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My company recently took on 4 new staff. All of them are foreign, and i'm finding it hard to understand them.

My 2 other existing co-workers are also foreign, and I have similar issues with them, but just about managed. Now it's getting worse as they all communicate with each other in broken English.

The things I say often get misinterpreted, and then relayed incorrectly to the boss. I will say one thing, and they will tell someone else I said something completely different. For example, the boss is now expecting things from me that I never said would be delivered.

Is there a way to resolve this?

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    Have you you tried keeping records of these conversations, assuming that is appropriate and will not cause more problems? Are these staff all of the same nationality? Can your boss understand them? Have you taken all appropriate opportunities to clarify and to escalate longstanding misunderstandings based on language where you are sure you have communicated correctly? If you can show how obviously frustrating conversations are impacting productivity and how it negatively impacts company values, surely someone will be interested? – What's in a Google Search Dec 15 '19 at 19:36
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    The boss isn't around much, but I think he may have noticed when he phoned in sick saying he had a bad cold, the guys though he was talking about the weather and responded "yes it's cold here too" I may start keeping a record of these things, but worried this may be a sensitive subject. – flexi Dec 15 '19 at 19:51
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    Yeah, people often answer without knowing the details or thinking their own work is the same as others. It sounds tough. However, I noticed you mentioned that you thought a freelancer was 'controlling' things in another post. Maybe there's an issue of too much control and not enough colloration? I know that's hard sometimes and I really does vary, company to company, but you could help with that? – What's in a Google Search Dec 15 '19 at 19:54
  • yes, I think as it's a startup with no pm everyone is kind of doing their own thing. More communication is needed, and standards need to be in place so everyone knows who is doing what. – flexi Dec 15 '19 at 20:00
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    I'm serious when I say gifs might help, if your office communication systems support them (Microsoft Teams which we use does). The nice thing is that you can show facial expressions that can be cross-culture. It won't solve everything and again, I won't pretend to have a full answer, but that might help. – What's in a Google Search Dec 15 '19 at 20:01
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Heck, I have that problem with my normal English-speaking employees.

The trick here is to use multiple communication paths.

First, don't rely on them to tell anyone else about your due dates etc. Say it's your job to tell people about things like that, especially your boss. Tell your boss "Hey, please don't take any of my guys' statement about a deliverable as a commitment, they don't always understand me, I will update you myself." If you are proactively communicating then the "telephone game" gets nipped in the bud.

Second, make sure there is at least one and ideally two other forms of communication about important items like deliverables you're all agreeing on in the team. Have an in person discussion, but then ideally also send an email and then put details in e.g. a ticketing/work tracking system. They may misunderstand in person, but if there's an email to the team saying "We are going to deliver this compliance report by Dec 17, and Joe said he is responsible for delivering it" and there's a ticket with a due date of "Dec 17" on it assigned to Joe, there's a lot of self-correcting opportunities.

Third, figure out how to clarify with them. Cultures are different; some are much more resistant to saying "no" or saying they don't understand or are more reluctant to ask for clarification. I've worked with Indian, Japanese, German, Spanish, and other kinds of employees and you have to do a little research on how best to communicate with each, it's different. Be patient, leave enough time in these discussions to get to a real understanding, and then use those techniques as well as basic communication techniques. Have them repeat back to you the expectation and if they need anything to meet that. Under no circumstances should you hear something a little off and just say "well, I'm sure he got it..." You have to make sure it's clear.

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You're best to treat the problem in terms of how you can improve your communication. You'll have success in developing rapport and trust with your colleagues by thinking of what you can personally do about the situation. Starting from a position that your colleagues are in the wrong will create resentment and only make effective communication more difficult.

Ask your colleagues questions when you think a miscommunication has occurred and see what you can do to learn from them about their own experiences and expectations.


Consider both the language and cultural differences at play:

  • Language differences - regions, not only languages, have idioms and inferred meaning that differ. When you feel like you meant one thing, but it was understood differently, be direct in asking your colleagues how you can better get your thoughts across.

  • Cultural differences - in some cultures, it's expected to be "non-committal" or not explicitly acknowledge promises that you are making. In others, it's quite rude to not explicitly communicate your intentions. Your words and actions will be interpreted both in the context of your local culture and the past cultural experiences of your colleagues. Be direct in asking about occasions when the assumptions you make about behavior may not be understood the same way by your colleagues.

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