August 2012
By Sissi Closs

Sissi Closs, a graduate in computer science, is a professor of information and media technology at the technical university of Karlsruhe – as well as the owner and CEO of the Comet-group of companies.


Experts in technical communication working at the Comet Computer GmbH have also contributed to this article. They are:

  • Barbara Reubel, chief editor
  • Antje Baumann, graduate in translations and chief editor
  • Gabriele Kirmse, chief editor
  • Marlis Friedl, senior technical writer
  • Stephan Mittrach, chief editor and trainer
  • Andrew Martin, technical writer

Developing a common language

Organizations today both manufacture and sell globally. This also affects technical writers, who more and more often have to collaborate with international colleagues and business partners. While personal meetings or virtual conferences can be organized without much ado, some things can go wrong with actual communication. Although many employees speak English, there are immense differences in the knowledge of the language and the culture. What measures can be taken to improve communication?

Exchange of information must go smoothly for a team to be successful. A fundamental requirement for this is a common language. But what applies as a common language today? The transformation in the workspace also entails significant changes in this regard. While it was taken for granted in the past that a company would communicate in the regional language, English now prevails in many companies, primarily due to globalization. Naturally, this has implications. Many employees are not native speakers of the language, have learnt it in school and have not developed their knowledge of the language any further. Difficulties are encoutered even in the simplest day-to-day situations.

Informal exchange

The informal exchange of information at work, at the coffee machine or during lunch is one of the most important pillars of knowledge transfer in an organization. It is difficult to start a conversation casually in a foreign language. Lack of knowledge about the foreign culture often makes it difficult to select a simple starting point, the football game on the previous day for instance. And then, there is the fear of making mistakes in the foreign language. Therefore it is better to remain quiet and speak only when necessary, if at all.

Personal meetings

The more diverse the team, the greater the importance of meeting personally to get to know each other better and to create a good common base for the cooperation. Meeting personally is also good when important information needs to be exchanged.

As soon as a person participates, who does not speak the native language, English is spoken. And even when all participants have a good command of the local language, many companies today insist on using English, because they see themselves as international organizations.

Often, the result of a personal meeting is sobering. No costs and efforts are spared organizationally, but communication doesn’t flow as it should due to language and cultural barriers. Anyone not speaking good English has reservations toward expressing themselves before a large group. The foreign language also makes it difficult to bring forward arguments and to conduct intense discussions.

In the worst case, a person desists from expressing his opinion. Topics that come up spontaneously during the meeting can be handled only restrictedly and must be deferred to a later date. At the end you realize that you could have spared yourself the efforts for the result that was achieved. The personal meeting did not achieve the desired added value.

Virtual conferences

Personal meetings are time consuming and expensive. Technology allows a direct exchange even without meeting personally, primarily via the telephone. But the language barriers have an even greater impact on the phone. “International” English and a bad telephone connection make the communication stressful, maybe even impossible. Information is misunderstood or is not received at all.

Virtual conference systems do not improve the situation significantly. Compared to the telephone, greater technical efforts are required. The conference rarely flows smoothly, particularly when it concerns heterogeneous meetings across the organization, in which not all are equipped with the same technology.

Often, more time is in invested in technically building a functioning session rather than the meeting itself. And still, many participants may not connect or may connect only later, because they are at a location where the surroundings are too loud or the connection is bad. Others disappear from the conference suddenly because technology fails. The rest need to regroup again and again, repeat what has been said and finally end the meeting with sparing results.

Written communication

We still have the written exchanges that appear to have many advantages in comparison to the others. It is possible to prepare better, look for words and take the time to formulate correctly.

But the written word weighs more than the spoken one. In a foreign language it is especially difficult to find the appropriate formulation, to set the correct accents, to provide praise or criticism or to express urgency.

It is easy to unintentionally trigger a wrong reaction, because the writer has not mastered the rules of politeness in another language region.

Andrew Martin, our Canadian colleague, provided an example: “For example, it is common in German to include the word “Bitte” in various forms of communication to express politeness. However, in English, the word “please” is seldom used by native speakers because it is too often used in a snarky, sarcastic, or patronizing manner. So while perhaps the German was making an extra effort to be polite, the English counterpart may have taken extreme offence to what was said.”

Another important aspect is the question whether or even when a reaction should be given. Our Canadian colleague has already observed this often in real life:  “When a German receives a request to perform a simple task, that person will generally complete the task promptly and then continue on with their work. Any communication back to the requestor might only occur if there are questions or complications. An American in this situation would generally send confirmation of completion to the requestor. So when the American does not hear anything from the German who is processing the request, the American assumes the task is not completed and gets frustrated. In this scenario, the style and choice of words played no role in the miscommunication. The root cause lies with both the simple decision of whether to communicate and the expectation of communication.”

It is unfortunate when misunderstandings are caused unintentionally, or even insults are perceived, because cultural nuances were not understood and considered.

Good organization, preparation and coordination are important for achieving smooth communication. Much of what we take for granted in our own language and culture must be explicitly considered, planned and addressed.

In the next sections we show how day-to-day situations can be managed.

Admit to understanding 

To overcome language barriers, it is necessary to first deal with them openly and honestly. If someone is unable to express himself well in English, then this should be addressed openly. Admitting this can even help you make friends. After all, it is entirely possible that others have the same problem and are relieved that they are not alone.

As soon as a member expresses difficulties in understanding, the others must react and

  • speak slower,
  • speak clearly and
  • repeat important statements.

Irrespective of their role in the team, those with the best language skills must communicate the important points.

If the wrong translation is selected for German words – like translating the German word “aktuell” into “actual” instead of “current” – this should be corrected quickly.

Language skills can be improved continuously with small aids:

  • Writing words and formulations
  • Pre-formulating sentences
  • Having a native speaker improve formulations
  • Collecting common expressions

An English dictionary should always be available where English is spoken, ideally, as a mobile app. Unknown or unclear words can then be referred easily and quickly.

Written statements can balance out an unsteady verbal communication. An agenda of clearly formulated action points before a meeting is a big help.

Minutes of the meeting should be recorded and circulated after meetings in which important things were discussed, precisely summarizing the results in a way that can be understood easily.

Depending on the knowledge of English, it might make sense to write the most important points in two, or even more languages.

The next figure shows a section from a Wiki of Comet. The Wiki lists expressions that are required often.

@copy;Figure 1: Important expressions on Wiki in two languages

Do not underestimate time differences

The time difference in international projects can be used constructively in Europe due to its central position between east and west. In the evening, the results of the day can be handed over to colleagues, for whom the working day is just beginning. Questions collected over the course of the day are ideally answered by the next morning. Programs such as Microsoft Outlook show time zones and availabilities with the calendar component, so that scheduling while considering time differences is really simple.

Delays are possible because the working hours differ when considered over the year. Some examples: As compared to other countries, Germans have more vacation days. In Israel a working week is from Sunday to Thursday. And don’t forget that holidays differ from country to country and might be extended to created a long weekend.

Figure. 2: Communication in teams distributed geographically and over time zones

Enable participation

Dates for the joint meeting should be scheduled in such a manner that all participants can be present as far as possible. The different conditions in the individual countries must be considered, so that there are no disadvantages. If a project meeting is taking place over several time zones, e.g. in Asia or the USA, consider who can use his home office. This is simpler than making the German participant come to work at 6 in the morning.

Use new alternatives for communication

Conventional means of communication such as email are not always suitable for understanding in the team.

There are now better instruments that include all participants equally irrespective of location and time. Instead of coordinating a meeting in a company specific calendar to which externals have no access, there are now cloud solutions for coordination, for example. The application Doodle is one such solution.

Or instead of sending attachments via email, it makes much more sense to set up a project Wiki, in which written material can be collected and easily made accessible.

It is important that communication and not the technology are in focus here. It is better for team members to give up a system that doesn’t function reliably or has a complex operation and use simpler options that everyone can use without problems.

Remain flexible and relaxed   

The most important factor for good communication between people is and remains a friendly, relaxed atmosphere, in which people meet each other without constraints and with an open mind to exchange information. Using humor when dealing with language gaffes contributes greatly to a good atmosphere and helps to create a common base. Cultural differences then gradually merge into the background.