Breaking down a cultural barrier with plain language

Natalia Mumford | May 16, 2022

Nowadays our communication is borderless, and it’s very common to work with people all over the world. From virtual meetings and emails, we may assume that they have the same cultural background and fluency in English as we do. But what if we found out that they’re still working on becoming fully fluent in English, and struggling to understand some of the things we say? Would that challenge the way we communicate?

By using plain language, we can break down a cultural barrier and help our readers feel we are closer and more approachable. By making sure people don’t feel left out, we help build empathy, and in turn our messages are more likely to be fully understood.

Hand placing push pins into world map

Our communication is borderless, and we can interact with people from all over the world. Image by GeoJango Maps / Unsplash licence

Moving from Argentina to New Zealand

When I moved to New Zealand about a year ago, I was sure I was moving to my second home. I was a citizen by descent in a country I had visited several times, and having been raised in Argentina, I had always considered myself bicultural. My English has always been advanced, so I was confident about my opportunities. This fluency was in part thanks to my dad only speaking in English to me and nagging me to only reply to him in the same language while living in Buenos Aires — sometimes not too successfully.

Women at pedestrian crossing in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Moving countries can pose many challenges, especially for non-native speakers. Image by Henrique Félix / Unsplash licence

But despite my fluency in English, when I started my first office job in an English-speaking company, I encountered some unexpected challenges. I was thrown into a swirl of meetings and projects during a very busy period and it was all quite stressful. Meeting new people in person and online, I could see myself misunderstanding things and stumbling over my words. I noticed people struggling to comprehend me.

I had to repeat myself, trying to get the right pronunciation for hard words or names. And despite working in a very positive environment with kind people, my confidence dropped drastically. On top of all the things I had to learn, Kiwis are hard to understand! Between idioms being constantly used, enunciation being a rarity in the typical New Zealand accent, and me lacking the background of local pop culture, I had a bit of a culture shock.

How you can help people like me feel more included

Based on my experience, and from working at a company that vouches for clear communication, here are a few tips for working in a multicultural environment that can help your audience feel closer and more connected to you.

Be clear and concise

If you don’t want us to miss key information or required actions, keep it simple. Avoid bringing in details that are not relevant at the time. That way you’ll have less chance of people getting confused through the conversation and missing important details.

Try to rely a bit more on written comms

Emails and texts are very helpful as we can read them several times. After that, we can review details carefully and give an accurate reply, which we can’t do as easily while on the phone.

Give a heads-up before calling — even if it’s short notice!

Some of us may feel put on the spot if called unexpectedly. It’s nice to have a minute or so to check what people may need from us, and have a few things in mind before chatting.

Avoid jargon or slang that some people might not pick up

Never assume that ‘everyone’ knows something, as you don’t fully know who you could be working with. Making assumptions risks people feeling left out. Sticking to the basics is the best way to ensure people understand you.

Speak as clearly as possible

Enunciating things is key to getting your message across. Mumbling and racing over things won’t help you achieve that goal!

Ask how to pronounce names correctly

Checking the correct pronunciation of the person’s name shows you’re trying hard to get it right — and that will make the person feel respected. Also, pay attention to the way you write down their name. One letter can make a difference.

Be patient!

If you pick up that the person you’re interacting with has English as an additional language, give them the space to ask questions. You could even summarise what has to be done at the end of a conversation, or suggest how they might tackle the task.

Three femme-presenting people sitting at a table with laptops and other office-type things.

Follow plain language principles to feel closer and more connected to your audience. Image by Christina @ / Unsplash licence

Small efforts can make a big difference

The tips above are helpful for every interaction you may have, even with people who do have English as their first language! Making a habit of using them will guarantee your messages have the impact you want, and will help build trust and comfort with your audience.

I’ve personally come a long way in this last year. I had to become more courageous in asking people to repeat themselves or to help me say a word correctly. I also had to be open and admit when I didn’t know something, instead of just nodding, which gave me the opportunity to learn new things. This process was all much easier because I’ve noticed the effort my team puts into understanding and helping me find the words when I am struggling. I really appreciate their efforts to make me feel included and respected.

Here are more blog posts that you could also check out:
The benefits of plain language
Five ways to show respect with language
Plain language helps welcome and keep talented migrants
Helping skilled migrants succeed in New Zealand

You can also find some more guidance on Write Online, our elearning platform:
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