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Summary:

As an online freelancer, I work for people all over the globe. This is one of the perks of web work — how else can I work with such a diverse group of people without constantly hopping on planes? But diversity comes with some challenges.

As an online freelancer, I find myself working for people all over the globe. I consider this one of the perks of web work — how else can I work with such a diverse group of people without constantly hopping on planes? But diversity also comes with some challenges, especially when it comes to language barriers and cultural differences. The good news is that with the right attitude, these challenges can be easy to overcome.

The Language Gap

While I am trilingual, for each of the languages I know there are hundreds that I am not familiar with, so English is the default language that I use to communicate with foreign clients. Though every client I’ve worked with has at least some familiarity with English, a few of them weren’t fluent enough to express clear instructions. When this happens I just look for solutions that will help us communicate better.

My first approach is usually to confirm and repeat the client’s instructions. If I receive an email with a list of tasks the client wants me to do, I send an itemized reply to confirm that I have understood everything correctly. This is good practice even without a language barrier, since it lessens the risk for misunderstandings.

It also helps to encourage clients to express themselves naturally. For business communication most people feel that they must speak formally, sometimes to the extent of sacrificing clarity. If this is the case with your client, encourage him or her to speak conversationally and not worry too much about “sounding professional”.

Online translation tools can come in handy if your client has a hard time translating a phrase or idea into English. Ask your client to express the thought in his or her native language, then use translation tools like Google Translate and Babel Fish. Keep in mind that with these tools the results might not be accurate. For a better translation, you can ask around in foreign language forums or even visit the language section of Yahoo Answers. Just make sure you receive more than one answer to check for accuracy.

Still, these solutions might not be enough in some cases. Once, I had a client who had trouble with expressing negations. When she would say something like “write a list” she actually meant “do not write a list”. When I realized this problem, I would include graphics in my confirmation emails. I attached check marks for the things I would do and a cross beside any item I would not do. This taught me that it can be more helpful to use visual cues that substitute or complement your discussions.

But if communication becomes truly difficult and a do-it-yourself approach is no longer good for the project, it’s worth considering hiring a translator.

The Cultural Gap

Since what we have with clients is a business relationship rather than a personal one, it may seem like cultural differences won’t matter. But there are cases where there’s a difference in professional culture. The way you approach meetings, calls, and projects, may be a bit different from what they are expecting, and vice versa.

This was what happened to my WWD colleague Pamela when she worked on a startup project in France, which she wrote about in a previous article. Basically, she discovered that her definition of a vacation was different from theirs.

The solution to this is to begin your working relationship with a discussion on your preferred work process. How often do you need to report to the client? Should you be available for support at certain hours of the day? Will any of their holidays fall within the dates of your project? Formalize your work process by coming up with a project milestone sheet together. Discussing your concerns and committing to tasks in writing will help you both adjust your expectations before the work has begun.

Have you worked with clients whose language and culture are different from yours? What was your experience?

Photo by stock.xchng user stoll

By Celine Roque

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  1. This can definitely be an issue. In a former life I kept getting emails from a German business partner that started off with:

    “Rear Laura,”

    The first time I thought it was a typo, the second time I wasn’t so sure and by the third time I was worried I was going to develop a body complex.

    In most cases I’ve found that foreigners who can’t speak/write English at a proficient level usually pass that communication off to someone else in their company. I would also recommend getting everything in writing as that’s usually easier for foreigners than speaking.

    I tend to avoid online translators because they are comically inaccurate.

    Otherwise, I like your advice: confirm you understand their request, and if you don’t, ask for clarification.

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  2. Great advice here, thanks Céline. I especially like the idea to supplement your discussions with visual cues, this is a very useful tactic.

    I’ll avoid pointing out the obvious shortcomings of machine translation software such as Babelfish, etc. – because believe it or not, they can actually be incredibly useful… sometimes :) (And as a “real-life” human translator, I don’t say that lightly.) Basically, if you can afford to get your communication right some of the time, or if you just need a rough idea of what’s being said, then machine software can be great.

    But if you need to get it right all of the time, then you probably need a professional. A translator works with written language, and an interpreter with spoken language – these distinctions aren’t the same in other languages so it’s worth being clear on what you’re looking for. If you’re wondering where to start, try googling the professional body for translators or interpreters in your country and start from there.

    Hope that helps – keep sharing the great content!

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