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How to deal with misunderstandings at work

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

Misunderstandings happen between people of the same culture or language background. For example, many English people struggle to understand the Scottish accent and I have had conversations with American friends when I haven't understood what they were talking about because they were referring to something I didn't know. However, for people who need to use their second language at work, misunderstandings can feel like a huge problem, and one which is all their fault! In this post, I'm going to share four common areas of misunderstanding and offer suggestions on how you can solve them.

Linguistic misunderstandings

Here, I'm talking about problems that are specifically caused by language difficulties. I've chosen to talk about one problem that people experience with listening, and one that is concerned with speaking.

Misunderstandings caused by people talking too fast

We cannot control the way other people speak. When we are surrounded by native speakers of our second language, we often feel overwhelmed by how fast they talk. The conversation feels out of control and we can't respond appropriately. We may also feel unsure of what is being said. All of this causes frustration for us as the listener - why can't people just talk more slowly?!

Common problems for non-native English speakers are not understanding due to pronunciation features such as connected speech as well as the use of weak forms and contractions, both of which are very hard to hear.

To solve this, you need to do lots of listening practice! Extensive listening (where you listen to a lot of English but don't worry about understanding everything) is best, supported by some intensive listening (where you listen to a very small extract but focus on understanding the details). Be aware of what your problems are (i.e. not understanding key vocabulary or pronunciation) and work to improve these over time.

Misunderstandings caused by your inability to be precise

Even at the C-levels, a lack of vocabulary or grammar range can reduce your ability to communicate precisely. Because of this, your colleagues may not understand what you have said. Even small differences between words such as by (to set a deadline) and until (to talk about duration) can cause problems:

You've got until Friday to finish the report Vs I need the report by Friday

Both of these sentences are possible and, in fact, have a very similar meaning but if you use the wrong preposition, the meaning becomes unclear:

You've got by Friday to finish the report (makes no sense) I need the report until Friday (and after that I don't need it any more)

To help yourself here, keep an ear out for ways of saying things that you wouldn't say - this is where your knowledge gap lies. Be alert for occasions when people don't understand you and try to figure out why (don't be shy of asking a friendly colleague!) Make a note of these phrases and review them often, aiming to incorporate them into your everyday language.

Cultural misunderstandings

Again, I have chosen to talk about two problem areas here - dealing with an unfamiliar cultural behaviour and also dealing with how cultural differences can impact on the language we choose to use.

Unfamiliar cultural behaviour

When I worked in China, there were many times when I struggled with the cultural conventions because they were so different to mine! It's interesting to consider how much the 'foreigner' should adapt to the host culture, and how much the host culture should accommodate their foreign staff. On one occasion, all the foreign teachers were invited for a smart dinner with members of the academic faculty. In China, one should wait for the most important person to eat first before starting to eat. One of my American colleagues was not aware of this convention and began to eat while everyone else waited for the academic head to begin. I was shocked that he wasn't aware of this basic polite behaviour so I can imagine that the Chinese staff thought he was very rude! Generally, I feel it is best to try to adapt to the host culture and so try to follow the lead of your colleagues. Foreign cultures can be surprising, even shocking at times, but it is worth remembering that they work for the insiders in that culture and it is us, as the foreigners, who have a problem.

Different ways of expressing language functions

Different languages have different expectations around functions such as giving feedback or instructions. For example, it is quite common to use conditionals in English instructions:

if you could turn off the light when you leave that would be great, thanks

Although this might seem unnecessary to a non-native speaker, for us it is important! Saying:

turn the lights off!

feels rather rude!

Similarly, in emails we like to have one or two sentences where we inquire about the person we are writing to before we get to the point. If you jump straight into what you want from your reader, you may make them feel a little annoyed. It's important to learn a bit about the cultural norms around things you need to do at work. For example, if you need to make a lot of phone calls to customers, how should you begin the call? When giving feedback, should you be blunt or indirect? Getting these things right will go a long way towards reducing animosity and misunderstanding.

Misunderstandings between people happen all the time. We have different communication styles and different ways of thinking and seeing the world. Don't blame yourself for misunderstandings; if you work on improving yourself and your language and on understanding a little about the culture of your colleagues, you will have gone a long way towards reducing misunderstandings.

Watch a video about this.

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