I was on the call with our offshore development team last night and at one point I couldn’t understand what they were saying. Eventually, I figured that out, but I decided to suggest several tips I learned on how to overcome language barriers when working with an offshore team.
I found that it is very easy to communicate with developers from the Philippines, many of them speak English with a North American accent. However, if your team is located in the non-English speaking country the following tips could help to reduce communication problems.
Avoid being sarcastic
I am fan of what in Russia is called subtle British humor. I worked with a very smart guy from England many years ago and it wasn’t always easy to know if he was joking or was serious. I also worked with another guy who could win sarcasm completion if there was one.
The problem with both sarcasm and British humor is that they work best when you are talking with a person face to face. Lack of body language makes them harder to understand and since the tools we are using for communication with the offshore team do not convey those cues, people on the other side will be trying hard to guess what you mean.
Also, humor is contextual and if you and your vis-à-vis grew up in different environment chances are high that you may not understand each other.
Avoid American idioms or jargon
While professional slang is good to use when you communicate with the offshore software development team, try to minimize usage of urban words. Examples are “duh” and “bummer”.
Once I read a story of Electrolux’s attempt to enter the US market. Electrolux is a company that produces home appliances and when they first presented their vacuum cleaners, the sales team couldn’t understand why nobody was buying them. The problem turned out to be their slogan: “If it sucks, it’s Electrolux”. Obviously, for American buyers it wasn’t the best buying advice.
I found a funny article about Americanisms That Don’t Make Sense To Foreigners from Huffington Post.
Don’t be offended by words used by non-English speakers
Our languages did not evolve in isolation; we borrowed words from different languages and sometimes we changed the original meaning while keeping phonetics.
For instance, don’t be surprised if a Russian programmer calls you a chef. He doesn’t want you to cook a meal, in Russian chef means boss.
Also, sometimes Russians may sound rude even when they don’t mean it. For, example a Russian might say “Send me an email” as if he gives you an order, but he really means “Can you please send me an email?”. They change speech intonation when they ask for something.
If you don’t understand something that was said, politely ask the other person to repeat
Everyone has an accent and it depends on where we learned the language. If the developer said something that you don’t understand, and she keeps saying the same word it is ok to ask what she means.
Sometimes, it’s not just a word. The entire thing may not make sense. Most people, in this case, would feel embarrassed to ask to clarify and just pretend that everything is clear. Don’t be shy. Ask for clarifications.
Try to speak slower
My friend has recently moved to the United States. He’s taking ESL classes in the local community college. He was happy about the teacher in the previous semester, but when I talked to him recently, he complained that he doesn’t understand his new teacher. When I asked why he replied that the new teacher is speaking too fast and he is only catching every other word now.
Follow up a phone call with an email
I met many Asian people who could write very well, but they had problems with listening comprehension. I found that follow up phone calls with notes and action items in email allows people to use some tools like Google translate and things they couldn’t understand during the call suddenly become clear.
Still try to use simple language to explain tasks, requirements, and deliverables. Email is a useful tool to make sure that all parties are on the same page and it’s even more useful when communicating with the offshore team.
For instance, you may ask to fix the problem ASAP. While the developer may not catch the word ASAP when you speak, she may look it up on Google when she reads it in the email. And you better hope if she decides that ASAP stands for “As soon as possible” and not for “Alcohol Safety Action Program”. 😉
Avoid teaching proper grammar
I know it is hard to fight the urge to tell someone that they have to say “need to be done” instead of “do the needful” and I don’t understand what “kindly” means in a phrase “Kindly review the document”, but please ignore those “mistakes”.
The guy spent more time that he should choosing proper words when writing the email. If you criticize him, next time he may decide to not ask for clarification in order to avoid embarrassment and as a result, he may fail to do his task properly.
Spellcheck the software output
Always pay attention to the text on forms and message boxes in the software. Developers are famous for making spelling mistakes, and with offshore developers, you must check the proper word choice in all parts of software visible to customers.
Make sure that calendar is labeled “Fall 2019” instead of “Autumn 2019” and users are allowed to take “a sick leave” instead of “ill leave”.
I know many examples when programmers use obscure meaningless messages. For instance, the developer (English native speaker) called the button “Do not disengage MSR” instead “Release MSR”. One company even designated two QA engineers to review each text message in their software to avoid accidents like this.
Grammar tools to use
For a long time, I was only using Microsoft Word as my grammar tool. It’s a fantastic tool which catches almost all spelling problems. The problem with Word is that it doesn’t help in case of typos when the word is spelled correctly but means something different.
After watching ads for Grammarly on YouTube I decided to give it a try. I was surprised when it found dozens of semantical errors which Word missed even in free version.
The other tool I used is the Hemingway App. I found it pushes you to structure sentences, so they look professional. However, I am not using it too much, partly because I am a little embarrassed by my writing style (I am using too much passive voice constructs).
Whitesmoke is another tool that reminds me of Grammarly. Try both and see which one works best for you.
Images used: Bates, Arlo . “365 arlophotochallenge 103 / 365 – Conversation.”. Apr 12, 2011. Online image. Flickr. Feb 16, 2019. https://www.flickr.com/photos/arlophoto/5616233274/