When you fix the objective of building an international business, you rarely consider that the details of this objective are framed from your own perspective and written in your own language. While English is widely-used in the business world, you can never be sure whether the meaning that is so critical for successfully negotiating a business deal or managing a local sales force is shared. Often your partners or employees will feel more comfortable using their own language to communicate important issues. If you conduct the business in English, you may not learn that your partner did not understand you until something does not turn out as expected. If you find yourself needing to cross language borders in order to conduct business, how do you proceed, especially since language is socially constructed and therefore embedded in the culture?
Understanding the embedded meanings requires mastering the language, a process that can be extremely time consuming and difficult. Misinterpreting the words or the cultural meaning associated with them may negatively affect the entire interchange. In the case of a business deal, it may be a deal-breaker.
In these situations, a Multilingual Executive can become a major asset. He or she may even construct bridges and open doors that would not otherwise be opened to an outsider — or at least that could not be opened without a great deal of effort, pain, and time. On the other hand, the poor choice of a Senior Executive can actually create additional obstacles even if he or she is fluent in the language.
So what makes a good Multilingual Executive?
As well as knowing the language, other criteria need to be considered.
It is critical that the Multilingual Executive has immediate and deep understanding of the potential business partner’s message. The Multilingual Executive needs to be able to correctly understand the meaning, not simply the words.
Also it is rare for one language to translate directly into another. The more removed the origins of the two languages are, e.g., English and Chinese, the more complicated the translation becomes. Even among languages that are from the same language family, direct word-for-word translation is rarely elegant and often conjures up quite different feelings in the listener than were intended. The Multilingual Executive must be capable of receiving the same message as the same one that was sent.
Inter-cultural awareness. The Multilingual Executive must possess an empathy with the other business culture, know how to behave, and respect different business protocols if he or she is to be accepted and to instill confidence. Understanding different hierarchy relationships and other business practices is essential to establishing and sustaining successful intercultural business relationships, especially in the case of non native English speaking cultures.
Reading the Reaction of the Respondent
At certain critical points during business communications a combination of competency in the language and human intuition are required to assess the reaction of the other parties and to assist, if necessary, in clarifying hidden implications and potential misconceptions. The intonations and wording of responses may give important clues as to the implied meaning, as may body language. The sincerity and genuineness of a response may be evaluated more accurately from subtle inflections of words than from the words themselves.
Appropriate humour is a very difficult thing to learn, far more difficult than language per se. In many cultures humour is critical for building trust and thus it may be important to have appropriate humor in business transactions. For it to be useful rather than detrimental, the Multilingual Executive must have a keen sense of not only what is appropriate humour in the other culture, but what is appropriate in this particular situation.
While there is a comfort level in staying within your own language and cultural parameters, you may miss some interesting and profitable opportunities if you do so. In this global economy, opportunities often exist world-wide, even for smaller businesses. But you must be prepared to move beyond the comfortable environment of your known world. If you choose wisely, a good Multilingual Executive can be an invaluable business asset.