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Lost In Translation: Survival Tips for International Managers


By Debbie Nicol, Managing Director, 'business en motion"

‘Lost in Translation’ normally applies to a context of vocabulary and conversation.  It strikingly, and sometimes hilariously, results in misunderstandings, undesired outcomes and unintended reactions of shock and horror.  Could ‘Lost in Translation’ also apply to international management, the art of leading others in cultures that may be foreign to the leader himself?


Three common areas can have a huge impact:


One: The Verbal Communication Arena

An international manager can be ‘ahead of the rest’ with a toolkit that contains an acceptance that one dictionary or vernacular does not apply to all.  Differences apply across words themselves, variances of spelling and their application, for example:


  • Words such as ‘thongs’ – is it a piece of stringy female attire or a flip-flop style shoe  (The teambuilding event leader requested by email that all bring thongs with them – is there any doubt people did not wish to go!)

  • Technical terms such as mathematical computations when the word ‘into’ can mean either an act of division or multiplication
  • Phraseology: Would an international caller understand the switchboard operator’s intent with the words ‘I’m sorry, he’s not at his seat right now’?

  • Common exclamations may offend depending on the environment  (A frustrated leader may offend in a religious environment when he declares: My god, how long does it take?)


Two: The Non-Verbal Communication Arena

Our actions can speak louder than words, and if an action, unintentional or not, goes against the ‘norm’ the fallout can be tremendous.  Face, posture, tone, gestures, timing,


  • Pointing – an act of aggression or being specific?

  • Looking in the eye – an act of politeness or a violation of culture?

  • Dress – a sign of pride and passion or disregard and poor judgment?


Three: Behaviors – Our Expectations of Others 

The international manager is a product of his or her experiences.  A local work team is bound together by a culture, an invisible cement, that signifies belonging.  Behaviors that identify that culture, and hence belonging, are of extreme importance to its members, and should not be treated as wrong.  The theory of relativity may come in here – wrong compared to what?  Examples I have personally experienced across cultures include:


  • Prayer times that impact training sessions

  • Priorities to family on weekends stopped many public services from being available over weekends

  • The approval of smoking in some workplaces, even in today’s world

  • The type of clothing that is deemed acceptable

  • The need for ‘bundy clocks’ at the entrance – trust vs. the need to account?

  • Needing the approval of unions before speaking to our own staff.


Survival Tips for International Managers 

The above serves to reinforce a tough, but bottom line point:  the country in which an international manager serves is likely not to be your own, and hence a ‘visitor status’ (not visa) applies in the minds of your team.  Initially, visitors are always welcome in a house, yet be mindful that welcomes can quickly wear thin. Some tips to ensure your welcome will continue:


  1. Remember your purpose:  to enhance a local inhabitant’s skill or productivity level, along with the company’s reputation.

  2. Accept that two-way learning is possible, probable and mutually satisfying.

  3. Change takes time, and until there’s an awareness of the need to change, there will be no desire to change, regardless of the adopted approach i.e. force, coaching etc.

  4. ‘Seek to understand before being understood’ – Franklin Covey’s Habit will serve an international manager well, demonstrating genuine interest, and after all, they won’t care what you know until they know you care!

  5. An understanding that the country and company will outlast you by many years.  A self-check when aligned to your purpose may be a handy thing to do every now and then. I personally use the question:  What would the people say about my contribution and me 10 from now?


‘Translation’ in itself is a word with its roots firmly set in relativity.  This conjures up extreme relevance of the words ‘nothing is right or wrong, simply different consequences’.   As an international manager, what priority do you give to a global dictionary, an open mind and an ever-nourished sense of humor?


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Written by Debbie Nicol,

International Management Expert for ManagingAmericans.com & Managing Director, 'business en motion'

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Have you ever made assumptions based on your own culture that led to embarrassing moments overseas?