Do Soft Skills Translate Between Cultures? 3 Tips for Your Language Program

When it comes to cross-cultural communication, soft skills such as listening and emotional intelligence can be just as important as hard language skills.In a globalized workplace, cultural cues can be easily misread or missed entirely, and soft skills play a big role in reducing miscommunication.

Speaking a language fluently isn’t just about vocabulary and grammar. It requires an understanding of cultural context and a broader knowledge of the way a specific language is used in a region. For example, German is spoken in Austria, Germany and Switzerland—but with variations.

As Markus Finster, a native German speaker from Vienna, explains, “Austrian German, in everyday use and especially in its humor, is more ironic, with subtle differences in meanings and phrases. It can be actually quite hard for some Germans from the Northern part to not get caught up in minor misunderstandings stemming from this.”

Here’s how to develop those necessary soft skills to improve business and team communication across borders.

Learn to Understand Different Cultural Communication Patterns

British linguist Richard D. Lewis examined the ways different cultures communicate in a business context in his 1996 book, When Cultures Collide. No two countries display the same pattern of communication, even neighboring countries like France and Germany.

In recent years, language training trends have shifted from classroom-based learning to a Blended Learning system that is tailored to individual needs. This takes into account the different starting points for every employee, even when providing training for the same language.

For example, an employee from Italy and an employee from Finland will have a completely different process for learning English. One culture is more verbose than the other, which can transfer into the second language, potentially causing miscommunication.

Use Strategies for Reducing Misunderstandings

A more personal approach to language training can bridge the gap and help employees learn the importance of different soft skills in a particular language and culture. Whenever possible, incorporate face-to-face training with a native speaker in your Blended Learning program.

Language training should not be done in isolation. A language cannot be effectively learned out of a book. Be sure to add interpersonal interactions to your program, both between learners and with a personal language coach. A coach who is a university-educated native speaker of the target language will be able to flag potential miscommunications and cultural misunderstandings during the learning process.

Develop Strong Corporate Culture

If your company’s talent pool is made up of a diverse group of different nationalities, the potential for miscommunication increases. Language training can help to standardize communication and build understanding.

Erin Meyer, author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, writes in her Harvard Business Review article: “Creating a strong corporate culture that is pretty much the same from Beijing to Brasília makes things easier and more efficient internally.”

Develop your company’s individual culture and values outside of the local context, then communicate that across the board through efficient language training. This should be a priority if you have a global team.

An employee in France and an employee in the UK should be able to enjoy the same benefits of soft skills training they can put to use when conducting business with German clients. The way to make that happen is to provide effective, personalized training across the board to address specific gaps across cultures as well as individuals.

To learn more about how effective communication can boost your profitability, download the Spexx white paper “Empowering Communication — What’s in it for the Bottom Line?

Photo: Anna Vander Stel

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About the Author:

Marije Nieuwenhuis is Senior PR Manager at Speexx. She holds an MA in Business Communications from the Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands and has lived and worked abroad for more than a decade working within international teams. Marije has worked in the fields of international PR, promotional marketing, B2B promotions and events, and project management.