Communication let me down, And I’m left here, I’m left here again! ?

The wisdom of Spandau Ballet in popular music should never be underestimated. (Apart from the song ‘Instinction’ where clearly Mr Kemp would have had his song-title underlined in wavy red on his Microsoft Word, had he had a) access to a computer more powerful than a ZX Spectrum and b) for that matter, the World Wide Web)

In 1983, one year later, when Gary penned ‘Communication’, international dealings relied on extremely rare face to face contact, the occasional very expensive phone call, and maybe just maybe, a new-fangled fax.

Nowadays of course, the world’s a lot smaller – whether we mean in terms of our ability to live, work or holiday on the other side of the globe, or the ease with which we can access the people living there.

As Gary so sagely noted, Communication can unfortunately let us all down – especially when we’re working with colleagues who hail from different lands.

Here are one or two tips you might want to take on board:

  • In English, we love idioms and metaphors. Many other countries don’t! I had a Japanese student who couldn’t see the point of them. “I’ve got a lot on my plate,” I said. “Huh?” he said. A brief drawing later, he understood the image. “OK, now?” I asked. “Of course,” he said” But why not say “I’m very busy”? It’s much easier…” “Point taken, Haru-san,” I thought. So: try to think about what the literal meaning your English might convey. Try something more obvious like “I’m snowed under” (Joke)


  • Let people see your mouth when you speak. Bizarre, but it helps a non-native speaker understand and of course they feel special as you’re actually deigning to look at them.
  • Do a bit of background research on your international colleagues: Do you think they feel that it’s showing interest in them if you ask about non-working pursuits? Or do they think you’re prying? Have a look at – it’s quite interesting. You don’t have to agree with the way people act; just bear it in mind…
  • In the same vein, we in Blighty often dissolve tension with humour. But do they? Will they think you don’t care? There is an argument that says “Well, they’ll need to get used to it if they’re living over here.” But if you’re talking in a native speaker’s own country, the rules of the game are no longer yours to decide. Just bear… OK, you know the rest.
  • Remember that, yes, a smile is an internationally understood gesture of positivity, and you won’t go far wrong by continuing to use one. But also remember that experts have identified up to 13 kinds of smile in Thailand – which convey very different nuances!
  • Is your audience from a low-context culture (perhaps like you) where specific information is paramount to the message? Or do they prefer to read ‘between the lines’ – and indeed will expect you to do so when they communicate with you? You may not totally change your behaviour, but …

We’re assuming, here, that the communication is face-to-face, of course. But is it always the best option? And it’s certainly not always practical if your colleagues are abroad.

  • Never underestimate the pressure felt by a non-native speaker using the phone. Video conference is much more user-friendly, but if you have to use the phone, it’s obviously worth slowing down a little. And using what we in training call CCQs (Concept Checking Questions) – basically getting your correspondent to re-state or summarise what’s been decided in his or her own words. Measure twice, cut once as my Dad used to say. Not rocket science, is it?

Now, I bang on at my children to use the spoken word with their friends rather than texting or using social media – it’s a background/generation thing. Things change. And yes, I’m probably a crusty old git who just doesn’t ‘get it’ anymore. (I’m also a male, albeit a smidge emasculated, living in a house of 5 ladies and a castrated dog – and FYI one’s gender can also impact on how we give and receive communication.)

But you take my point. That’s what they prefer, that’s what the young whippersnappers are familiar with, and that’s what they want to use. Embrace the difference, Shimwell, rather than fight against it. There must be something in it.

  • Emailing and DM-ing (yes, I had to look it up) are much more prevalent nowadays. But although we have emojis to help replace facial expressions that normally show humour, warmth, irony or gentle admonishment, Arial Size 11 does not. Could your message be misconstrued?


  • When writing to anyone that you don’t have regular human contact with, think twice about subtle or subliminal messages. Maybe review your text before you press send! Act in haste, repent at leisure. No, my Dad didn’t say that.

Well, that’s the end of the Communications dispatch. Anybody out there had any international communication nightmares for one reason or another?

PS Spandau fans, here’s a link to the oh-so-glossy Communication music vid, including a very young Leslie Ash and a middle-aged John Conteh (ex Light-Heavyweight boxing world champion)

Watch out for the mega twist at the end. Magic!

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