Mala Subramaniam's Blog

Mala Subramaniam's Blog

My thoughts about leadership, communications and career development

HEADSUP – Words Convey Different Meanings in Cultures

In my recent trip to India, it dawned on me that business communications can really go off-balance with usage of English words in different cultures. Let us take USA and India.

Commercials or Terms? I was negotiating with someone in India on a business contract. The client’s lawyer sent a brief email stating, “I don’t get involved until the commercials are over.” I was wondering where do “commercials” come into play here? In USA, commercials mean advertisements. I was concerned and my client replied, “In India we sometimes refer to pricing and related terms of contract as commercials, i.e. terms pertaining to our deal. It comes from the word commerce or trade. Don’t worry.”

Inclinations or Hint? It was our team celebration dinner. Do you have any inclination about the dinner location, asked my Indian colleague? I said, No, I don’t have any inclinations.  In USA, we would have asked, “Do you have any idea or clue where we are going for dinner?” I thought he meant, preference. Of course, I did know the dinner location.

Club – We were scheduling trainings for teams of people. Coordinator wrote back, “let us club the managers…..” Had I not been teaching multicultural communications, I would have seen this as offensive and wondered why she wanted to club them [strike them!]. I knew the phrase “clubbing” is used in India to mean grouping people.

Dictionary definition of “club” as a verb: getting people in a group OR striking them with club! 

Trouble in communications happens when people don’t ask for clarifications. Indians sometimes think it is impolite or rude to ask for clarification, particularly when interacting with clients. This cultural trait causes serious problems.

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