I once taught a German student who needed to make regular telephone calls to counterparts in the UK. To help him, I introduced some language for making small talk at the beginning of the call. He accepted what I was suggesting but admitted: “I don’t like making this conversation on the phone. It isn’t efficient.” Like my student, many of your business English students will also have lots of experience of working with many different cultures so it’s a ripe and useful topic for classroom discussion.
It’s also a crucial area. Many business relationships struggle, not because one person has lower level English but because there are misunderstood cultural differences. For example, take the business person who arrives at the exact time printed on the agenda and is kept waiting by another person who assumes that the time on the agenda is approximate, not rigid. Then, once these two people are in the meeting room, one of them wants to make plenty of small talk but the other wants to get down to business. One of them wants a working lunch with a sandwich while the other would prefer a three-course meal at a good restaurant that will extend through to the middle of the afternoon.
As well as working WITH different cultures, more and more of our business students are working FOR different cultures. In other words, different companies have different company cultures and different ‘ways of working.’ One company might have a top-down structure where people wait for decisions from head office. Other companies reward initiative and decision-making at the local branch level. Like moving from one country to another, there is a kind of culture shock that follows a move from one company to another. These company cultural differences also affect the language used. For example, the internal report written in English at one company might require a much more formal register than a similar report at another.
As teachers, how we approach ‘culture’ can vary. In the past, business English course books tended towards a ‘prescriptive’ approach. They included lists of tips for students that state rules like: ‘In country X it’s polite to use your host’s full title and don’t ask about their family.’ Personally, I’m not convinced by this approach. It implies that within one country or one company, everyone responds uniformly. But this is not the case. Regions within a country will have different customs and people within companies will have different personalities and expectations. I think we should take a more ‘descriptive’ approach. Students should be encouraged to describe how cultures vary in their experience and talk about their strategies for coping and dealing with different cultures. Into this, the job of the teacher is then to input the kind of language that will be appropriate for such situations.
I will be looking in more detail in the issues raised in this article and suggesting classroom activities you can use to teach language for intercultural communication in the forthcoming webinar on 17th October.