English has been the main language used in business and tech for a long time.
But as we strive toward building diverse and inclusive teams, it’s an important step to increase our awareness and sensitivity toward other cultures’ ways of doing things.
At Help Scout, we’re grateful to have the chance to work with customers from all over the world. Our support team is spread out across the globe, and chatting with customers from more than 140 different countries is an incredibly rich experience. But it also means that things are bound to get lost in translation sometimes.
Even among English-speaking countries, English can be incredibly different. As a French-Canadian, sometimes the things my American colleagues say make me wonder if we’re speaking the same language!
Imagine how much more complex it can be for someone who has learned English as an additional language (EAL). Having learned English as a third language, I can attest that cultural references, language structure, formalities, idioms, tone, and so many other things that come into the mix make everything even more colorful!
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When we’re trying to decipher a non-English speaking or EAL customer’s question or problem, some cultural and linguistic context can help us understand things from the customer’s perspective. We can help lessen the friction in conversations and resolve questions more efficiently.
Best practices for cross-cultural communication
The obvious solution would be to build an incredibly diverse support team that can speak all the languages. But, realistically and for various reasons, that may not always be an option.
I grew up speaking Cantonese, was educated in French, and now work in English. Thanks to Help Scout’s remote culture, I can also travel very often. Constantly jumping from one cultural context to another has become second nature for me, but fine-tuning these muscles is a lifelong learning process.
A while back, I created an internal guide for our Customer Champions on how to approach support in cross-cultural contexts. Here are some tips adapted from that guide, and I hope they will help you too!
1. Think in terms of high vs. low-context cultures
When we’re conversing with someone from a different culture, by default, we interpret what the other person is saying through the lens of our own culture. Whenever someone appears to be rude towards me, my first reflex is to remove my Canadian lens!
“English speakers with no other language often have a lack of awareness of how to speak English internationally.”
— Dale Coulter, head of English TLC International House
In his 1976 book Beyond Culture, anthropologist Edward T. Hall coined the terms “low context cultures” and “high context cultures” to describe the communication styles of different cultures:
- Low context cultures: very explicit, direct, assertive, very few formalities, individualistic, appear to be super friendly right away
- High context cultures: less is more, need to read in between the lines, lots of non-verbal and body language, relationship-based, groups take priority over the individual, more formalities and hierarchy
This isn’t to classify cultures in strictly defined boxes; it serves more as a spectrum for better understanding. Nothing is black or white, but being more aware of all the possibilities helps us become more empathetic.
The customers in the following example are asking for the same thing, but there is a clear contrast in their styles:
Sure thing! We’re happy to extend your free trial for another week. I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying our product so far! :)
Let us know if we can help with anything else!
Help Scout Customer Support
The higher-context reply starts with a standard greeting, then reuses some of the customer’s words to answer their question. It’s good to reassure the customer in this case that their questions are welcome, to help establish the relationship.
The lower-context reply goes straight to the point with less formality (using “hey” as a greeting, and emoticons).
Both replies are written in a similar tone, but adapted toward the respective customer. The key is to mirror the customer’s communication style without overdoing it.
2. Use simple sentence structure
In English, the most basic sentence structure is subject+verb+object or subject+auxiliary verb+state. Always using this structure when you write might dampen your style, but it does bring a couple advantages:
These are basic sentence formats that everyone who has learned English at some point in their life will recognize.
Since it’s basic, translation software will be able to process it more easily. The challenge is not to write in baby talk or come across as condescending and patronizing. While EAL customers might not write English fluently, they are often very good at reading comprehension. The extra frustration comes when they know clearly what they’re talking about but lack the words to explain it in English.
Imagine spending 30 minutes writing an email in English that would’ve normally taken three minutes in your own language — and then receiving an irrelevant answer because you weren’t understood!
Example: Giving instructions
The initial reply is quite standard and stands perfectly well on its own. We can still adapt it for EAL speakers.
There was a long sentence in the initial version. It has been split into two shorter ones.
Numbered lists make instructions easier to follow.
Instructions are written in verb + object format, linked with documentation for more clarity if needed.
3. Sacrifice a bit of personality
The reply in the following example is straightforward for a native English speaker to understand. What’s great about it is that it’s filled with personality and fun, even if some not-so-pleasant information is being delivered. But there are a few things that could make it harder for EAL speakers to understand:
The original sentences were initially very long and could lead to confusion. Splitting them into shorter ones and including only one idea per sentence make them easier to understand.
Idioms were changed to plainer but more precise words.
4. Choose precise words
In customer emails, use precise but common words. This will make it easier for both human and machine comprehension. When there are too many words in a sentence, the reader can become more focused on deciphering each word instead of the sentence as a whole — which makes for a greater risk of losing the overall meaning. Imagine examining each piece of a puzzle separately, and then putting it all together to finally see the real picture. It’s a lot of work!
Writing in the active voice is great as well, because it focuses on who is doing what. With the passive voice, the action is performed on the subject, so it requires the reader to think backward.
Keep these tips in mind:
It takes a bit of developer muscle ...
A few ways to tackle this
Thanks for the heads-up
Keep you in the loop
Your developers will need to create …
A few ways to fix this problem
Thanks for alerting us
Send you an update
The Google Translate test
Let’s take a look at a couple versions of the same message to see how they stand up to translation.
There is nothing we can do on our end. You will need to contact your bank about this issue or use another card.
Nous ne pouvons rien faire de notre côté. Vous devrez contacter votre banque à ce sujet ou utiliser une autre carte.
In the first version, “about this on our end” translates to “about this subject by our means,” which is not exactly what we’re trying to say. “Sorting” has a completely different meaning in French; it means to reorder things and to better organize them, like you would do when you sort files in a cabinet.
Once we remove some filler words in the second version, “on our end” simply translates to “on our side.” Using a more direct and shorter sentence afterward also gives a quite accurate translation!
5. Make it visually easy to follow
With someone who speaks English fluently, we can feel free to write in prose. But when we’re trying to clarify something with some questions or give instructions, bullet points and numbered lists are more practical. If it gets a bit more complicated, include screenshots, GIFs and videos.
Even for fluent English-speaking readers, it’s much easier to follow instructions from a numbered list instead of prose!
6. Clarify: rephrasing and yes-no questions
When you’re not quite sure what the other person is saying, you can explain it in your own words and ask them to confirm if you understood correctly. This ensures you start on the same page and provide a relevant answer the first time.
Another tool to help the customer clarify their situation for you is to ask binary (yes-no) or multiple choice questions. Ask your question in a way that the customer can choose the answer from your keywords.
Here’s an example where we’re not quite sure what the customer is asking about:
Rephrased the situation and asked for confirmation that we understood the right thing.
Provided a list of questions so the customer can pick out the answers straight from our email.
- I have a few questions to help clarify the situation.
- I’d like to make sure I understand.
- For a bit more context, we need …
- I’m sorry, I’m not sure I understood the situation correctly. Can you confirm that …
7. Be explicit: date and time, abbreviations and acronyms
There’s a whole Wikipedia article on how date formats vary from country to country. Let’s avoid opening this can of worms and spell out the dates. When discussing time, specify it in the customer’s time zone for their convenience.
Example: I’ll give you a call on 12/11 at 6 p.m. (Is that December 11 or November 12? Is that your 6 p.m., or mine?)
Instead: I’ll give you a call on December 11 at 6 p.m. EST (Eastern Standard Time).
Even when the customer uses abbreviations, spell it out in your first reply so that everyone is on the same page.
Customer asks: How do you calculate TAT?
Answer: In Help Scout, “turnaround time” (TAT) is called “ resolution time.” You can calculate it by …
Be mindful when using terms that are specific to your company only as well! At Help Scout, we have some lingo that is specific to us (for example, we shorten “conversations” to “convos” with one another) but that we avoid using when speaking with customers.
8. Summarize at the end
For more complex scenarios, it’s nice to end your email by summarizing your answer, stating clearly what you need the customer to do, or letting them know what you’ll do.
Rest assured, I’ve looked at your account details and I confirm that all the charges are correct. I’ll explain each charge separately and chronologically for more clarity!
On January 10, 2017, the first charge of $10 charge happened. This $10 is to pay for your usage for the whole month of January.
Two weeks later, on January 22, you bought an annual subscription. It means that you bought $120 in prepaid credits at a discount. This is for 12 months of usage, so we will deduct from this as the months pass. At this point, since we already charged you for the month of January, the prepaid credits weren’t used yet. They were on hold during the whole month of January.
Then came February 10, the next billing cycle. This is the day we started deducting $10 from the bank of $120 that you bought.
Here’s the timeline, to recap:
January 10 (1st charge): $10 for the usage of January
January 22 (2nd charge): $120 in prepaid credits that is put on pause until the next billing cycle
February 10 (no charge): $10 has been deducted from your prepaid credits, for the usage of February
I hope this clarifies it! Let me know if you have other questions!
Help Scout Customer Support
- Yes, you can do this …
- No, this isn’t possible …
- Can you send me a full-page screenshot of your settings? I will need to take a closer look.
- You will need to ask your account administrator to do XYZ.
- We will write to you again as soon as this bug is fixed.
Email etiquette and staying on brand
It’s certainly handy to have a grasp of global email business etiquette, but we can’t be expected to know everything. What’s more, we can’t be expected to drastically change our brand’s voice and tone.
In our own case, Help Scout’s voice is friendly and light, while remaining professional — a style more common in North America. This style can come off as a little strange for people from more formal cultures. But it wouldn’t be right for us to mimic other cultures’ formalities, as it would be insincere. It wouldn’t be us!
Behind our brands, we’re all humans seeking that connection to one another.
A bit of empathy, patience and attentiveness go a long way in helping us set the right expectations and understanding each other better!