Cultural intelligence and offshore success, part 2

Cultural intelligence keeps communication from getting stiff.
Cultural intelligence keeps communication from getting stiff.

This week I had an opportunity to help mediate between a company and its offshore help desk.  A friend invited me to participate on a conference-call with overseas managers of their offshore help desk.  I wrote previously about how internal cultural intelligence allows companies to overcome cross-cultural challenges arising from off-shoring work.  I helped my friend’s company by explaining US culture to the overseas managers and I showed my interest in their culture by speaking their language. By speaking two words of their language, I showed my genuine interest in overcoming our communication gap.

The teleconference I attended included some of my friend’s management and the managers from the offshore help desk.  Negative customer feedback–among other reasons–prompted the call.  People who were used to calling the US help desk (back before it was offshore) complained that they could not understand the new help-desk staff and that they felt that the help-desk staff didn’t understand them.  And these people often expressed their sentiments rudely.

I tried to comfort the offshore managers that they were not to blame, even though the comments sounded awfully personal.  I explained to the overseas managers that many Americans did not understand the challenges of cross-cultural communication.  In the context of these managers, many people conducted daily life in more than one language; in the US, most of our people could not do so, even if the opportunity arose.  Many Americans go through their days speaking only English and hearing English entirely from native speakers.  As a result, accented English sounds to them very strange, unfamiliar, and even threatening.

While the meeting continued on in a standard, formal manner, the end took a turn as I spoke a few words of the staff’s language.  During the call, I had brought up the page from with common phrases in their language.  I ended the call with simply, “Thank you.  Good-bye,” in their language.  The formality loosened as they all smiled (presumably) and laughed (audibly).  My friend said this was the sound of a hug; if this had been a face-to-face meeting, they would have hugged me.  One American speaking two words of their language advanced our mutual goodwill tangibly.

As a side note, I coincidentally started that same day speaking French with the same results. The company I work for has an office in Quebec.  I had called someone who had been having some trouble and had reached her French-language voicemail message.  After I sent her an email in French, she emailed back in French.  So I called her up, but this time I left her a voice mail in French.  When she finally called me back, I let her decide what language we would speak in, and she decided on English.  Nevertheless, I could hear her smile over the phone that *she* got to decide what language to speak.  How often does a Quebecois decide which language to speak with someone from the States?

Has your language skills or interests helped lighten a difficult situation?  Have you seen where cross-cultural communication helps a difficult situation?  Have you worked with off-shore help desks?

“Like” this post if you’re ready to have Omniglot at the ready next time you make your next overseas phone call!

Photo credit: Alba Soler Photography / / CC BY-NC-ND

6 thoughts on “Cultural intelligence and offshore success, part 2

  1. I was in Key West in January, and while out shopping with my friend, one of the people at the till had made a mistake by charging me for four items instead of three. I pointed this out, only to get a blank look in return.
    I speak British English, and I’ve come across Americans (mainly children with little exposure to UK TV series etc.) who have had trouble understanding, and, as I was realising, many Latinos for whom English is a second language and who’ve only ever heard US English, also have this problem. So I switched to Spanish, and the mix-up was duly sorted out. Despite me speaking Peninsular Spanish, lol.


    1. That’s great, that your “foreign” English was aided by your “foreign” Spanish! My dad had some trouble understanding Brits because of their accent, and my Australian friend was shocked by how many Americans thought he was British. We’re in the most international country in the world, and the most isolated. How is that possible?


      1. I haven’t the foggiest 😉
        Reminds me of the time when I was sitting in a taxi with a friend from New Zealand in Albuquerque. We were chatting to the driver, and he asked my friend what language they spoke in NZ… sigh.


  2. Pingback: American mutlilingualism | Loving Language

  3. It’s great to hear that Omniglot is useful to you. I often use the phrases from my site in a similar way and it’s nice to know that other people do as well. Even a few words in someone’s language can help to make connections and break down barriers.


    1. Yes, thanks to all the contributors at Omniglot! It’s amazing how their work can be used in these situations.

      A simple greeting in another language really helps make connections, as you say. I have a friend who works in global supply chain management. He always has greetings on his screen in different languages so that when he pings someone in another country, he greets them in their language.

      It’s so little extra work, yet it makes a big difference.


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