Getting it right — the importance of appropriateness

    Business Spotlight 1/2021
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    Von Professor Peter Franklin

    I had been entertaining some business guests from Europe at a restaurant in BeijingPekingBeijing that was not much frequented by Westerners. The meal was coming to an end and, starting the process of paying, I explained in my almost non-existent Mandarin, some English and in sign language that I needed a receipted invoicequittierte Rechnungreceipted invoice.

    To help the waiter understand, I took out a notebook and wrote “INVOICE”. Thinking that this term was rather too technicalhier: fachsprachlichtechnical, I added the word “BILL”. The waiter seemed to understand my wishes and returned some time later bearing an envelope addressed to “Bill Invoice”.

    Somehow, I hadn’t got it quite right.

    “Doing communication” in one’s own country is generally relatively easy. We know with increasing experience the unspoken rules for to get sth. acrossetw. vermitteln, rüberbringengetting a message to get sth. acrossetw. vermitteln, rüberbringenacross in the right way. But communicating appropriately in an intercultural situation is much more difficult. Yet, it is an essential featureMerkmalfeature of successful intercultural interaction.

    Effectiveness — that is, achieving the right result, the other distinguishingunterscheidend, besondersdistinguishing feature of successful intercultural interaction that scholarWissenschaftler(in)scholars agree on — is relatively easy. But it may come at the price of frictionReibung(en), Spannung(en)friction, conflict and/or collateral damage to the relationship if appropriatenessAngemessenheitappropriateness is lacking.


    Achieving appropriateness is a challenge when communicating in an intercultural context. First, we need to choose the right language: should it be my language, the language of the other party or a lingua franca? And at what level of proficiencyKenntnisstandlevel of proficiency should we communicate? We also need to get the non-verbal signals right, such as smiling, laughing, handshaking. Reserve is often the best solution.

    We need to choose behaviour that is appropriate to the situation and, cruciallyentscheidendcrucially, to the relationship we have or are establishing with our interlocutor. The rights and obligationVerpflichtungobligations connected to a relationship can differ greatly across cultures. The preferences of the country culture and the organizational culture may need to be to take sth. into accountetw. berücksichtigentaken into account.

    And finally, our behaviour has to be appropriate on a personal level. We need to to be mindful of sth.etw. bedenken, berücksichtigenbe mindful of what we assume to be our interlocutor’s comfort zone. Interpersonal sensitivityFeingefühlsensitivity or emotional intelligence is required.

    “Linguistic accommodationUnterbringung; hier: Anpassungaccommodation” is something that we do all the time — and generally unconsciously — when we are in our home settingheimisches Umfeldhome setting and using our first language. We adjust our linguistic to adjust one’s default settingStandardeinstellungen korrigieren; hier: sich automatisch anpassendefault setting to what we sense is appropriate for the particular person we are communicating with and the particular situation in which we find ourselves. We may be personal or impersonal, formal or more informal. We may use simpler language when talking to children or technical language when we are talking with colleagues. We slip effortlessly to slip into the appropriate gearhier: reibungslos in die passende Ausdrucksweise hineinfindeninto the appropriate gear.

    But when we communicate in a lingua franca — a language that is a second language to at least one of the interlocutorGesprächspartner(in)interlocutors — this linguistic accommodation needs to be more conscious.

    Communicating in the right and appropriate way is more likely to lead to the right result

    The lateverstorbenlate (and great) US intercultural communication scholar William B. Gudykunst wrote that, when communicating across cultures, we necessarily pay more attention to the act of communicating. “Our focus, however, is usually on the outcomeErgebnisoutcome,” he says, “rather than the process of communication. For effective communication to to occurstattfindenoccur, we must focus on the process of our communication with strangers.”

    Communicating in the right and appropriate way is more likely to lead to the right result — probably in all settings, but especially when we don’t share a culture or a language with our interlocutor. And part of this focus on the process is to adjust sth.etw. anpassenadjusting to the perceivedwahrgenommenperceived or assumed level of competence of your interlocutor in the lingua franca.

    But if you get this adjustment wrong, it can appear condescendingherablassendcondescending and damage the relationship between the interlocutors. Getting it right linguistically may involve choosing simpler vocabulary, to paraphrase sth.etw. umschreibenparaphrasing and to summarize sth.etw. zusammenfassensummarizing what you say — increasing redundancyÜberflüssigkeit; hier: Wiederholung(en) (mit anderen Worten)redundancy in what you say. Slowing down — especially difficult for native speakers — is often a must.

    The inability of native speakers to slow down is sometimes regarded as a deliberatebewusstdeliberate communication strategy. As one German manager told me: if they can’t convince you, they confuse you.


    Peter Franklin is professor of intercultural management at Konstanz University of Applied Sciences. His work in HR development helps people and organizations to understand, handle and leverage cultural diversity. Contact: 

    Peter Franklin

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