“It ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it”

A warm welcome to Ben Swan, April’s guest blogger and a cross-cultural communication skills trainer with the London School Group. Ben is going to talk about the need to go beyond words to be a successful international communicator.

Scene 1: The presentation

Marie recently graduated from the Sorbonne and learnt English at school in France. She is now in front of a group of business associates, ready to deliver her first business presentation in English. After the presentation, she gets feedback from her boss who says, “Marie, why did you talk so much, didn’t we speak about that last week? Why did you take so long to get to the point?”

Scene 2: The conference call

Ding was educated in Shanghai and then completed an MBA in the UK. He now works for a global investment bank and is taking part in a team conference call. He has something he wants to say but by the time he has translated from his first language into English, the opportunity to speak has passed. After the meeting his team leader calls him in for a chat. “Ding, why were you so quiet? I thought you were going to say something? Remember we talked about you contributing more to meetings.” That night, he remembers what his boss said to him as he left the office. “You know Ding, if you don’t start contributing to meetings soon, people will think you have nothing to say, or worse still they will think you don’t understand what is being said.”

Language is the answer? 

Global businesses often assume that if everyone speaks the same language then communication will be effective. However, for Marie and Ding knowing how to speak English didn’t help them communicate effectively at all and they failed to meet the expectations of the people they were communicating with. This is because when communicating in international business; “It ain’t what you say but the way that you say it” matters most.

Often organisations pay more attention to preventing miscommunication in global settings by relying on English as the language of business and scant attention to the nuances of cross-cultural communication and how people transmit information according to their cultural and linguistic background. This delivery varies depending on the communication pattern people use to deliver their message. R.B Kaplan wrote an influential paper examining how patterns of communication influence the way people transmit information.  

We learn from a very early age how we are expected to communicate and we adopt specific patterns of communication. Then, as adults, it can be very difficult to present information differently even when speaking a different language. Here are Kaplan's communication patterns:

1. Speakers of East Asian languages tend to communicate silently and indirectly, using subtle signs to indicate agreement or disagreement. This is why junior team members like Ding are unlikely to speak out during meetings unless asked to.

Indirect Circle pattern

Q: Do you want to go to a restaurant?

A: I like restaurants.

2. Speakers of Germanic languages favour a more direct approach to communication, using simple and short sentences to convey meaning clearly and quickly.

Straight-line pattern (Germanic languages)

Q: Do you want to go to a restaurant?

A: Yes.

3. Speakers of Semitic languages use parallel structures when communicating allowing for people to present two sides to an argument, which means that the exact opinion of the speaker is never overtly demonstrated.

Parallel line pattern

Q: Do you want to go to a restaurant?

A: Why? What’s the matter with my cooking?

4. Speakers of Romance languages tend to use a lot of words and connected supporting arguments in order to communicate a complete argument or statement.

Connected digression pattern

Q: Do you want to go to a restaurant?

A: My mother and father took me to a restaurant when I was six. I had fish, I like fish, there is a new seafood restaurant near the centre of town, it’s not very expensive, I like expensive restaurants too of course. I like eating out.

5. Speakers of Slavic languages favour telling a story, and then retelling it, changing aspects of what was said so that what is true becomes mixed with fiction, but not without an element of truth being left within the story. The order in which information is presented is also changed.

Disconnected digression pattern

Q: Do you want to go to a restaurant?

A: Restaurants are a good place to eat nice meals.

What happened to Marie and Ding was that they each allowed the pattern of communication of their native language to influence the way that they used English in a business context. This had disastrous consequences for both of them.

The problems of miscommunication in international business often occur when someone uses English in their habitual pattern of communication, without considering whether this pattern is the most appropriate for their audience. And this is true of all languages and all patterns of communication. Using the words of one language in the communication pattern of another will often create problems of miscommunication.

Solving the problem of international miscommunication?

So what does this mean? How does this information help people like Marie and Ding, and you?


…. If you want to get your point across to the right people at the right time in the right place, and you want to communicate as effectively as possible, it helps if you use the right communication pattern.

In order to do this you will need to…

  • do your research
  • observe how others communicate
  • ask questions so that you are aware of the expectations of communication style and pattern in the context you work in
  • seek out feedback and be willing to act on it so you can adapt your usual communication style.

Developing your cross-cultural communication skills is a complex process which requires time, energy and support.

RB Kaplan's Communication Patterns

Ben Image


Ben Swan has over 15 years’ experience improving the communication skills of individuals and teams within international organisations.  Ben is an expert in the field of intercultural exploration and specialises in developing effective ways of enabling businesses and people to perform well in intercultural contexts.  

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