Communicate with internationals effectively

By Petra Navel

Do you ever feel impatient when communicating with different cultures in business? You might have a tight timeframe and need to get the deal done quickly. There is no time to take a step back, reflect on your language and whether it might contain judgement and prejudices. 

When I was working in Ireland, I often heard sentences like: “Oh Germans, you know they don‘t have a sense of humor. They all wear dirndl’s or lederhosen and eat strange food.“ What was I supposed to reply in this case? Although it might have sometimes been meant as a joke, it wasn‘t funny because it alienated me from my colleagues and friends. I also got the impression that the other person might not like me. On the other hand, do you think this kind of judgment and observation might be helpful information for visitors to Germany? Probably not.

Why do we use stereotypes especially in connection with other cultures?

They give our brain a “first orientation“ when it comes to meeting strangers. This is perfectly normal because we need to process information about strangers. But this should be all it’s for. Stereotypes don‘t give a realistic picture of the other person because they are generalisations. That’s why it is important to try and see the individual person. 

Since our brain is a lazy organ, we need to make some effort and reflect before speaking to strangers. But generalizations are more convenient than reflecting for our brain – so what should we do?

We should remember the aim we want to reach e.g. when negotiating with a business partner. This could be, for example, getting a deal done. In that case, we would try to avoid expressing negative feelings about other cultures or judging them.

 Let’s have a look at an example. You are punctual and have scheduled an appointment for a business meeting at 9 am with a foreign business partner. At 10 am you have another important meeting. Your business partner arrives at 9.30 for the meeting, and you are stressed because you only have half an hour to negotiate. Nevertheless, it is important to remain positive and polite in your conversation and not to let the stressful situation get the better of you. It might be perfectly normal to arrive 30 minutes later in your business partner’s culture, which is not impolite for him. It happened to me with some English-speaking business partners/clients, and it is easy to make assumptions about their work ethic or even jump to conclusions about the whole culture. 

It is important to get past the frustration of not having your expectations met and see what is guiding the person’s actions. People who are less time-centred are often more relationship/people-centered. There might also be a thing or two that we can learn from them.

Dealing with prejudice and judgement – a mindset shift

In order to remain positive and polite in business – especially in stressful situations – it is important to remember what you want to achieve e.g. a business deal, start a good business relationship, etc. Prejudice, as well as judgemental language, isn’t helpful in this regard.

So try and reflect before you start the conversation. It is okay to use fillers like “you know”, “in other words”, “well” etc. They slow us down and give us a little time to think before we speak.  Let’s take the example of your business partner being late.

Instead of saying: ”You are late for the meeting. It was supposed to start 30 minutes ago”, you want to reflect on whether this sentence would be very helpful for your business partner. How would he feel? If you say: “Well, we might need to skip a point or two on our agenda due to our limited timeframe”, your partner gets the message without feeling hurt.

One of my favourite exercises to help clients is to hold a roleplay situation to help deal more diplomatically with culturally sensitive situations. Once my clients have experienced different ways of expressing themselves in roleplay, they notice the difference and appreciate the more diplomatic way.

If you require more help on the matter, you are welcome to get in touch.

Petra Navel has been a trainer and coach for business English for over 13 years and has supported numerous specialists and managers from various sectors such as logistics, mechanical engineering, automotive, etc. in speaking English confidently and calmly in business life. Check out her website for more information:


  1. Timeframe (noun): Zeitrahmen
  2. Impression (noun): Eindruck
  3. Generalisation (noun): Verallgemeinerung
  4. Jump to conclusions (phrase): voreilige Schlüsse ziehen
  5. Supposed to (verb.): be required to do something because of the position one is in or an agreement one has made.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some stereotypes you have about other cultures?
  2. What are some stereotypes you’ve heard about your own cultural group from others?
  3. How can we become more aware of our stereotypes when communicating with internationals?

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