Words Matter: Communicating Effectively in the New Global Office

Words Matter: Communicating Effectively in the New Global Office

by Elizabeth Keating, Sirkka L. Jarvenpaa

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In a twenty-first-century global economy, in which multinational companies coordinate and collaborate with partners and clientele around the world, it is usually English that is the parlance of business, research, technology, and finance. Most assume that if parties on both ends of the conference call are fluent English speakers, information will be shared seamlessly and without any misunderstanding. But is that really true?
Words Matter examines how communications between transnational partners routinely break down, even when all parties are fluent English speakers. The end result is lost time, lost money, and often discord among those involved. What’s going wrong? Contrary to a common assumption, language is never neutral. Its is heavily influenced by one’s culture and can often result in unintended meanings depending on word choice, a particular phrase, or even one’s inflection. A recent study of corporate managers found that one out of five projects fail primarily because of ineffective transnational communication, resulting in the loss of millions of dollars.
In Words Matter, you will venture into the halls of multinational tech companies around the world to study language and culture at work; learn practical steps for harnessing research in communication and anthropology to become more skilled in the digital workplace; and learn to use the “Communication Plus Model,” which can be easily applied in multiple situations, leading to better communication and better business outcomes.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520965171
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/18/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 1,052,067
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Elizabeth Keating is a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, and an award-winning scholar in the field of linguistic anthropology. She has researched communication and design practice among engineers, mathematicians, doctors, and programmers and has also studied the impact of new communication technology on deaf families and their interactions with sign language.

Sirkka L. Jarvenpaa is an award-winning scholar and professor in business administration at the University of Texas, Austin, where she also directs the Center for Business, Technology, and Law. She studies and writes about virtual organizations and teams as well as global electronic commerce.

Read an Excerpt

Words Matter

Communicating Effectively in the New Global Office

By Elizabeth Keating, Sirkka L. Jarvenpaa


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96517-1


Communication in the Wild


Let's go back to the American engineering firm after the tense phone call between Dave and Constantin had concluded. Even after four months of collaboration, communication between the two offices was still a problem.

"I don't understand why those guys don't just simply know what to do!" said Jim, one of the American engineers, after the cross-continental meeting had ended.

Another engineer, Bob, remarked that if they could only work together face to face, they wouldn't have these communication problems, and many others nodded. The reality was that traveling to work face to face was too expensive. Maybe an executive or two could go to a distant work site. Not the whole engineering team, though.

Lee, an American engineer, suggested a solution to us when we interviewed him later: "We just need to be more direct and clear."

Direct and clear. It's worth spending some time with Lee's idea. Could the American, Brazilian, Indian, and Romanian engineers understand each other better if they were direct and clear? To an engineer, this sounds plausible.

To many other people, his suggestion might seem reasonable as well. We had heard something similar from engineers in other offices: "Let's make what we say — or write in emails — unambiguous." But we knew enough about communication to be doubtful. Many people think that directness, clarity, and lack of ambiguity make for good communication, and that a good communicator is someone with those traits. But once you dig into this suggestion, you realize that it's not so workable after all. You also might start to see that it's not the only assumption that people hold about communication. In our work, we collected a lot of these assumptions, many of which don't match what people communicating with digital tools in the global workplace need to know about culture and communication.

One red flag that's raised by Lee's suggestion is, Can an utterance really be made "neutral," and can information really stand alone? Lee has assumed that information other than a key message is unnecessary and confuses people. His idea assumes that information can be abstracted out of one context or situation, reorganized clearly, and then delivered concisely and without ambiguity in another. But take the following sentence as an example: Jim asks Dumitru, "Where are those engineering drawings you were going to send me?" What the speaker really means by this sentence doesn't exist anywhere in the sentence. In this case, key information isn't located in the words themselves but rather in the surrounding context as well as in people's memories of other such sentences and how they played out. The speaker is not asking for a precise location of the drawings, but rather is making a complaint that something promised wasn't delivered. A perfectly coherent answer might be: "Oh sorry, I'm running behind." An impudent or joking answer would be the exact location (seemingly) asked for — for example, "Right here on my desk." How can it be that the coherent answer is the one that doesn't answer "where" but instead answers "why" or even "when"? Isn't "where" what was asked for? And how in the world can the answer to the real content ("where") be impudent?

Lee thinks that a good communicator can create an utterance that's decipherable by any audience if it's clear and direct. We can see that this view looks to be in trouble. It ignores many aspects of the ways that people really communicate with each other, notably the role of context and cultural conventions and habits. In this case, using the question "Where are the drawings?" potentially avoids conflict by using a question about location. The utterance's intended action or impact is to get the other person to send the drawing as soon as possible, to express one's disappointment at the unexpected delay, and also to preserve the relationship.

Lee might disagree. As an engineer, he might point out that clarity and directness do matter in technical fields like science and engineering, where engineering knowledge is thought to be easily detached from an engineer and his surrounding culture. Engineers tend to think that mathematical symbols make up a universal language that's culture-independent. While it's true that math symbols are a universal means of communicating certain types of relationships, people who study math education know that culture still has a role to play. For instance, there's no single way to do mathematics procedures like counting, ordering, sorting, measuring, and weighing; each culture has its own procedures. You can see this in something as simple as numerical ordering for the date. In the European system, it's day-month-year (e.g., 20–6–2015), while Americans use month-day-year (6–20–2015). There are dates of the year that can easily be confused with each other if you don't understand which system the numbers stand for. And these number differences were confused by the Americans and the Romanians we studied. After several costly mishaps about delivery dates, they decided to use the word for the day of the month instead of the numeral.

It turns out that technical and professional knowledge is not easily pulled from its cultural context after all. Even though the Indian engineers, like the other engineers, considered engineering to be universally understandable because it's "all math," they told us one story that they thought illustrated some communication problems they'd been having. The story was about one American company's confusing way of categorizing drawings. It turns out that the professional knowledge they all shared about engineering design was wrapped in other information they didn't share. The American company used two similar labels for two different stages of a technical document: "issued for comments" and "issued for checking." The Indian engineer explained to us that from his point of view, there was no difference between issuing a drawing for comments and issuing it for checking. In both cases, engineers checked the work and made comments. As he explained, "If you find something that needs to becommented on, you comment." After multiple misunderstandings about how and when to make comments on drawings, the Indians sought clarification from the Americans but didn't get a satisfactory answer. They still got in trouble for doing the wrong thing. Ultimately they figured out on their own that the Americans' terms denoted two different types of drawings in an important sequence. First a drawing was made and issued for comments, then a comment cycle followed, and then the drawing was returned to the design team. Then it was fixed and "issued for checking." Misunderstandings had occurred because the engineers in Kolkata had described a drawing as "issued for checking" when it was really still in the comment stage, and therefore the wrong conclusions were drawn as to how much work had been accomplished or what stage the work was in. Even worse, the credibility of the Indian team had suffered as a result. This may seem like a very minor issue at first glance, but the consequences of this misunderstanding were not minor at all. The Indian team's credibility was damaged, and it took time, lots of analysis, and a number of mishaps before anyone could get to the bottom of the problem.

Internally, home-grown terms like these seem easy to understand. But when the communications go global and no one bothers to explain them because the assumption is that they're obvious, all sorts of problems can arise. And if the only interactions are through digital spaces, people can't learn things by observing what goes on in the office, or see how the terms fit into the real life cycle of a drawing as they see the drawing move around through the different desks in the office.

Another problem with Lee's idea to be direct and clear is that people sometimes withhold critical information deliberately. What results is that important information gets located in what's not said. For instance, American engineers who were working with Brazilian engineers told us that they wished the Brazilians would "just say no" instead of avoiding giving negative news, which the Americans thought slowed things down. But from the Brazilians' perspective, they weren't ignoring anyone. Rather, Brazilians have a cultural aversion to directly refusing requests. For them, it felt most correct to refuse indirectly. In a similar way, the Romanian engineers thought the Americans were withholding critical information when they didn't offer feedback. The Americans, on the other hand, tended to assume that when they didn't give any feedback, their collaborators would conclude that everything was okay. After all, if there's no complaint, then the job's been well done. But when we talked to the Indians and Romanians, we found that they experienced the Americans' silence or lack of feedback about the quality of their work as criticism. The result was that the Indians and Romanians thought they were being criticized (because of what was not said), when the Americans were actually satisfied with the work. As you might already have guessed, when Americans heard nothing from Indians, Romanians, or Brazilians, the Americans assumed everything was fine. As we demonstrated in the situation in which Arjun and the other Indians were not asking questions, engineers sometimes have very good culturally based reasons for not saying anything, regardless of the positive or negative status of the project. In all cases, these unexpected interpretations of what isn't said resulted in costly delays and feelings of being unacknowledged as a human being.

We're not done picking on Lee's suggestion to make communication "clear and direct," because it has another assumption embedded in it. This is the assumption that people in a communicative situation have one of two states: either they have information or they don't. Said another way, this is the assumption that if there's no information to convey, there's no point in communicating. But take the following sentence: "It's cold in here." Or "You're late." Or when Dumitru says, "Yes, but it's Friday afternoon." In these sentences, the speaker isn't really passing along information that the other person doesn't have. Rather, the person is using language to reflect on his or her relationship with another person. The statements are a kind of complaint that the person doesn't feel the relationship is being properly taken care of. The hearer has to infer what's being said (someone should turn the heat up, or I expect an explanation, or should we be expected to work on Saturday). Maybe a topic is being opened for negotiation. All of this reflects how language does "social" work and has social goals; it doesn't just pass information along.

Or take the example in which American engineer Don said to one of the Romanian engineers about the Romanian design, "Just look at it. It looks weird." All the engineers were staring at the same model, even though some were at their desks in a small two-story building on a tree-lined side street in a Romanian town while others were at their desks in humid Houston, beside an eight-lane freeway. By saying, "Just look at it," Donwas assuming that the Romanian engineers already knew what a design was supposed to look like. "Just look at it" is a directive to Dumitru and his other colleagues to use information they already have about design. The problem is that Dumitru has his own idea of what makes a good design, and the Romanians have used this so-called weird design on other projects before. In these sentences, Don isn't just passing along data or information that he knows to one who doesn't know; he's trying to get something done: change a drawing. If you inspect these utterances purely for their informational value (just look at it; it's cold; it's Friday) and not as something intended to produce action in the hearers, you might miss the messages they carry.

One afternoon, the Romanian and American engineers were on a conference call to check a design for a series of pipes that were going to carry crude oil and other fluids in the processing plant. The digital 3-D model was on their screens. The engineers on each continent clustered around the computer monitors, staring at the piping diagrams. The pipes were colored blue, yellow, red, and purple to signify separate stages of design and different functions. In this remarkable scene, both sets of engineers were able to see the same computer model at exactly the same time. However, as we've discussed, assuming that everyone is interpreting what they're looking at in the same way is a mistake. This became most clear when Bob said to Dumitru "Can we make that water line at the top more accessible?"

On the surface, it looked like Bob was seeking information about whether something could be done. But in the way that Bob used English, he was really telling Dumitru to change the water line. What Dumitru may or may not have known is that Americans make directives polite by giving them in the form of a question about ability. If he didn't recognize that, there would undoubtedly be problems with the design process. But maybe he had enough experience with native English speakers to recognize that questions about ability are one of the most favored form of English directives. English speakers say, "Can you open that window?"; "Can you pass the grits and gravy?"; "Can you stop interrupting me?" Children, when they're being mischievous or "naughty" (as the British English and Indian English speakers say), will play around with the form of these directives and reply, "No, I can't [stop interrupting you]." They've merely answered the surface or apparent form of the question (about ability). This has the predictable result of annoying the one who wanted some quiet and had formulated a polite directive to get it.

American directives also often contain the word we or let's as a way to mitigate the force of ordering someone else to stop what they're doing and pay attention to one's needs. The let's is misleading, too. It pretends the action will be collaborative, and that you will do it together. But only Dumitru is being directed to change the water line.

In fact, even though it's true that Dumitru, João, and others you will meet in this book learned English in school or on the job, they won't necessarily be aware that Bob's sentence doesn't mean what it seems to mean.

The indirectness that Americans prefer to use (like when they ask about a person's ability in order to get that person to do something) is difficult for nonnative English speakers to interpret. To American ears, though, nonnative English speakers can seem too direct, impolite, and disrespectful. But that's because nonnative English speakers are used to the grammatical tools of their own native languages, like using pronoun choice to carry respect messages — something we'll get to in a bit.

Let's go back to Lee's suggestion that all communication be "direct and clear" and linger on the notion of directness. Why are people, as one Indian engineer stated, "maddeningly indirect?" (He had been talking about an American engineer.) Some cultures do value directness, but most cultures value indirectness. Boldly directing another person threatens that person's desire to be treated with dignity; it's considered to be a poor way to motivate someone to do things. Over centuries of human collaboration, every culture has devised ways to limit the potential conflict generated by telling someone what to do (and therefore taking away their autonomy).

Thinking about directness gets us back to the common assumption that communication is always about transmitting information. This assumption is bolstered by popular metaphors (in American English, anyway) that encourage the idea that when you communicate there is someone who knows more and someone who knows less. Well-known idioms display the sense that communication is about passing information from a single human brain to another. Metaphors like "Let me see if I can get this idea across to you" and "That went over my head" and "He didn't come across well" all reinforce the notion that information moves from one person over to another in discrete packets, and that these packets can be designed to be understood even if they're taken out of context or sent to someone new. (The underlying metaphor is one of communication as a conduit or pipeline). Lee's suggestion about "clear and direct" communication is rooted solidly in this metaphor. If we keep the conduit between us uncluttered with social interchange, he is saying, then communication will surely be more likely to succeed. The metaphor leads people to assume that communication consists of two separate and independent processes: that of encoding (speaking) and decoding (hearing). People are focusing on packets of information when they say, "It didn't compute" or "The message got lost in the process." But our brains don't work like machines.


Excerpted from Words Matter by Elizabeth Keating, Sirkka L. Jarvenpaa. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. A Duty to Die
2. Bringing a Gun to a Fistfight
3. Don’t Lie to Me
4. Show Me Yours
5. Dead Dogs Don’t Bark
6. When Is Fruit a Vegetable?
7. Private Parts
8. Is a Burrito a Sandwich?
9. Haunted Contracts
10. That Jet Won’t Fly
11. What Have You Done for Me Lately?
12. The Dancer Who Didn’t Dance
13. A Peerless Peer
14. And the Band Played On
15. Don’t Do Me Like That
16. The Five-Year-Old Defendant
17. Don’t Forget to Duck
18. The Worth of a Chance
19. Pray at Your Own Risk
20. Coin-Flip Wrongdoers
21. Growing Your Own
22. Your Body, My Body
23. Imagine No (Copyright) Possessions
24. My Barbie World
25. A Time for Dying
26. The Voice of God
27. Judging Jenna
28. Three Generations
29. A Good Walk Spoiled
30. That’s My Mother You’re Talking About!
31. Funeral Crashers
32. Bench Memo


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