Have communication problems ever affected the outcomes of your business meetings? Have colleagues abroad frequently misunderstood the instructions you’ve give them? Or perhaps you’ve believed a deal has been struck with a foreign customer, only for them to inform you they are still thinking?

International business meetings can easily be undermined by linguistic and cultural misunderstandings. Not only is this frustrating for everyone involved but it can have serious consequences. According to one survey, 49% of business leaders say linguistic misunderstandings have led to financial losses.

Whether meeting participants are all attempting to all speak in the same language or are using the services of an interpreter or translation tool, the following tips can help reduce the risk of language misunderstandings in international business.

9 ways to improve communication in international business

The 9 following tips will help you to avoid some of the common misunderstandings that can occur during international business meetings.

1.       Speak slowly and clearly

Unsurprisingly, speaking slowly and clearly is one of the best ways of communicating with people who don’t speak your language at an advanced level. When we are speaking our native tongue, we tend to mumble and speak fast. This can be very challenging for individuals who don’t speak the language so well. Slowing down your speech can therefore be a real help for your business partners.

2.       Avoid idioms

It might sound like we’re making a ‘mountain out of a molehill’, or you might think it’s ‘a storm in a teacup’ but using idioms can be really problematic in international business meetings. For people who don’t speak the same language as you, these expressions are very confusing and leave them struggling to follow the conversation.

3.       Avoid jargon

In business it is very common to use specific terms that are well understood within your company or even your wider national business culture. But these words may not translate so well for partners in foreign countries. For example, surveys show that English words like compensation, onboarding, merger, ‘banking on’ and many other terms which feel perfectly normal to native speakers, could be very confusing to someone who doesn’t speak the language. The same goes for acronyms.


Learn more: How much does business interpretation really cost?


4.       Beware of ‘false friends’

False friends are words that sound the same in two different languages, but which have very different meanings. For example, the German word Fabrik does not mean fabric in English – the speaker would actually be talking about a factory. Similarly, an English speaker trying to say they are embarrassed in Spanish might use the word embarazado – meaning to be pregnant!


5.       Ask people to demonstrate their understanding

If people haven’t understood, it is not unusual for them to nod along and appear to agree with what you are saying. However, if you aren’t certain they really get what you mean, it can be valuable to ask them to give an example and ensure you both share the same understanding.


6.       Be aware of cultural differences

Being knowledgeable of how different cultures conduct business can really facilitate your business meetings and avoid a lot of friction.

In some cultures, it is considered polite to spend several minutes before any business meeting inquiring about all participants’ health, family, the weather, sport and so on, before even talking business. In others, it’s normal to go straight to the point. By doing a little online research about what’s considered appropriate in your business partners’ cultures, you can make conversation flow much more smoothly.


7.       Clarify who is expected to do what

If you are working with colleagues who speak in different languages, it is helpful to clearly identify who is expected to do what after the meeting. Some cultures are known as ‘high context’ – this is where people ‘read between the lines’, to understand that their interlocutor is suggesting something they haven’t said out loud.

As an example, you might be in a meeting with colleagues abroad and say something like “we should look into opportunities in country X”. If you’re from a high context culture, you might assume that your foreign business partners understand that you’re suggesting that they look into the opportunities. But if they are from a low context culture, they might not realise you’re asking them to do a task. So, being clear about who’s expected to do what will save a lot of time.


8.       Avoid irrelevant information

When you are discussing a business topic it is useful to avoid sharing irrelevant information. If you are speaking to someone in a different language, they may really struggle to understand which things you’re saying are important and which are simply chit-chat.


9.       Stick to a strict schedule

It’s always beneficial to send around an agenda before any in-person or video call meetings and then stick closely to this fairly formal agenda. While it might take some creativity out of your meetings, it means there is a much higher chance that everyone will feel clear about what has happened and what action points they should take from the meeting.


Improve communication in your business meetings

Speechly is a real-time interpretation tool that works like an interpreter, letting people talk in two directions between multiple global languages. Available for both in-room meetings and online calls with Microsoft Teams, it allows speakers of different languages to have a smooth and reliable business conversation without always needing to hire an interpreter.

By following the above tips while using a tool like Speechly, you can conduct international business meetings more successfully. To see how Speechly works and how it can help with your meetings, contact us today for a demo.