. Speakers and instructors in some cultures often have higher social standing than in the United States; in parts of Asia, they’re viewed as figures of absolute authority. For this reason, jokes, casual dress and other informal behaviors can create a sense of unease.
  • Avoid ambiguity. Some cultures – particularly in Latin America, Southern Europe and Japan – are less comfortable with ambiguity than are Americans. People in these cultures expect absolute truths and often prefer detailed, concrete instructions to broad guidelines.
  • Stress your credentials. Be sure your introduction clearly establishes why you are qualified to speak about the subject at hand. And don’t leave home without your business cards.
  • Understand that icons aren’t always icons. Photos, clip art, icons and other graphic symbols used in PowerPoint can be interpreted in different ways by different cultures.
  • Visuals and handouts should correspond to cultural expectations. Limit the amount of text on presentation slides. Choose colors carefully. But do provide handouts, because reading proficiency for most non-native English speakers is generally superior to their listening comprehension. You’ll win points if you include a glossary of key terms and make handouts available in the native language as well as in English.
  • A word about gifts: Gift giving is a revered custom in some cultures. Know the traditions of what, when and how to give gifts.

A caveat: It pays to remember that when you’re in another culture, people in that culture generally expect you to behave in accordance with who you are and where you came from. Says “If we find ourselves in the curious position of trying to adapt our behavior to cultural stereotypes of our audience, while the audience tries equally hard to adapt themselves to stereotypes of us, we will be like two ships passing in the night.”