In today’s global setting, there’s a high chance that you regularly communicate—whether face-to-face or virtually—with prospects, clients, colleagues or others from diverse countries and cultures. Not only might these folks think and act differently from what you’re used to, they might also speak English as a second language (ESL). Personally, I am impressed with, and envious of, people who speak multiple languages. Their brains fire rapidly enough to listen in one language and compute to respond in another language within seconds. But it’s no secret—intercultural communication isn’t always easy, for either party.

Most of us can recall a phone call with someone who had difficulty expressing themselves due to a lack of familiarity with the language. There may have been silence. You might have found yourself looking toward your colleague and mouthing, “What did they just say?” or, “Why aren’t they responding to what we just said?”

Our work at CultureWizard is made up of many interactions like these, and our clients regularly ask us for intercultural communication strategies so they can effectively interact with ESL business partners.

Here are some best practice techniques that can help you learn to work effectively with clients, colleagues, and others who speak English as a second language.

3 Tips to Master Intercultural Communication with ESL Folks

1. Slow down. When speaking in our native language, we tend to speak quickly—even though we might not realize it. Slowing down your pace can give ESL folks the time they need to accurately process what you’re trying to say.

2. Be patient. Depending on cultural background, silence is something that can make many people uncomfortable. For others, silence can be a sign of reflection, respect or a simple pause to enable a thoughtful response. Add this on top of an ESL person’s need to mentally translate your message and their response, and you’re likely to encounter moments of silence. By being patient in these moments, whomever your interacting with will be better able to convey their message.

3. Skip the Slang. ‘Put it on the back burner,’ ‘hit it out of the park’ and ‘bite the bullet’ are just a few terms that get used around an American conference table, but they can leave many ESL speakers confused. Instead, use plain English to say what you mean and mean what you say.

These tips will help native speakers communicate with non-native speakers by allowing them time and space to process what they have heard and reach for a response. But don’t forget—using these techniques takes practice before it becomes habit.

Use this Exercise to Put Yourself in an ESL Person’s Shoes

Above, I mentioned three seemingly simple (yet challenging to flex) suggestions you can incorporate into your daily interactions and communications. But they don’t offer insight into how challenging it can be to understand how much energy ESL speakers must expend in an “ordinary” conversation.

To remedy that, here is an effective language simulation called Redundancia (created by Nipporica Associates). To get a feel for the mental gymnastics ESL folks must do while communicating across cultures, ask a coworker or friend to try this exercise with you:

Set a timer for two minutes. Take that time to describe to your coworker what you did that morning, but repeat each verb with a synonymous verb.

For example: “This morning, I got up / arose from bed. I stumbled / walked to the kitchen. Then, I made / cooked breakfast…”

Meanwhile, your coworker should strive to be attentive and encouraging, all while making sure you continue to use double verbs.

Then you can switch roles.

You might be asking, “What’s the point?” Good question. The purpose of the activity is to put yourself in the position of someone who expends great mental energy every minute, hour, and day to listen, understand and respond intelligently—all in another language. Give it a try for the full two minutes. It is surprisingly difficult and draining! 

There’s no doubt that intercultural communication can be uncomfortable at times, especially when talking to ESL colleagues, customers, and clients. But it is important to remember that communication is a two-way street. This means it is also the responsibility of native speakers to enable productive conversations. Fortunately, being patient, slowing down, allowing for silence, using plain English and employing empathy will help your cross-cultural interactions be successful.

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