In this month’s Watercooler Chat we discussed the cultural differences we can encounter when working in a global environment.

Coping with different Englishes

All of us taking part in the chat were Anglophone and worked in English. However, we all worked with colleagues and customers scattered around the world for whom English isn’t a first language.

Some of us worked in environments where there can be different versions of English in use across the company worldwide; US, UK, Indian, Australian. It’s not always possible for technical communication groups to expect that only one version of English can be used in documentation worldwide. Regional markets can have their own demands. We need to understand local as well as global situations. There was also the challenge of ensuring correctly written English from globally dispersed writers who used another version of English in their own country.

China and documentation standards

Chinese manuals. Infamous. Often incomprehensible. The “contaminated English” found in many Chinese manuals often seem to be covered in the fingerprints of Google Translate (or an equivalent tool). The English can be amusing but it’s also frustrating to understand and challenging to rewrite.

The reality is that most Chinese companies only sell within China. So when selling internationally, they write their English manuals using the same practices as when they write documents for their own local market. The content is often more descriptive than instructional.

Manuals are usually written by engineers (an increasing number of whom have been trained in the US) as well as translators, whose training may not always produce a good quality of English. The concept of technical communication is in its infancy in China. Few Chinese writers are familiar with the principles of information design.

Chinese companies still have a long way to go in appreciating the benefit quality documentation can have on their profits.

Phone etiquette

We all regularly teleconferenced with colleagues located worldwide. Although great for work and for developing working relationships, a common problem encountered was poor sound quality. This could be due, for example, to people phoning in from their desks or cars, or using mobile phones.

Distracting background noise makes it difficult to clearly hear what’s being said. Native speakers can also speak too quickly. Unfortunately people may not speak up to say that they can’t follow the conversation, either through shyness or for fear that their English could be considered too poor. In a successful teleconference, everyone needs to understand phone etiquette.

Accents can cause problems. Unfamiliar ones can be difficult to understand over a phone line, particularly if there are no visual cues to help. Video conferencing is great but not everyone has access to it.

We all agreed that it’s important to write up the meeting so that everyone is clear on what was discussed and agreed upon, particularly if some may have had problems hearing or understanding what was said.

It takes practice and patience to get used to working with different accents as well as the English spoken by those who don’t have English as their first language.

Great chat

We had a great informative chat with everyone participating and sharing their experiences. Yet cultural differences don’t just cover language and national issues. Unfortunately we ran out of time to discuss the other hot cultural issue, corporate culture, and how it differs around the world.