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CommunicatingIf you do not share a common language with the people you will be working with, some special challenges await you. The subtleties of working with an interpreter take some practice, and combining them with cultural sensitivities is a real adventure.
But even if you do share a language, there are going to be some communication issues. Is your native language their primary language, or did they learn it as a second language in school? What role do gestures and body language play in communication?
Translators and Interpreters
A translator converts written text from one language to another, while interpreters handle spoken messages. The skills of a translator and an interpreter are not necessarily interchangeable.
You may need a translator to give you access to key documents that you do not understand, or to make key information available to your client. A good translator can be valuable if they can point out problems in cross-cultural communication and avoid possible embarrassment. But most of the time, an interpreter is called for when you work directly with clients.
It is ideal to use a professional interpreter or a person who has had experience serving in that role. It is also best if the interpreter is a neutral third party. In practice, you often have a friend or relative of the client.
Regardless of the interpreter you use, it is important to separate your role from the interpreter's role. You and your client control the interaction, and neither of you should delegate any part of your job to the interpreter.
Here are some guidelines for a meeting using an interpreter:
If you are giving a group presentation with the aid of an interpreter, the same guidelines apply. If you have notes, provide them to your interpreter ahead of time. This is especially important if you have slides or overheads, as the interpreter may not be able to see the projected images when they are interpreting.
Gestures and body language are an integral part of communication. The first time you are immersed in another culture, this will be dramatically apparent.
Nodding your head in India comes in many flavors, and you have to know where a person's family comes from to interpret the motion correctly. Vertical head nodding (“yes” for Americans) means “yes” or “no” depending on where you come from on the Indian sub-continent. Head-turning (like our “no”), head-rocking (like trying to get water out of your ear), and a figure-8 head motion (like what a chiropractor might do) indicate various forms and degrees of yes and/or no, all depending on where your family originates. Whenever Clint said something in a presentation, he was met with a sea of incomprehensible head bobbing, swaying, and rocking.
Learning the Language
Whether or not you share a common language with your clients, it is always a good idea to learn a few words in the native language. You can do this before the project, and the appreciation of your effort and consideration is well worth your trouble.
Keep it simple. Do not improvise. Practice often. If not, you may end up as John F. Kennedy did in 1963 when he told a German audience “I am a jelly donut.”
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