Crossing Language Barriers: Interpersonal Skills & Translation

How to Develop Interpersonal Skills in a Culturally Diverse Workplace

Good communication is the foundation of effective management. Communication becomes more challenging when you have to overcome crossing language barriers at work. However, it’s possible to have a positive and productive workplace, even with these cultural differences. Overcoming language barriers is no simple feat; doing so takes much more than simply pasting paragraphs into Google Translate. You need to see language as part of a greater whole. Then you need to shape your behaviours, interpersonal skills and policies accordingly.

Below we outline ways to manage employees while bridging linguistic and cultural divides. This includes understanding cultural backgrounds and using translation services to enhance workers’ interpersonal skills.

How Language and Culture Translate in the Workplace

The UK is home to a wide range of languages and cultures, which is why crossing language barriers is important. The 2011 Census shows that 7.7% of the population in England and Wales speak a main language other than English.  In London, 22.1% of people speak a main language other than English.

Linguistic and cultural diversity can translate into communication issues in the workplace. UK supermarkets are known for their attempts to manage diversity. Some headlines are positive; the first UK sign language store opened in 2019. Others are not; Polish employees at Lidl were banned from speaking Polish. (Polish is the second most-spoken language in England and Wales.)

Run down barrier with red and white stripes across it on the beach
Managers need to understand the importance of crossing language barriers to keep the workplace productive

To keep the workplace accepting and productive, managers need to cross language and cultural barriers. They can do this in several ways.

Tip 1: Localise Your Cultural Knowledge

Look into your staff’s cultural background. Consider cultural values and workplace dynamics. Reflect on how they may impact interpersonal skills.

For instance, Hispanic workers have a culture of keeping things smooth in the workplace. They might not give difficult feedback in front of other people. Meanwhile, some European cultures are informal at work. This could mean more personal contact at the office. Workplaces that maintain more of a distance can feel awkward.

You can learn more from websites or blogs written by people from that specific background. Many of these offer advice on how to handle people with their cultural background. More importantly, talk to your employees! Include them in your attempts at inclusion.

Watch how your employees interact with each other. Then watch how they interact with you. This should provide plenty of insight.

Localise your knowledge of different backgrounds. This can help you interact with those from other cultures. Take the example of an employee from a culture where saving face is important. You may need to ask for their direct feedback in private rather than in a meeting. This will let you get a fuller perspective.

Tip 2: Translate Cultural Experiences into Enjoyable Team Activities

Why not hold cultural diversity events? One idea is a lunch day where employees share dishes from their culture. Food is an excellent way to connect people. Moreover, it can encourage dialogue and understanding and promote the development of interpersonal skills in an informal setting.

Five work colleagues having a social gathering and playing a game
A more informal gathering promotes dialogue and understanding and promotes the development of interpersonal skills

You might also let your employees write newsletter articles about their language or culture.

By respecting your employees’ languages and cultures, you can increase morale and help the workplace run more smoothly. What company wouldn’t want that?

Tip 3: Translate Your Curiosity About Cultures into Knowledge

Ensure you have a solid understanding of different cultures. You can develop this through activities such as:

  • Consuming media from other cultures to enhance your localised knowledge. Go to a play, listen to music or attend a dance from a different race or culture. Or why not read a book by an author from that culture?
  • Take adult language learning courses.
  • Volunteer with organisations that serve that community.
  • Learn about different faiths in that community.
  • Watch news from world sources.

These ideas can help you immerse yourself in other cultures. They can also help you understand the backgrounds of those you work with. With cultural understanding comes the ability to communicate in a more localised manner, enhancing interpersonal skills. Your efforts should translate into better employee relations.

Tip 4: Translate Internal Documents

Consider translating internal documents. This is particularly important if you’re part of a multinational company. You need to work well with employees working in markets with different languages and cultures.

Showing that you care enough about an employee’s language is a good way to show them that you value their cultural background and appreciate them.

You may want to consider translating procedural manuals, internal communications such as emails, presentations, technical documentation or anything else that may need to be read by someone from another linguistic background.

Man working on a laptop with the word translate on the computer screen
A translation tool can help to bridge barriers and promote inclusivity

It’s important to use professional translation services when translating business documents. What is a translation service? Translation is the process of converting written materials into another language. A translation service can help translate those materials.

A translation error could mean internal communications becoming worse instead of bridging barriers. As such, opt for human translators instead of relying on machines.

You may also be wondering, how much does it cost to translate a document? Rates can vary hugely. Translators often work to a price per word, but that price will depend on the languages they are working with, the nature of the content, any additional extras you need (such as graphic design) and the urgency of the work.

Tip 5: Translate Cultural Understanding into Policy

Make sure you have an internal policy that enforces the acceptance of other cultures. Workplaces become tense when employees don’t want people speaking other languages in them, refuse to accommodate cultural differences or get angry when they see text translated into languages that they can’t read.

A good diversity and acceptance policy will clearly outline the company’s stance on different cultures. It will also have a clear disciplinary policy for anyone not translating those guidelines into practice.

Policies should also incorporate diversity training. This means employees can bridge language and cultural barriers in a positive and confident manner.

Tip 6: Consider Interpretation Services

You might also want to look into interpretation services. Translation converts a written message into a new language. Interpretation uses a trained linguist to convert spoken language in real-time.

If you have suppliers who primarily speak another language, for example, an interpreter may be necessary.

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