The automotive industry has increasingly become an environment that requires a great deal of interaction between native English-speaking and international personnel.
Within our client base, for example, there is a foreign-owned supplier with U.S. operations that regularly moves people back and forth between the U.S. and Japan to transfer knowledge and information, develop managers, and fulfill the responsibilities of corporate management.
We also know many companies that hire foreign nationals to be based here or overseas as they “follow the work” when design centers are located in other regions (e.g. Ford Cologne for new small car programs, Fiat in Italy for Chrysler’s small engines), or penetrate and grow business with new customers, e.g. Hyundai in Korea. Many supplier personnel regularly interface with counterparts of a different nationality in the daily course of business.
In all of these situations, good communication is critical to being able to fully realize the benefits of the interaction and smoothly accomplish goals, yet we find that the importance of high quality communication is not always recognized or understood.
In our regular strategy sessions with the Japanese client, the constraints presented by varying degrees of English fluency are certainly obvious to us, but we have to question what can be done about it.
There is a resource in West Michigan to help address these challenges. Alan Headbloom of Headbloom Cross-Cultural Communication combines a background in linguistics (the technical study of language), teaching English as a second language, and extensive experience living and traveling abroad to help foreign-born professionals communicate with more comfort and accuracy.
When asked why skilled professionals coming from countries with compulsory English language study have this problem, Headbloom explains, “There is a huge difference between studying a foreign language and speaking a foreign language. Ask any American if he or she could go to work every day and produce the same results using their high school Spanish or French. This is especially noticeable in Japan, which has a culture of face-saving and not standing out.
“In language learning, in fact, you must look foolish—putting strange sounds in your mouth, taking risks of being wrong, exposing your knowledge and performance gaps in front of classmates. This is compounded because Japanese teachers of English often have poor speaking skills in English and may focus on grammar and writing, instead of speaking and listening—a mainstay of interactions in the business world.”
It is a practical problem for a company, but it is also an issue for the career development of the individual employee. We all make judgments about someone based on their speech, their fluency and their vocabulary. That might not be fair, according to Headbloom.
“If a foreign engineer gives really short explanations to the problem the team is working on, the Americans may think s/he’s not very knowledgeable,” Headbloom said. “In fact, it may be that s/he is working hard at not making a mistake (a preoccupation of many language learners) and so is only putting out short, confidently correct utterances. It may be s/he has only one way to describe the issue, where a native might judge his/her team is not following and then look to paraphrase or give a different example.”
One of the services Alan Headbloom provides is language coaching. This can continue even after an expatriate becomes reasonably fluent. For example, a Brazilian engineer writes him weekly with short questions about slang used in co-worker or subordinate e-mails.
In a case of needing to suspend an employee, he checked with Headbloom to see if his tone was appropriate before sending an e-mail. There are cultural and professional nuances that go far beyond grammar and spelling. Similarly, there are soft benefits that relate to job satisfaction.
“The more colloquial my clients are, the more comfortable they can be at work,” he said. “They understand what their co-workers are talking (or joking) about and they can enter the repartee with real-life, appropriate expressions.”
As we have said in other columns, operational excellence is essential to success in the highly competitive global auto industry. Seemingly small things can make a big difference. Understanding how your colleagues think and gaining the maximum benefit of their input is worth some investment. The essence is to equip people to fit in. They need to be girded with the right language tools and the cultural understanding (and “rules”) to be full-fledged participants in their new world.
It does not happen quickly — or automatically — but the results are worth their weight in gold.
Melissa Anderson joined the staff of IRN in 1986. Her primary role in the organization is as the architect of custom research projects that help clients assess the market potential for new products, prioritize customer targets, understand industry trends, and other facets of strategic marketing.