How a business traveller can tackle language barriers

Taking your business into a new territory can be a daunting prospect, but one which can be made easier by following a few simple rules, explains i-interpret4u director Michael French

Taking your business into a new territory can be a daunting prospect, but one which can be made easier by following a few simple rules, explains i-interpret4u director Michael French

For small and medium-sized business owners looking to capitalise on global opportunities, travelling abroad to secure new revenue and maintain customer relationships is a common occurrence for man. 

The evolution of the internet has made sure that developing links instantly overseas is no longer the long, drawn-out process it once was. The recession has also brought with it many challenges for businesses which can no longer afford to overlook the huge sales potential of doing business abroad.  

In some cases, this revenue stream has become central to survival in what is still a pretty tough economic climate. And even though we sit happily behind our desks and laptops most of the time, it’s fair to say that in some cases there is still no substitute for direct face to face, human contact – and there never will be.  

And no, I’m not talking about ‘hoping for the best’ as you attempt to get through a disjointed conversation on Skype (we’ve all been there), nor am I talking about more sophisticated video-conferencing systems (both of which do have their place in the corporate world of course, but for SMEs this is often not a viable option). I am talking about about human interaction in its most primitive form. Real, physical conversations and contact with customers, suppliers and prospects – the type of interaction that is often at the root of every good business deal.  

People buy into people and as a business owner that usually means you personally; so successful business is really all about good communication and strong relationships.

It’s also true that differing cultures around the world mean that how you interact with customers and prospects overseas can be perceived very differently from country to country and indeed region to region. So, you’ve done your background research and you’ve established that the best way to ‘run’ this one is to hop on a flight to Tokyo – you want to impress and it’s the right thing to do. ButÖnone of your contacts speak English fluently and your Japanese is not too good either. Now what?

A daunting prospect even for the most seasoned business traveller. Larger businesses may have the comfort blanket of a personal interpreter, or a multi-lingual assistant they can travel with, but for the smaller business out there, the best we can often hope for is an unpredictable translation app (which may or may not work) or the good old phrase book. 

More on language barriers in business:

Most people don’t realise that 82 per cent of the world’s population doesn’t speak English so encountering a language barrier whilst travelling overseas is highly likely. Particularly, if like most of us, you don’t happen to be fluent in an array of foreign languages and most smaller businesses won’t want the additional expense of hiring in multilingual staff on top of the usual travel expenses. 

You have the logistics of getting to your destination to consider, and the related hurdles that may present, not to mention conducting work once you arrive, dealing with business challenges, different genders, cultures, religions etc.

In some cases you’ll be doing business in areas outside of the more common tourist hot spots (where more people might speak a bit of English) but once you get into industrial and commercial regions, it’s a mistake to assume that everyone at your meeting will be able to understand you and you them.

You can’t hide the fact that you can’t speak fluent Japanese (in this case) but you still need to make a lasting impression and more importantly, you need to be able to communicate. There are a number of ways that you can cope with language barriers that crop up while overseas, some will help you get by and others won’t. Preparation is key here – plan in advance, be aware of possible scenarios that may crop up as a result of the language barrier and make sure you are able to deal with them efficiently, effectively and professionally – it could make all the difference.

Here are a few tips from i-interpret4u to help business owners on their way:

  • Phrase books: Invest in a good phrase book, it’s not the answer to all of your prayers by any means as they tend to be one-way communication, and it won’t help if you need to engage in a serious business conversation, but it might help you to decipher the odd word that you are having trouble with.
  • Hand signs/waving arms: Attempting sign language or waving arms etc. could prove awkward. The problem with this kind of communication is it can come across as insulting depending on how it is delivered and to whom. Use with caution.
  • Watch out for the false friend: Accidently using a word in English that has a completely different meaning in another language but sounds similar is known as a ‘false friend’.  This is a common mistake made by many people when they attempt to communicate in other languages – but if you happen to use the wrong word it could leave you a bit red-faced.
  • Avoid using slang, jargon and abbreviations ‘Thinking outside the box’ or ‘Moving the goal posts’: It might make perfect sense to us, but analyse the phrase a bit more and it’s completely bizarre – so you can probably imagine how idioms like this could leave business colleagues who don’t speak English well in a state of confusion.  
  • Use an interpreter – inexpensive and practical:  There are a number of easy to use services available today such as personal, telephone interpreters who you can call via your mobile or any land line and get connected to a live interpreter in seconds at the very moment you need to.
  • Don’t assume everyone speaks English: Probably the most important tip of all. Never assume that someone will be able to speak English. Why would they?
  • Small efforts make a big impression: Remember, as an SME you are often representing your company and that means people skills come first because we all know that first impressions always last. If you’ve made the effort to communicate properly regardless of the approach you choose to take, it won’t go unnoticed.

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter was the Editor for from 2012 to 2014, before moving on to Caspian Media Ltd to be Editor of Real Business.

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