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Lost and Found in Translation


I heard an anecdotal story while in India, and it made me think about the art of communication. A friend was talking about the person driving him to a meeting, and he asked the driver to “stop here.” The driver promptly stopped the car in the middle of the road. The driver did not pull over first, then stop the car. Rather, the driver did exactly as instructed! Unfortunately, “exactly as instructed” wasn’t quite what the passenger wanted.

As a supervisor, this story made me think about what I assume teammates and colleagues will do without explicit instructions. Sometimes I find myself puzzled when I receive a product that wasn’t what I had hoped it would be. In these situations, I reflect on what I asked the person to do and try to identify any assumptions I made or information I didn’t share. In developing a team, clarity of communication is vital to success. Even among a team of native English speakers, what we say isn’t always what is heard, and one of the arts of supervising is ensuring that the correct message is relayed and also heard.

When communicating internationally, words and language become even more important. Here are a few examples of phrases that don’t translate from English clearly:

  • We invite you to attend the event
    • In many cultures, the word ‘invite’ implies that registration fees are waived and also sometimes that transit expenses are covered
  • May I please request?
    • Not all people understand what we want when we try to be too polite. Directness is very important to clear communication. If tact is required of the communication, it should be done via a phone call.
  • As soon as possible
    • Most cultures don’t have the same sense of urgency that Americans do. Thus, a date should always be included when asking for a response.

Conversely, here are a few common phrases used by other cultures that I’ve incorporated into my daily language to ensure my message is received as intended:

  • Revert back to you
    • Revert usually means reply and is used in an email content; i.e. Sorry for the delay in reverting to you
  • Send a chaser
    • Email someone again since they didn’t reply the first time
  • Best available prices
    • Instead of ‘early-bird’ rates (why do Americans call it this? And how did an English phrase ‘the early-bird catches the worm’ make its way into pricing structures?), we publicize our best available prices

Working across the world in places where English is understood as a second language has challenged me to be more direct and clear in what I need, both in daily interactions with local people and business interactions with colleagues back home. Here are a few tricks I’ve been implementing to make sure my messages are received clearly:

  • Clearly identifying what needs to happen next and who needs to do it (I’m a big fan of bullet points!)
  • Identifying if an item is approved or if I need to see it again before it is distributed
  • When receiving a lot of information, summarizing the information and then identifying what my action items are
  • Video-call to talk live when progress isn’t being made via email

I would love to hear your thoughts below on how you ensure clear communication with your team, and some other phrases that won’t always translate well to/from English. Leave a comment below!

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