Tomayto, Tomahto... Communication across Culture in the Same Language - Virtual Assistant Israel

Tomayto, Tomahto… Communication across Culture in the Same Language

Most people think of communication as conveying a piece of information or expressing a need or want, etc. However, communication (hence the co-) actually means that the other party received the message.  It’s not enough to technically see or hear it, but to understand it.  Until the message goes sender → receiver → understanding → acknowledgment of that understanding, communication has not actually taken place.

This phenomenon is particularly sensitive in the work environment.  A manager may say, “Why didn’t you do what I asked you to do? I sent that message to you four days ago!” The employee may say, “I thought you were addressing that to Mary, because she was also in the “to” field and that is normally a task she manages.” Or, “I was on vacation last week; don’t you remember? I sent that email reminder out the week before!”  “I was working off mobile that week. Didn’t you get my memo that I’d only be reading my WhatsApp messages and not checking email?”  And on and on.

Clouding this already vulnerable space is the ever-expanding workplace – the virtual sphere. Now, a business owner from San Francisco may have a site supervisor in Mumbai, Ghana, or the Philippines. The New York Wall Street mogul trades securities all day with London.  The Australian entrepreneur calls on the American Virtual Assistant Israel team member as a middle-time-zones maven – helping to execute global workflow from a more central location.

Sure, everyone is speaking English but communication can get lost in three translations:

  • Vocabulary (formal and colloquial/turns of phrase/slang)
  • Spoken Accent
  • Culture

Would the American know off the bat that to the UK colleague a lorry is a truck, a lift is not a car or a ride but rather an elevator, and one would not hail a taxi but rather hire a car?  Hey, sidebar – what does “off the bat” mean, again?  Your friend in India is curiously wondering how we got to the subject of bats?  What do flying foxes have to do with this?  No, it’s a riff off the stick used in baseball.  Baseball… baseball… oh, you mean, Cricket?  No, I don’t hear any crickets… 

When dealing across global terrain, we must learn to get along (get on?) with our colleagues in ways that bridge the gap.  First, before getting past accent, slang, and varying lexicon, one must first adopt an attitude of inquiry.  It would be quite gauche to call (or is that phone, or ring up) your British manager during any designated tea times (hint – there are more than one!) so it’s courteous to ask when are the best times to be in touch.   Others may have adopted quite formal rules of engagement in which you must never be in touch without a prior appointment set within their “calling times” (working hours).  

If your South African VA hears you indicate you would like something done now, they may ask you “do you mean this instant or in a short while?”  The word “now” to a South African can mean past, present, or future and the defining context for each can be a bit confusing and befuddling to an American sensibility. 

Your British manager may come across as a brusk taskmaster, and ask for more “proof in the pudding”. We can’t just have you hanging about (hanging around) like you’re on the dole (collecting welfare).  They may be more apt to expect (with or without knowing this needs to be communicated across culture) that you are able to account for every moment you spend on the clock, and be able to draw out any piece of information they are looking for at the drop of a dime (hat) or on a whim (a lark).  Wait, where did this bird come from? 

Hey, don’t call her a bird! She’s a refined professional, you turkey!

Regionally, American dialects and approaches may also vary greatly.  Someone from New York may be used to a faster paced conversation style than their Atlanta counterpart and might have a substantial learning curve interpreting the sugar coated snake venom that can permeate from a dissatisfied Southerner.  “Bless your heart” can be a genuine genteel phrase akin to “you’re so precious”, but more than likely means “I’m tired of hearing you talk” at best and something a bit more along the lines of what a midtown Manhattan cab driver might have to say during traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge.  “You’re so precious” can mean, “you’re adorable” but it could also mean “I think you’re a total dolt. You poor unfortunate thing.”  Just like the South African “shame” and the Israeli “chaval” can take on multiple forms based on the context of use. 

It’s critically important if you are working with someone who hails from a different region from you that you prioritize understanding their communication style, cultural norms, and use of syntax.  This is equally important to learning their work style and you’d be surprised how much culture influences the approach to work.  Imperial cultures may be more prone to formality and hierarchy.  Familial cultures may lean toward more inclusive and laissez-faire approaches.  

Don’t assume clear communication, even if you all think you’re speaking in plain English!