Crossing internal borders

Importance of understanding language and culture when managing international internal communications


Last week I had the pleasure of attending Quadriga’s Internal Communications 2016 conference, held at their offices in Berlin.

The theme of the conference was “Transforming Challenges into Innovation” and we heard from some fantastic speakers across two days of presentations, workshops and best practice case studies. I was there to host, what was originally billed as, a small round table discussion at lunchtime with a few of the attendees to discuss and share thoughts about understanding language and culture when it comes to internal communications. However, it turned out that my session ran in the main presentation room where delegates were invited to get some lunch and bring it back to get involved, and almost everyone did! So I ended up running a lunchtime workshop with almost 80 people in the room.

Within my session, I borrowed, with permission, a number of slides that were first presented by Paulo Soares, director, corporate communications at mining company, Vale, at the World PR Forum that I attended in Toronto in June. These helped set the scene, first talking about how each country has its own characteristics where some are easy to spot, such as religion, clothing, race, language, to others that are more subtle, such as punctuality and ways of greeting people, to those less noticeable, such as values and ethics.

To warm the audience up, I then shared a video that Paulo, who comes from Brazil, had showed in Toronto – “Things Brazilians are sick of hearing”.

I then asked the audience to call out any issues they come up against when dealing with language and culture internally. The list grew very quickly, and included:

  • Two people speaking the same language in a room where others then can’t understand it
  • A CEO, aiming to do a speak about “Women’s Day” that takes place in Russia, but making sweeping generalisations, referring to women as housewives, for example, and offending many employees
  • Speed at which language needs translating
  • General culture in the office
  • Use of slang in day to day messages
  • Having lunch meetings in Western Europe, which the delegate said was not necessarily the norm in places like China
  • Different expectations from leadership
  • Everyone believing English is easy
  • Cultural references that may have been offensive to Muslim employees
  • Hierarchy
  • Corporate language – removing all humour so as not to offend anyone and ending up being very boring
  • Internal translators not being very good
  • A Serbian company being bought by a Russian company and the cultural changes that went with that, for example, some Russian men not shaking hands with women
  • Translating HR documentation and communications

A pretty comprehensive list and one that clearly shows how difficult an issue it is to overcome. In fact, interestingly, after both the first two presentations of the conference, there were questions to the presenters about language relating to the case studies they showed.

I asked the delegates to pick a few of those topics in the list and we discussed how we might overcome them, with some delegates sharing their own experiences. This was a great exercise and I think everyone who took part really saw the value in it, learning from peers across very different industries.

In response to a couple of the references to language issues, I naturally used the opportunity to talk about the benefits to using a Language Service Provider to help with internal communications, particularly when it comes to managing the content, building up translation memories, but specifically in using people who are skilled in project management and translation of communications materials, rather than using employees who, although they may be from the target territory, are busy with their own roles and may not necessarily have those required skillsets for the translation projects.

To finish the session, I again shared another video from Paulo’s presentation, which was Vale’s “Day of Reflection” campaign, a very powerful video promoting safety at work, but one which, as Paulo explained, highlights one thing that does cross cultures and language – that of empathy.

A version of this article titled “Importance of Understanding Language and Culture when managing International Internal Communications” originally appeared on the Conversis website.

To connect with Russell head to LinkedIn, follow him @russgoldsmith or contact him via the Audere Communications website.

Image: Julia Nimke

Russell Goldsmith

Russell Goldsmith is the founder of marketing consultancy Audere Communications and a trainer for the PRCA. He had previously spent 16 years as digital and social media director of broadcast communications specialists markettiers4dc. He is currently producing The csuitepodcast series available on Soundcloud, itunes and at