Underdog: Being the Non-Native Speaker on the Call

This is the sixth post in a series centered around crafting an effective language strategy for your business, featuring the work of Harvard Business School professor and former vice chairman of Goldman Sachs, Robert Steven Kaplan.

One of the places in which a deficiency in language skills is most apparent is in telephone Being the non-native speaker on the call can lead to disengagement and unproductive virtual meetings.communications. Non-verbal cues aren’t present (unless you’re videoconferencing) and if your language is in the minority on the call, you have the inherent fear of being out of the loop at a meeting that you are actually attending.

If a multinational company has adopted a lingua franca, or if they simply choose to speak the local language at the time, someone will be at a disadvantage in communications.

What can happen

In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, professors Robert Steven Kaplan and Tsedal Neeley relay stories of non-fluent speakers feeling intimidated by calls with their fluent counterparts. One solution for these non-fluent speakers is to simply avoid calls if possible. Another is to always be on the defensive, afraid that the dominant language speakers are trying to get an advantage. Finally, the authors relay a story of one firm experiencing the exact opposite effect than desired:

Local employees often invite only German-speaking team members to meetings
or schedule calls for the middle of the night U.S. time, so that their American counterparts
won’t be able to attend. “If we are going to extend the meeting to a larger forum and we have to talk in English, then I say ‘No! No, I don’t want to do this,’” a German employee admits.

So what can be done?

It takes a little extra handholding on the part of management.

If the scheduling of meetings is getting out of control, the team’s managers have to take charge. They have to be willing to sit in on these meetings until the desired result of mutual respect and the business objectives are achieved. If necessary, they need to even moderate these calls to make sure everyone gets equal time and a fair playing field. That might mean limiting the attention native speakers receive and spurring the non-speakers to contribute more.

This might seem like babysitting, but it’s a worthwhile investment in the effectiveness of the team. Think of it this way: working across cultures often takes a certain degree of social reprogramming. Facilitating these more productive conference calls and meetings is just one step in the effort.

This all ties in with a webinar we produced featuring Professor Kaplan, entitled “Why Your Business Needs a Language Strategy” which took place on Tuesday, April 21st. Through this engaging, informative 30-minute conversation with Professor Kaplan, participants gained greater understanding about the role language plays in the business world, and how to craft their own language strategy.The webinar will be available on demand within the next few days. Please check back later this week for a link to the recording.

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