Computer Sciences Corp., a U.S. technology consultancy with offices in 49 countries, last year made a peculiar request to the company that teaches English to its employees around the world. CSC wanted the company to give them lessons on detecting sarcasm.
Bente Holm Skov, CSC's European director of learning, says even employees who understand their colleagues' English are often stumped by their senses of humor. One French worker took offense when a British colleague jokingly referred to a fellow Brit as "not too clever" on a conference call.
GlobalEnglish Corp., which offers online English lessons for corporations like CSC, doesn't yet offer sarcasm tips, but it is working on it. The company says it is one of many quirky requests it has fielded as English -- already the lingua franca for global commerce -- spreads further inside multinational corporations as well. Clients have sought help in navigating different cultures, understanding Arabic or Indian accents, and speaking English with eloquence, says Mahesh Ram, GlobalEnglish's vice president of business development.
The demands on GlobalEnglish and other companies in the field suggest that employees don't always grasp the meaning of what a colleague says, even if they are speaking the same language.
"The challenge is to make sure that people not just learn grammar and vocabulary but are able to understand," says Christian Standaert, general manager of steelmaker ArcelorMittal's corporate university.
Changes in international commerce accentuate the problems. More companies are adopting English as a primary language -- even those, like Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal, which operate largely outside of English-speaking countries. Mr. Standaert estimates that only 10% of ArcelorMittal's 320,000 employees are native English speakers.
Offshoring puts thousands of workers in places like India in regular contact with English-speaking colleagues and customers. U.S. and European multinationals also are promoting more senior managers from growing markets like China, requiring the new leaders not only to speak English, but to inspire and persuade in the language as well.
The resulting communication challenges can't be solved with longer vocabulary lists. Richard Taylor -- who headed learning at news and financial-information provider Reuters Group PLC, and now holds a similar post at agribusiness company Cargill Inc. -- says employees working in cross-border teams must clarify the meaning of everything from deadlines to common phrases, and can't assume nuances will be understood.
At Reuters, senior American programmers who told Thai colleagues that they would "like" something done by a certain date were often puzzled when it wasn't, says Mr. Taylor. The problem: the Thais had taken their colleagues' demand as a preference -- as in "I'd like some water," he says.
To avoid those troubles, Mr. Taylor taught Reuters managers to be explicit in instructions and watch for ambiguous phrases. He warned team leaders to specify that a meeting scheduled for 8 a.m., for instance, would start on time, not several minutes later. He also cautioned that employees from some cultures -- particularly in Asia -- might say "yes" even when they didn't really agree.
Responding to such concerns, many English-language schools, like Benesse Corp.'s Berlitz International Inc., are broadening their offerings to include cultural training. Some have leapt into management coaching, as corporate clients request help with skills like motivating workers or resolving conflicts.
U.K.-based York Associates started in 1980 as a teacher of English for businesses. But director Bob Dignen says he now spends most of his time helping executives of big European companies lead international teams or tailor presentations for cross-cultural audiences.
In one case, Mr. Dignen warned a Swedish banker that a planned presentation to management of a recently acquired Estonian bank might not make a strong impact. The English was fine, but Mr. Dignen said the Estonians would respond better to a more forceful and authoritarian style than was common in Sweden. He advised his client to change phrases like "it is good" to "it is vitally important," and show empathy by addressing the fears of the acquired bankers.
"A lot of people arrive thinking they need grammar practice, when what they need is management skills," Mr. Dignen says.
GlobalEnglish, a Brisbane, Calif.-based company available only online to its 450 corporate customers, also is broadening its basic palette of business-English dialogues and exercises, in response to customer requests. It now offers samples of English spoken by people from 65 countries.
Those samples help customers like Heyam Khalil, business-communications manager for Dubai-based Emirates Bank. She sought help for local trainees struggling to understand the accents of the bank's polyglot clientele. Most GlobalEnglish exercises feature American or British accents. But bank employees have to serve Egyptians who often pronounce "p's" as "b's," and Lebanese and Jordanians who tend to use a "z" sound instead of "th," Ms. Khalil says.
"We have Russians, Asians, Spanish, Italians -- you name it," says Ms. Khalil, an Iraqi. "You'd hear an Indian-English accent or Arabic-English accent, but not an American or British accent."
At El Segundo, Calif.-based CSC, Ms. Skov has sought help with cultural issues such as when it's appropriate to tell a joke or how open managers should be about internal problems. Ms. Skov says her British, Danish and Irish colleagues are more prone to use humor than those in other parts of Europe; British, Germans and Americans are among the most direct and frank speakers.
The differences can lead to problems. One Danish team leader leavened criticism of his team's work with self-deprecating humor, says Ms. Skov. That left his French and German team members unsure of how seriously they should take him, she says.
Another British manager openly discussed mistakes made by team members -- to the chagrin of colleagues in France, who thought such public criticism inappropriate. The employees who'd made the mistakes weren't bothered: They were British too, and they'd already talked the matter over with their leader, says Ms. Skov.
"Cultural differences may lead to misinterpretations unless you are very careful not to judge people too quickly," she says.
GlobalEnglish earlier this year also added a "Culture Notes" section to its Web site featuring cross-cultural business tips created by Transnational Management Associates Ltd., a London-based management trainer. When working in the U.S., "it is important to exude confidence, which Americans are taught from a young age," the guide warns.
With English becoming the global lingua franca, especially in the business world, the foibles of the language have presented many opportunities for miscommunication, especially across cultural boundaries. Understanding the syntax and grammar of the language is one thing, but understanding the idiomatic expression of English is another. I once took a course in cross-cultural communication back in my master's degree days figuring it would pad my grade point average. It didn't, really, but the content of the course was quite helpful though I am still not the master of cross-cultural communication like, say, Nelson Mandela. The Wall Street Journal provides a thought-provoking piece of the issues behind the adoption of business English as well as the thriving industry behind ensuring that employees in MNCs are not "separated by a common language":