Britain may have moved on from a Basil Fawlty approach to international communications, but as we enter turbulent economic conditions, our insular style may be creating a deluded sense of wellbeing.
A clear cultural understanding of our trading partners is crucial in developing a successful business relationship. However, emerging nations are presenting a challenge to our conventional repertoire. Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Georgia are new to the global market, while unfamiliar South American, Asian and Middle Eastern nations are playing an important role on the world's economic stage.
With so many skilled foreign nationals in professional roles in the UK, there is a strong argument for greater awareness of where language ability starts and finishes.
Recent research by the London School of English suggests UK HRDs may be deceived in their assessment of the communications talents of their employees.
Mind your language
Almost all (98%) of HRDs questioned believed their non-native English speakers (working in a professional capacity) could communicate effectively in English. It is significant many HR directors are so confident in the abilities of their native speakers, let alone non-native English speakers who, in specialist professions, often need training in the specific vocabulary, phrases and jargon used by these professions in the UK.
A House of Lords committee highlighted the potential danger to NHS patients created by the below-standard language skills of foreign doctors working in the UK. The Lords Social Policies and Consumer Protection EU Sub-Committee called for additional language training for doctors and nurses transferring into the UK.
English is full of complexities, which can impact on understanding - particularly in professions that interact with the general public. With non-native English speakers taking up pivotal roles in healthcare, law, banking, engineering and management, we need to be sure they are understanding - and being understood.
Everything in moderation
English is the lingua franca of business. The research reinforced this, with a good percentage of HRDs (41%) believing 'it is the responsibility of non-native speakers to make sure they can understand English'. In many ways, this is reasonable. Many trading nations learn English as a second language and use it to communicate with one another, as well as with native English speakers.
What is unexpected is that well over two-thirds (78%) of HRDs surveyed did not consider it necessary to train native English speakers to moderate their language and behaviour when talking to non-native English speakers. The British reluctance to learn foreign languages is well documented, but these results suggest our insular attitudes are more far-reaching.
Perhaps we British are so impressed with our overseas partners' ability to speak English we see no requirement to make concessions for them. Or perhaps, as a nation we have not given the notion of adapting our behaviour to help others a great deal of thought. Training staff to avoid jargon, slang, and complex vocabulary does not appear a priority to many UK businesses, but surely it would be polite to make the effort? In truth, with very little exertion, we could put our international business partners at ease, and, as a consequence, potentially make the difference between business success and failure.
Accent on the politically incorrect
As a liberal-minded nation, we embrace the UK's regional variations. We are comfortable hearing English spoken in a wide variety of accents by non-native speakers living and working in the UK. Our ears have little problem deciphering the language from the accent. But is it fair to expect non-native-English-speaking trading partners to be able to decode these accents? The research showed half (48%) of UK HRDs believe English spoken with a strong regional or foreign accent would not affect understanding by a non-native English speaker and only a quarter (22%) would consider training to improve understanding.
Accents have a dramatic impact on understanding and it is illogical to think otherwise. A Spanish negotiator working for a UK business may have excellent English; but, if that is hidden under a thick Madrid accent, it is going to be difficult for his (English-speaking) Chinese counterpart to understand - particularly on the phone. Equally, a strong British regional accent can baffle an overseas business partner, who might have learnt their English in Australia or the US. With the right training, it is extremely simple for someone with a competent grasp of English to soften their accent, which can make all the difference between clarity and confusion.
When it comes to cultural understanding, the research showed two-thirds of HR directors (67%) believed it was 'very important' for businesspeople to have a good cultural understanding of their trading partners. Less than a quarter (23%) were prepared to convert that belief into supporting cross-cultural training - and only 10% had budget to pay for the training.
The way countries and cultures do business varies dramatically and to believe we can treat all our trading partners the same is condescending and risky. If we adapt our behaviours, we have a greater chance of improving communications and boosting our chances of building successful, long-term business associations.
Acknowledging the need to implement coaching in this area is a small step, and one more businesses are likely to take, once they recognise that beneath the homogenous business suits, we are all very different.
Checking Anglo-Saxon values
Most of the Anglo-Saxon world, which includes the UK, Northern Europe and North America, takes a task-based philosophy to work. But, many cultures put a much greater emphasis on personal relationships. So, for example, if you were making a Powerpoint presentation in Dubai, you might find your potential business partner had lost interest in your presentation within a few minutes. They are far more interested in you, your experience and how you work, than your graphs and charts. But if you aren't prepared for this, it can be disconcerting.
Cross-cultural training (CCT) is designed to increase international understanding. It provides people with a more sophisticated appreciation of cultural differences and delivers the tools to develop an ongoing sensitivity to a variety of cultures. Good CCT goes beyond national differences; it looks at the influence of regional variations, corporate cultures and personality types. Understanding how to lead, persuade and influence people is often the skill required to lift people to the top of their professions. Cultural training taps into all these elements. It is, in essence, about understanding what makes someone tick.
But this kind of training is not about etiquette. It is not about how to behave at a formal function, or what your spouse should wear to a client dinner. And it is not about how to speak a foreign language.
It is about exploring behaviours and motivations and encouraging people to be more culturally aware. Maybe it is the abstract nature of this training that makes the need for it less obvious.
An 'un-British' approach
It is extraordinary how easily communications can break down because, although we might be speaking the same language, we don't necessarily understand each other.
A good example is the different ways nations deliver bad news - and the confusion this can cause. Here in the UK, we tend to couch our bad news in something positive - a good news/bad news approach. We prefer to start with some encouraging information, drop in the bad news mid-conversation and then return to something optimistic to finish.
If you are calling another Brit, they will pick up on the bad news, recognise the subtle delivery and continue with the conversation politely, probably only dropping their calm pretence once they put down the phone.
However, if you were delivering this same information to an international client in the Ukraine, it would be wise to rethink your communications strategy. Eastern Europeans prefer straight talking. Bad news delivered the British way might not be fully understood. If they fail to comprehend the extent of the problem due to your subtle approach, the issue could escalate, leaving you in the firing line when the penny drops.
In the current economic climate, we need to ensure the UK remains a player in the world economy. If we aren't prepared to reach out and communicate with businesspeople from all cultures, countries and backgrounds, we are in danger of dropping further down the global business league.
The lack of importance - and budget - placed on language and communication training by UK-based businesses is disquieting. In a competitive international market, every element of a business strategy is crucial. A failure to recognise the significance of effective communications with overseas business partners is a classic British mistake and one that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.
Hauke Tallon is managing director at the London School of English