It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it

It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it

This sounds like a sentence uttered in a cheap rom-com. It’s usually followed by a pout, flailing, exasperated arms and a laughing audience. And yet, this statement is not to be sniffed at! Whether it be in romantic relationships or business conversations, communication happens both verbally and non-verbally. Add different cultures to this exchange and you have a potential minefield on your hands.

Now that the world has become a global village, there is no longer a way out of this tricky interaction, so we have to make the best of it. And, truth be said, there are easy ways to avoid the pitfalls, if you take the time to prepare for the conversation ahead.


When you address people with a different background than yours, do not forget that their culture does not necessarily match the same behaviour that your culture does. This is particularly the case in a business environment. While assertiveness is appreciated in the Netherlands, for example, it is not  in Asian countries. The same thing goes for eye contact (disrespectful in countries like Eritrea), personal space and touching (not done in Northern Europe), and things like timeliness (Spain, anyone?) and gestures (mind the Italians).


A misunderstanding can always arise, but you want to reduce the chance of that happening to a minimum, especially during your first encounter. Make sure that you have your conversation in a language that both you and your counterpart already master. And if there is no such language, work with a professional interpreter. It may seem cumbersome and you may think that it reduces the spontaneity of the conversation, but the exchanges you have will be more qualitative. It is not necessary to have an interpreter tag along the whole day, as long as you include them when the conversation truly matters. After all the time to perfect your holiday Spanish is over a couple of spontaneous drinks after a meeting – not during it.


Even if you take the above into account and act accordingly, things may still go wrong. This never happens without a warning though. So while you are in the conversation, keep a close eye on your counterpart. Did your extended hand startle them? Did they react strangely to something you said? If you observe the person you’re talking to (without intently staring, of course), you will notice that they give non-verbal clues as to their level of comfort. Don not forget that you are looking through your cultural filter and check with them whether you have interpreted their non-verbal language correctly.

Want more pointers on intercultural communication? Contact our consultants for more information on interpretation and effective communication.


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