Have you ever experienced culture shock?
Traditionally, culture shock is an experience you have when you travel or move to a new country and feel overwhelmed by all the differences you need to adjust to.
New food, new language, new routines, new attitudes and behaviors – all of these require an open mind and a lot of mental energy.
While most people expect culture shock when changing countries, they often overlook the fact that you can experience culture shock when changing contexts.
Just as different regions have their own culture, different personal and professional environments have their own language, customs, and expectations.
This is why so many non-native speakers experience some degree of culture shock when they move from using English in casual, friendly situations to academic or business environments.
They are forced to learn these new expectations for appropriate communication in a very short period of time.
Understanding Expectations for Communication in Professional Situations
As I discussed in how culture influences how you express yourself, communication is cultural.
Many languages have different levels of formality based on who you’re interacting with, and English is no different.
The language you use with your family and friends is going to be different than how you interact with your colleagues and managers.
On top of that, each organization has its own personality.
Creative industries, non-profits, and start-up tech companies tend to be more relaxed than large multinational companies, investment banks, and law firms. Small liberal arts colleges are more flexible than Ivy League universities.
You have to pay careful attention to the organizational culture you are working in and adapt your language and behavior accordingly.
In my lesson on how to use clear, simple vocabulary to sound more professional, I emphasized that you need to be relatable and conversational in American business culture and gave specific examples of how to leverage your existing vocabulary.
Today, I’m going to take it further and explain the skills you need to communicate clearly and professionally in American business culture.
While the level of formality will vary based on each organization’s culture, there are some standards for professional language and expectations for how you communicate ideas in professional environments, specifically in the U.S.
The Preferred Way to Communicate in Business
In American business culture, we consider time to be very valuable. We often use a very popular expression: Time is money.
This short phrase is almost a warning, or a way to say that my time is valuable so you need to be sure not to waste it.
In the US, people tend to believe that there’s never enough time to get everything done.
As a result, when we hold meetings and watch presentations, we appreciate people only using as much time as necessary to get things done.
For this reason, you need to learn how to communicate your ideas clearly, effectively, and efficiently in formal meetings, presentations and discussions, as well as academic seminars, lectures, and speeches.
When you are involved in less-structured group gatherings, like brainstorming sessions, networking meetings, and team parties and special lunches, you have more flexibility and can usually feel comfortable letting your ideas flow.
These are situations where people expect more spontaneity and creativity and feel more relaxed.
Even in more relaxed professional settings, you’ll still notice that when you speak to a higher-level manager or someone who “outranks you,” you need to pay careful attention to how much of their time you take.
Previously, I’ve talked about the importance of using conventional language to transition between ideas, and conventions are equally important to learn when it comes to communicating clearly.
Different Cultural Approaches to Writing and Speaking
Have you ever had trouble writing academic essays in English? If so, your challenge is not usually writing accurate, grammatically correct sentences, but organizing your ideas.
The same goes for speaking professional-sounding English.
If you want native speakers to think you express yourself well in business, you need to organize and express your ideas the way we do in the US.
Although I am talking about speaking clearly and effectively, many of these conventions come from the preferred rhetoric, or organizational structure of writing, that Americans are trained to use throughout their education.
In the above video, I look at different cultural approaches to writing. Writing in English tends to be incredibly straightforward and direct.
Americans are trained to write a five-paragraph essay with an introduction, three supporting details, and conclusion. Other cultures follow more circular logic or allow for more tangents in writing and speaking.
While no style is better or worse than the others, it’s important to understand how the traditional, expected style of communicating and expressing yourself influences what is considered “good” writing or speaking in the US.
In English, the speaker or writer is responsible for ensuring that the listener or reader will completely understand his or her main points.
In other cultures, the listener or reader is expected to decipher and understand the overall meaning without explicit guidance.
Let’s look at how that influences how your speaking is perceived in professional situations.
How You Can Organize Your Thoughts to Communicate Effectively in Business
In American business culture, you are expected to be incredibly clear when speaking so that there is no doubt about what you are saying.
When you give presentations, lead meetings, or even teach a class, lecture, or seminar, people expect you to follow a clear agenda.
Often, this agenda is written on the whiteboard, presented at the beginning of a slide deck, or shared on a handout. (Remember what I said earlier about how time is money!)
Even in more relaxed work meetings among teammates, you should still have a plan for this time together.
When I work with clients, I help them focus on their key message. Here’s what I mean:
What is the main takeaway, the main point, the main suggestion, or the main idea you’re trying to teach or show your listeners?
When you organize your thoughts or prepare your presentation, you need to keep your key message in mind.
You want to be sure you know exactly why you are leading the meeting or giving the presentation, and what action you need from your colleagues when you’re finished.
(This is like your thesis statement in an academic essay!)
As you continue speaking, you want to make sure you stay focused on your key points.
After people ask questions, you need to return to your original outline, agenda, or plan.
You can use transition language and expressions to smoothly bring the discussion back to the main topic.
At the end of a meeting or presentation, be sure to come to a clear conclusion.
This could mean summarizing everything you said or everything that was discussed and making sure everyone is clear on what they learned or what you agreed on.
In business, it is common to repeat and reiterate what the next steps are.
Be sure to leave time at the end of a meeting, presentation, or discussion to summarize.
When a meeting ends without a clear conclusion, Americans feel like they didn’t understand why they spent so much time away from their to-do list.
As you can see, organizing your thoughts and planning your presentation just like you would write an academic essay can help you sound more professional in American business culture.
Now it’s your turn! How does culture influence how you express yourself in your native language?
Have you ever found it challenging to write an academic essay or speak clearly and effectively in professional settings? Let me know in the comments.