Chapter 7: Learn the other side’s language—even if they do speak yours

At some point, every American who works in the international business arena asks the following question:

“I know that the overseas firm our company works with has appointed a representative who speaks English, so why should I bother to learn their language?”

The question is reasonable. Why not rely on this person’s language skills?

Let’s consider a typical international project scenario. Suppose that your company is working on a long-term project with a Korean firm. You have been given the responsibility of serving as the main contact to the Korean company. Over the next four to five years, you will be working extensively with the Korean partner, and you will be traveling to Korea on a bimonthly basis.

It turns out that one of your counterparts, Mr. Kim, excelled in English during his school days, and has kept up with the language since graduation. When you talk to him on the phone, he particularly impresses you with his ability to understand everything you say, and his mastery of English vocabulary. He even throws in little bits of English slang, like “cool” and “sure thing.”

However, you have another counterpart in the Korean company, Ms. Lee. Ms. Lee also studied English in school, but she was more interested in subjects like math and computer science. Although she has thought about brushing up on the English she learned as a student, she is too busy with other tasks. And besides—she never really liked English as a field of study.

When Ms. Lee and Mr. Kim visit your company’s headquarters, you are able to establish a rapport with Mr. Kim, but it is difficult to talk to Ms. Lee because of her limited grasp of English. And establishing a rapport with Ms. Lee is important; you discover that Ms. Lee—not Mr. Kim—is the real decision-maker on the Korean side.

Several weeks later, you make your first trip to Korea. You are relieved to note that the signs in Kimp’o International Airport are in English as well as Korean. Otherwise, you would not be able to find your way to the baggage claim area.

Mr. Kim is waiting for you on the other side of customs. As he drives you to his company’s office, he points out the sights in downtown Seoul, and tells you many interesting facts about Korean culture—in nearly impeccable English.

When you arrive at the Korean firm’s headquarters, Mr. Kim takes you to the office of an older gentleman named Mr. Park, who is the president of the company. Mr. Park says, “I’m glad to meet you,” in faltering but understandable English. You respond in kind, and add that you have full confidence in the project’s success. Mr. Park stares at you blankly, fidgets uncomfortably, and then turns to Mr. Kim. Mr. Kim faithfully (you assume) translates what you have just said. Mr. Park smiles, nods, and adds a remark in Korean which Mr. Kim neglects to translate. Before you can ask Mr. Kim to translate, he ushers you out of the president’s office, and Mr. Park returns to his work.

“I missed Mr. Park’s last comment,” you mention casually, as Mr. Kim is escorting you past rows of desks, ringing phones, and computers.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Mr. Kim says. “He just said that he also hopes the project will overcome whatever difficulties there are to reach success.”

Wait a minute, you think. I said that I am sure the project will be a success, not that I hope the project will be a success. Does Mr. Park now think that we’re having second thoughts about our abilities to pull it off? And what did Mr. Park mean by “difficulties?”

You start to ask Mr. Kim for a clarification, but he is obviously in too much of a hurry. He asks you to have a seat in a chair by his desk while he locates Ms. Lee. While you are waiting, a woman working at a nearby computer station strikes up a conversation with you. She introduces herself as Miyung Hong. You compliment her on her skilled command of English, and she mentions that she lived in the United States for six years while her father was stationed in Los Angeles as a manager at Samsung. As you are talking to Ms. Hong, you notice that two women working at adjacent computers cast occasional glances in your direction. You acknowledge them with a smile and ask them how they are, but they look at Ms. Hong.

Ms. Hong speaks to the women in a flurry of incomprehensible speech. They speak back to her, and she translates for you:

“They said they are fine, and how are you?” She adds apologetically, “I’m sorry, but they don’t speak English very well.”

You begin to reply to the women but decide to cut the conversation short with a smile and a nod. Talking to the office workers through Ms. Hong doesn’t seem worth the effort. Besides, Mr. Kim has just returned with Ms. Lee.

“Let’s go to a meeting room,” Mr. Kim says.

When the three of you arrive in the meeting room, another man is waiting for you. He is introduced as Mr. Kang, the engineer assigned to the project. The four of you take your seats at a table in the center of the meeting room, and Mr. Kang unfolds a large blueprint. You recognize it immediately as the blueprint of the product which your company and the Korean firm are jointly developing. Mr. Kang begins pointing to the various points on the blueprint, while Mr. Kim translates.

Everything is going fine until Mr. Kang informs you (speaking through Mr. Kim) that the Korean company has decided to eliminate a key product feature. Your heart skips a beat. Your company’s management team had emphasized this feature when explaining the future product to distributors.

“Wait a minute, please,” you interrupt. “Why were the blueprints changed?”

“Oh, this will enable us to sell the product at a 5% lower price,” Mr. Kim explains. “Our engineering department suggested the change, and we thought that your company was in favor of eliminating excess costs where possible. And this is just a cosmetic feature.”

“No, no,” you protest. “This feature is a key selling point. Mr. Kim, please explain that our side cannot agree to eliminate this feature, because it adds to the functionality of the product—it is not just cosmetic.”

Mr. Kim pauses, and reluctantly turns to Ms. Lee and Mr. Kang. He says something in Korean—but of course you are not sure exactly what he has said.

Ms. Lee and Mr. Kang shake their heads and respond in Korean to Mr. Kim. “My colleagues are in agreement in this matter,” Mr. Kim says. “There is no need to include this feature in the product. The most important thing is to keep the cost down.”

You begin to sense that Mr. Kim may have a hidden agenda. Perhaps it was originally his suggestion to change the blueprint. Your head is full of customer data, case histories, etc., which could bolster your argument. But in order to make your point, you will have to rely on Mr. Kim, whom you fear may subtly sabotage your cause. You look forlornly at Ms. Lee and Mr. Kang. If only you could speak to them directly…..

The above story, which is a composite of several real incidents that I have either witnessed or heard secondhand, illustrates an important fact of international business: when you rely solely on the linguistic abilities of your foreign counterparts, you are also forced to rely on their willingness to use these abilities. This means that if the other party doesn’t want you to understand the contents of a conversation or document—then you probably won’t. If your message to the other side could ruffle feathers, then it may be watered down or artfully modified when it is translated.

It would be wrong, however, to blame such predicaments solely on the scheming of wily foreigners. In international business situations, native English-speakers routinely assume that their counterparts owe them a prompt and unabridged translation. For some, this becomes almost a sense of entitlement—a belief that as English-speakers they are exempt from the responsibility to handle information in other languages.

This mindset is ultimately self-defeating. If you are only able to understand half of the communications, then you are effectively giving the other side an advantage which they may or may not choose to use against you.

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