1. Unlocking communication confidence mindset for impact
2. Equal share of voice & visibility in meetings
3. Cultural insights to build connection & productivity
Victoria Rennoldson shows international professionals how to become communication and culture confident to impact their results, performance and career growth.
She is the founder of Perfect Cuppa English, and an expert speaker and writer on communication and culture, and has been featured by the Global Chamber, Roehampton University, the Focus international network, the Immigration Industry Association, and Facebook expats group London.
She uses her real-life insights from her first career in marketing in international corporate teams combined with her coaching approach focusing on goals, mindset and practical tools to activate a confidence shift for her clients’ communication.
Victoria shares how to build communication and cultural confidence in key business situations to increase share of voice and visibility, in a way that connects and builds relationships.
Victoria supports international leaders and managers to become confident with their communication and cultural intelligence to impact their results, performance and career growth. She is the founder and CEO of Perfect Cuppa English in London with clients primarily in the UK, Europe and Asia. She is also an expert speaker and writer on communication and culture. She shares how to build communication and cultural confidence in key business situations to increase share of voice and visibility, in a way that connects and builds relationships.
So, hello everyone. Since today’s guest teaches English to businesspeople and international leaders, I thought it would be beneficial to give an example of accurate words used in a way that English speakers would never use them. And so, this is a blooper, of course, a sign on the top of a Beijing hospital. Underneath the Chinese characters is the Hospital for Anus and Intestinal Disease, not exactly how English speakers would use the language.
Today’s guest is Victoria Rennoldson from London. Victoria supports international leaders and managers to become confident in their communication and cultural intelligence to impact their results, performance, and career growth. She is the co-founder and CEO of Perfect Cuppa English in London, with private clients primarily in the UK, Europe, and Asia. She is also an expert speaker and writer on communication and culture, and she shares how to build communication and cultural confidence in key business situations to increase the share of voice and visibility in a way that connects and builds relationships.
So welcome, Victoria. I’m delighted that you’re with us.
Thank you very much, Philip, and it’s nice to join you from London, UK.
So perhaps you could start by telling us a bit about your background and how you got into the business that you’re in.
So, I suppose my path has always been with language and communication and interacting with different people from around the world. So, I live in London. I grew up here and have spent most of my life here. And you know, just like New York, London is one of the most diverse cities in the world. I think I looked recently and there is something like 300 languages spoken in London, which is pretty impressive. And from my own experience, I always love languages. I will always love working with words. So, from writing little stories as a child to learning languages, I learned French and German in school.
I then went on to university. I went to study German and Russian because I fancied a little bit of a challenge. But, you know, it wasn’t just about the language for me; I was fascinated by how these countries were and what went on behind the scenes: the history, the literature, the politics of it all, and so I was extremely fortunate. Same in both Germany and Russia as part of my studies. And then I went into my first job, which was working in marketing for some really large international companies, and the first one I worked for was based in the UK. It was a British company, but I was really lucky.
I got great opportunities. I traveled, particularly around Europe and throughout my marketing career of 12 years, working with people all over Europe and the UK. Plus, I’m regularly, you know, communicating and being part of these teams where you’re all on the phone conference and all on the video conference well before the days of Zoom. But, you know, it kind of got me thinking at that time that the way people communicate on these calls and in these meetings wasn’t always that effective. Indeed, whether there were technical issues was frequently raised. Or whether it was that people didn’t quite understand each other, and it kind of got me to this insight that we made this huge assumption that the language of business is English, and of course, it is in reality, but we make a huge assumption that everybody can operate at the same level.
And what I realized was, in reality, in these big multilingual, multicultural teams, there’s a communication and a cultural gap sometimes, and that means that people don’t always fully understand what’s going on or the other way around. They don’t feel fully able to speak up and share their expertise, and that’s what drove me. I mean, that’s what drove me into setting up my business.
So, you know, I came out of the corporate world and set up my own business, which was a bit of an unexpected move. I never imagined I’d be getting into the entrepreneurial space, but I’m so glad I did, and I set up this business called Perfect Cuppa English seven years ago. And now I work with clients all over the world. I’m based in London, but now, through the joy of virtual working, I work with people everywhere and I do that from my lovely little office here in London.
Victoria, I think we should perhaps back up for the benefit of Americans who are not familiar with what a cuppa is.
No, I should have explained why my business is called Perfect Cuppa. “Cuppa” in British English means “a cup of tea” usually. So, someone asks, “Would you like a cuppa?” It means, do you want a cup of tea? And I suppose I called my business this because I felt it was quite a British word.
And, you know, the language itself is cultural. And so, even between, say, the US and the UK, where we, in theory, speak the same language, in reality, there are real nuances that are cultural in the words we use, the grammar we use, and how we express ourselves. So that was, for me, a nice expression of this idea of where communication meets culture.
I’m glad you like it.
So, in America, instead of saying, “Would you like a cuppa tea,” we’d say, “Would you like a cup of coffee.” However, we do not use the word “cuppa” by itself.
Ah, interesting. OK, so that’s always good to know.
Tell me about your international clients and some communication issues that have evolved. Their experience or just yours?
So, the way that I work with people is in a real coaching approach. The people I work with already operate and speak in English every single day. So actually, for them, the challenge is that they realize they’re not performing at the same level as their colleagues, perhaps, and they’re ambitious.
They want to get to the next step in their career, or sometimes people come to me because they’ve just been promoted. And they feel that gap. So, although they, in theory, are operational, they don’t have the strategies and the flexibility to express themselves in the way they want to, and I had a particular client once who once described it to me.
Let’s say, for the sake of our confidentiality, her name was Maria. She described it as I just don’t feel 100% me, I don’t feel like 100% Maria, and I thought that was a brilliant way of expressing it. She was the one. She could say the words, but it didn’t feel like her and she wasn’t able to fully express her knowledge and the great insights that she had. And she felt like her skills, which she had great skills and talent for were here, and her communication skills in English were sort of lower than that, and that frustrated her, and she could see that if she didn’t do something about this, that would start limiting what she could do within her role, but also that it would start limiting her career. So, what I do is really about giving people, working on several different areas, from confidence to mindset.
But to something I call communication agility and cultural intelligence to help them have that flexibility so they can react and interpret what’s going on no matter what comes up.
It’s fascinating. Yeah, I feel like Maria in French.
You know, I’ve studied and speak conversational French, but I keep realizing how limited it is. I can’t express complex concepts. I don’t know the words, but also, you know, the way one expresses oneself in each language is different. Yes, the grammar is different, the structures are different, and the thinking patterns are different. And so, when I again live in another French country, I will need someone like you in French.
One day if you need that, let me know. I think you’re right. You know you get to a certain point. And I remember another client saying this to me, which was, they felt quite negative about their communication skills, and they’d kind of almost convinced themselves that they were terrible at communicating, and when they asked maybe a trusted colleague or their line manager they would just say “Oh, you’re fine. Don’t worry about it. You speak great English. You know you don’t need to worry about this.” But of course, that didn’t reassure them that they felt like they were. It’s just being nice, right? So, you know, the starting point for me, whenever I’m working with a client, it’s getting under my skin of, OK, what’s going on? Here, let me see your presence. Let me see you interacting with me in a sort of mock situation of a meeting. And let’s analyze what parts of your communication skills are challenging to you and how we can address that and give you the focus to work on the strategies and skills you’re using.
Do you use your French, German, and Russian when you work with other clients?
That’s a great question, so the answer is no. I very deliberately work in English because what I want is for people to be fully immersed and fully focused. And what’s interesting is that I think we’ll have a real confession here, and I hold up my hands. But I’ve not been very good at keeping up my languages over the years, which would be a horrible thing for my parents to hear, having invested so much in it and me investing so much time in it, right?
However, what was interesting about this summer was that I was just gone. I was in. It was the first time I’d traveled abroad in many years because of the pandemic. So, there was real joy. I decided to stop traveling and go to France, as well as to discontinue my very rusty schooling with a school friend. And what was interesting was that I just did one of these little apps. I did five or ten minutes a day and I surprised myself with how much I could remember.
And at the end of the holiday, we were at X, and events are social events where there are a lot of French people who don’t speak much English, so I just decided to give it a go, and I have to say that was a brilliant insight. I got into my clients’ lives, even though it was at a much more basic level, and it was a great reminder for me about how challenging that is when you just can’t think of what to say, but you’ve got to keep going and you still want to connect with people and still kind of have that relationship with them.
Exactly, and it’s so frustrating. Yes, your mind wants to communicate, and your mouth can’t do it.
And I think that was a great experience for me to remember. You know, that’s what it feels like in a very different context and, at a very different level. But it’s that frustration or I should be able to do this, and I can’t, and that’s irritating, but that’s also why I also have a really big focus around it’s not about perfection. You know, I also get some people who are incredibly good at what they do, very talented. They’re used to, you know, getting great results and being focused on what they do, so they want to be 100% perfect.
Or they say to me things like, “I want to be fluent or sound like a native speaker. And actually, my answer to that is, I don’t think that’s the right kind of goal. Like, if I’m being honest with you, do English speakers, wherever they’re from in the world, make mistakes?”
Of course, they do. Do you make mistakes in your native language? Of course, you do. We frequently restart our sentences in communication, and we don’t even realize it. pause, thinking, “Oh, actually, I’m going to change direction and start again.
And whether it’s a huge presentation or whether it’s a meeting, it happens all the time and it makes us more human and authentic in who we are. So, when I work with my clients, I always encourage them and tell them not to strive for 100% perfection. I think this is not the goal to go for. I think it’s about communication agility. You want to have that flexibility to react to whatever comes up. Right? And that’s the real focus goal to go for, and I’m being honest with you, most of the clients agree with me, and the ones that say, “actually no, it is about 100% perfection for me.” i’’ll be really honest. Perhaps we’ve got different philosophies about, you know, the way to kind of go for the vast majority. I get it now, you know. That’s why I haven’t been able to reach my goals because I’ve had a really unattainable and perhaps not very motivating goal.
No, that is fascinating. It reminded me of my French professor in Paris, Madame Barret. I probably shouldn’t have said her name, but I did. Henry Higgins’ wonderful line [in My Fair Lady] was “The French don’t care what they do, actually, as long as you pronounce it properly.” As a result, the French are extremely conscious of their accents and how they pronounce sounds. And so this French professor said, “The moment you open your mouth, everyone will know that you’re foreign.” It was incredibly demotivating. So why bother? Why try, which I did anyway, just to disprove my stupid actions?
Well, that’s the challenge, isn’t it? And I, you know, I do get some people who are worried about how they sound, and, for me, you know, again you come to what’s the context and what are the situations? Most of my clients are working in multicultural environments where there are lots of different voices and different sounds of voices. Even in the UK itself, which is, to be honest with you, a pretty small country compared to most countries, there’s a huge diversity of voices, not just in London alone, but across the whole country, so you know, again, you know, some people talk to me about, oh, the Queen’s English, but again, for me, that’s not great.
That is a goal to go for because nobody speaks like that, quite frankly. And the most important thing for me in communication is that you’re clear and you’re comprehensible. It’s important that people understand what you’re saying and that you pronounce the words in such a way that people get your key message.
That reminds me of another question I wanted to ask you. And listeners should understand that when Europeans learn English, they learn British English. When they visit the United States now, they sometimes take courses in American English. It depends on the school and the country and all of that, but for the most part, when they start, they learn British English. And so very often, when Europeans come to the United States, they’re shocked. Like, what are these people saying? Especially those who sometimes talk in a regional accent. Do they get marbles in their mouths? So, the American accent is strange, and then American expressions and all that. So, when you do that with your clients who go to Scotland, Ireland, or Australia, how do you train them to understand those? I mean, I have trouble understanding as a native speaker. I have difficulty understanding the Scottish and Irish accents, but I can understand the Australian accent.
Yeah, yeah. Well, it’s interesting you mentioned that example because I equally work with clients who are American themselves and relocating to the UK and want to get some cultural context and realize that it’s not as simple as just moving across the pond. There is a significant difference. I’ll turn it over. I also work with clients who had lived in the US previously and then moved to the UK and were shocked by those differences and hadn’t realized their language and communication style were quite different. And I think, you know, when it comes to tuning your ear, a lot of it is about …
Now, I know that’s easier said than done, and there will be situations that do feel uncomfortable and where you don’t understand a lot of what’s going on. But again, some of what I work with my clients to do and coach them to do is that how you go about it?
React when you don’t understand and when they repeat it, and you still don’t understand. What do you say then? Because it’s embarrassing, right? To keep going, I don’t understand. Could you repeat that please? So, you know, again, I’m using more advanced communication techniques to help people clarify and reflect. They can check their understanding if they come out of the meeting, and they’ve not understood what was going on. They can use professional ways to understand how they can build up a picture of what needs to happen next.
And that’s important because it’s about personal reputation, it’s about making sure that you, you know, you’re delivering in the way that you want to and demonstrating what you can do. I mean, you know, this is it. We all bring lots of our talents and richness of skills to the role, and if you can’t fully demonstrate those, then that feels frustrating. So, I think that’s really what it’s about. You know, I’m just throwing yourself in there and when it’s not working out, knowing how you’re going to react to it.
But you know the American solution to this, when, and this is the typical stereotype that happens to be based on reality. When Americans go abroad, they assume that everyone speaks English. And when the foreigners don’t understand them, the American solution is to speak louder. And we can probably just do the same speed and just speak louder, like, “What’s the matter? You can’t understand what I’m saying?”
Which, of course, is tricky, right?
And it doesn’t work either.
Uhm, no. And I think that’s the other thing I’m very passionate about is, you know, I want to make it an equal experience for teams. So, I do work with native speakers of English to say to them, have you thought about how you’re making your meetings inclusive spaces?
So, have you thought about your speech? Have you thought about the humor you’re using? And even if it’s appropriate humor, does everybody fully understand the humor? Is it a play on words that somebody else would not get? Do you do it?
Are you talking about something that happened on TV ten years ago, which clearly maybe half the room wouldn’t understand because they didn’t watch that TV program? So, I think, you know, the other thing that I work with teams to do is think about how you can be more inclusive.
How do we make sure that in the meeting space, that the teamwork happens in all these wonderful ways via whatever digital platform we’re using. How do we make sure of that? We’re aware of the cultural dynamics; we’re aware of the communication dynamics, particularly as speakers of native languages. We adjust what we’re doing to also make sure everybody feels fully comfortable being part of that meeting.
Can you give some examples of working with different nationalities and perhaps some of the cultural issues or communications issues that arise?
So, I work with lots of nationalities. I think I’ve worked with about 40 different nationalities around the world, but there are some cultures with which we work more frequently. So, it’s an interesting one. I do tend to work with a lot of French clients. And that’s fascinating, because France is in Europe. It’s very close to the UK, clearly geographically, and there’s a lot of shared history between the UK and France.
And yet some of the cultural dynamics between the UK and France would be different, and there are French clients I work with who have physically relocated to the UK. We’re often quite shocked about how different life can be, so some of those nuances, I’ll give some examples. So, French communication tends to be, and when I, by the way, talk about generalizations like this, we have to be very clear that we’re talking about averages based on very limited research.
It’s well researched, but we’re all individuals as well, so we can only talk about tendencies and averages. So that is what generally happens, but we also have to acknowledge there are lots of other cultural influences, so I just want to say that we just make that clear to people. We’re not generalizing too much here, but if we look at the research, what it says is that the French style is generally more direct, particularly if there is negative feedback to be given, it can be more confrontational.
And there is a lot more, particularly in professional contexts. There’s a lot more focus on debate and arguments and making sure that we’re, you know, really debating the principles of ideas. Now if you compare that to the UK, and I think this is probably common in the US as well, it sometimes depends on the sector. Culture can influence a sector.
But from a national cultural point of view, you know, that style of being very direct and perhaps, you know, giving very honest feedback on something might be perceived as being quite negative, and it might be perceived as being rude even in some contexts. And certainly, the debate and debate of ideas and the ongoing, you know, backward and forwards, can be seen as a bit superfluous. It’s much better in UK culture than I think it is in the US, to get to the point. Be clear. What is your recommendation?
Yes, it might be a bit of a debate. Make a decision and move on, and there’s much more of a boom, boom, boom. Let’s get on with it. And so, you know, this style can be quite different, which creates a certain amount of tension. So, you know, what I say to people is, in situations where you experience people from other cultures and you think, hmm, that’s a bit strange, they did that, or unexpected, or a bit rude. I mean 99.9% of you. I’m not going to say 100%, but, usually, people are not intending to be there.
Some different motivations or drivers are going on that perhaps you’re just not aware of, and the way I describe it to people is to imagine you’re wearing a pair of glasses. You don’t even realize you’re wearing the glasses, and you’re looking through the world through these glasses, and that’s your interpretation or culture of what’s going on, so actually, the other people are wearing different glasses, so what they’re doing for them isn’t typically rude or unexpected.
It’s simply professional. It’s the way they do things. And I think that’s the point for me. Sometimes we just don’t notice what’s going on in the dynamics.
When you say that the French debate points a lot, is this giving alternative points of view about a specific business issue, or is it more philosophical almost?
I think it depends on the context, but I think there can be a lot of alternative points of view. It can be about testing the idea and making sure it’s the best idea. And I think, you know, if you talked to somebody who was French, they’d say, “Well, of course, we’re building the best idea that we can, so we’re trying to strip it back down and then make sure it’s still robust enough.”
For what we’re trying to achieve and so they might see this as the British style of just quickly getting to recommendation approval. Well, you’re not, you know, is it thoroughly tested? Is it completely, you know, has everyone bought into him because everyone has put their point of view across where they’re just being polite or indirect in their feedback? So, I mean, that’s an example from France but there are lots of different examples, and I think what is interesting. When it comes to communication and culture, is that where we sit in the world? It’s always about relativity. So, if I take the British example, I’ve mentioned that the UK could be for people in the UK, it might be experienced less directly than in France. But in Japan, they would be even more direct than in the UK. Sorry, less direct than in the UK. So, the British would be experienced as quite direct by the Japanese people. So, this is always about cultural relativity, and we have to understand, you know, it’s not about just A and B. It’s about what’s going on globally as well.
What about other nationalities? For example, do you deal with East Europeans?
Interestingly, not so many Eastern Europeans. I mean, certainly, I’ve worked in Russia, not so much as worked a short time in Russia on some projects, and I lived in Russia for a time. I mean, I think what’s fascinating about Russian culture is its language. But also, from a language point of view, they sort of don’t tend to use the words “please” and “thank you” in quite the same way that we use them in the UK.
So, when I went to Russia, I believe I overheard someone asking for tea. I would have said something. like “Would you please give me some tea, or would you mind passing me that?” And the literal translation of the Russian was something like “give tea or give me too”, so there isn’t this cultural use of “please” and “thank you.” I was also told by a Russian friend when I was there that she was like, “Why are you smiling all the time?” I was like, “Well. That’s what I do.”
I remember that very smiley person. I quite like smiling. She said, “Yeah, I was on the underground or the metro, you know, the subway, and she said, “Why are you smiling so much?” and I was like, “Well, I’m happy and when I see people, other people, I like to smile.” And of course, in Russia, nobody smiles back, and she said, and then she explained to me that if you do that, people think you’re an idiot.
People were looking at this British girl, smiling away, and thinking that she was a bit stupid or perhaps a screw loose. But you know, again, that’s interesting, right? Culturally, it’s, and that’s obviously about their history and what’s happened there, but I think that’s another great example of, you know, the need to know what’s going on. And you need to understand that there’s no rudeness in that. It’s just, it’s just a culturally accepted way of doing things.
Absolutely, yeah. I’ve been told that if you smile at Russians, they think it’s very untrustworthy.
Yeah, except maybe you’re hiding something as well.
Russian history has been so negative and heavy and sad and difficult, and because of all of that, people just don’t smile, and you know it. It’s the idea of those very thick walls. And then you know, for example, because of the very harsh winters, there are thick walls around buildings. And in a mentally thick way, walls as well.
But I think the other thing to say, and again, this is important to know, is that in Russia, once you get to know somebody, they’re incredibly embracing of you. So if you’re in the circle, if you go and have a vodka with them, as you used to do back in the day, I’m not sure I can do it anymore, but you know, it’s really important to understand. She said Russians can be incredibly friendly and incredibly accepting. But they have to get to know you first, and then once you’re in that circle and you’re part of the drinking circle and part of the warmth of that circle, you’re in there.
So again, the way trust is built up in different cultures is different, and the equivalent in the UK is going to the pub. Now I’m quite clear with people, you don’t have to drink alcohol. And certainly, the days of, you know, forcing people to drink alcohol, they don’t exist in that way here anymore, but certainly the ritual of going to the pub after work does.
Working for drinks is important here, and actually, that’s important as part of getting to know colleagues. People will be much more open than they are in the office. Often, people say British people are hard to get to know because they’re not very open about their personal lives.
But get them down the pub and they’ll tell you all sorts of things. So that’s another tip: unless you’re in the know, know what people are likely to tell you and express it clearly.
Foreigners say that about Americans as well. Umm, I think it’s true in every culture. You know, Scandinavians have a reputation for being cold because they come from a cold climate. But, you know, if you get to know them, they’re very warm and loving and kind and generous. Americans have a reputation for being superficial, but again, when you get to know them, they’re like anyone else. They’ll tell you their life story. Whether you want them to or not.
And then you see, that’s another very interesting detail. So, when I worked in some American corporations during my business career, I noticed a lot of sharing of personal lives and what was going on, and actually, that is sometimes unexpected for British people because that doesn’t happen in that same way.
Of course, this is about personal choices as well, and this is where we have to understand that national culture is one influence, and then there are lots of other cultural influences on us really, from everything from gender through to company sector and regional culture. So, there are lots of different pieces that make us into the complex humans that we are.
The other major cultural rule is that in the United States especially, and I think in Britain as well, one should always look the person in the eye because that’s, you know, that invokes trust. It’s not so much trust, it’s the connection. But in East Asia, you don’t look people in the eye. It’s considered rude, very rude, very impolite, and you know, like you, you’re lying. A superior can look at you but you don’t look directly at them.
I mean, I’ve worked a lot with Japanese people as well, and I think that’s been, you know, with every client I’ve worked with. To be honest, I’ve learned to stay open-minded and realize that even though I’m coaching and training, I’m always learning because you have to realize that culture influences how people express themselves.
I’m very aware of that and make sure that I look away more regularly from the camera if I’m working with them remotely or in person as well. Hierarchy is incredibly important in Japan, so you need to be talking at the right level and it might take some time to get to know each other and build trust. But I have a particular example. I mean, this is years ago when I first set up my business, and, ah, well, it was a bit of a learning experience for me, because I hadn’t realized I’d met a Japanese gentleman who was looking for cultural training for himself. He was looking to understand American culture better, as well as Indian culture.
So, you know, I spent quite a bit of time with him, and we met face-to-face. We had a detailed exploration of his challenges and his questions. And I thought I’d gotten to know him quite well, and so I put together a proposal for him which I felt, you know, I was really happy with. I sent that over to him by e-mail, thinking Great, this will be done.
I know, we can get started quite quickly, and I didn’t hear anything, and I very politely asked him if he had any feedback or any questions, and the answer I got was, “I need a little bit more time.” And I thought, OK fine, so I made a mark in my diary, got back to him in a few weeks, and said, “Oh, just checking in again and.
Sorry: In American English, “diary” is “calendar.”
Oh, my calendar, I’m sorry, sorry. Thank you for translating. This is why we need this, right? He, he said, he gave me the same answer. He said, “ I needed a little bit more time,” and I thought, That’s interesting.
That’s the same answer he gave last time Oh well, I’ll make another mark on my calendar and I’ll try again, perhaps to give a bit more time now. And the third time, you guessed it, I got the same answer. And of course, it was at that point where the penny drops, and I’m like, he’s saying no, but he doesn’t want to say no, and he doesn’t want to be rude. And of course, it’s a total realization that you know, I should have picked up on those signals, I should have read between the lines. And that’s quite interesting because, you know, sometimes people’s experiences of British people are indirect.
But in that situation, I realized that my style was way too direct for him and that this was his way of kind of backing out of the situation. So that was a great learning experience and someone I will never forget.
But that’s fascinating because, you know, I’ve lived in Japan also and speak Japanese. And I’ve never heard that excuse for that reason. When you say I need more time, it’s because in America, the American and British corporate structures are hierarchical, but managers are empowered to make decisions, whereas in Japan, it’s very much a consensus.
And you have to get the whole buy-in from the team, from all of the teams, you know, the accounting team, the manufacturing team, the marketing team, and they don’t conclude. The Americans say, “OK, here’s what we’re going to do; now figure out how to do it.” Whereas in the Japanese way, it \ is much more. You get buy-in from all of the departments first, and then you say, “OK, yes, we’re going to proceed or no or not.” But as for me, I need more time to meet with you.
We haven’t reached a consensus yet on how we’re going to implement this, if we’re going to do it. They wanted to say no. They would say something like, ‘I’m not quite sure we can do that, so it might be rather difficult, or I’m quite sure it can be done.
Well, you know, I think, you know, the reality is we’re always really learning, right?, in terms of culturally, what’s going on. And I think, you know, that’s where, you know, for me, I feel incredibly grateful that I get to see clients from all over the world every day and have these experiences and keep learning, I think. That’s the important part: if we stay open-minded and curious and recognize that we sometimes make great assumptions, we can, you know, if we kind of question and gently understand and explore what’s going on, we can get to a better place.
And that means that we can take away some of these great frustrations or miscommunications These are the things that happen within teams, and, you know, this isn’t just about soft skills, right?
Things like this can cause tangible, hard problems for businesses. It can delay projects, it can lose money, it can lose customers because we just haven’t understood what’s going on. When I was working with a Dutch client a few years ago, they were trying to build a business in the UK, and really, I think they had some ready customers, but they were kind of struggling to build up the business and they felt like they were missing out on opportunities because they didn’t understand what was going on in the conversations. And just for the benefit of your listeners, I mean, Dutch people are usually virtually bilingual in English, as if they have incredibly high skills in English. Their challenge was culture and understanding of how to connect well with their customers. And was it the marketing words they were using or the expressions or just something else?
They were coming across as too pushy. And what was interesting was that they would fly in for a short period to have a meeting or two and then fly out again. And what they hadn’t realized was the time sometimes needed to kind of get to know them, to kind of have the more social side of things, but also some of the, you know, interpreter help. I was helping them to also understand and interpret some of the diplomatic styles of communication that go on.
What was the diplomatic strategy?
Yeah, so you know, I think there are lots of different things that go on with diplomatic communication, but sometimes in the UK you will get a positive message and a negative message, so like nodding and yeah, that sounds interesting. ‘Maybe we need to think about it’ or,, ‘all that sounds good.’ So, it sounds positive in the forefront, but it’s not. It’s hidden. It’s a gentle letdown. It’s hiding kind of a more negative message behind it.
In extreme situations, people won’t give any negative messages.They look like they’re agreeing. They’ve got all the positive body language. They’re nodding, but when it comes to the follow-up, they’re not either replying or they’re just not knowing. So that’s the other thing that sometimes goes on.
You know, it reminds me that the Brits think they’re very direct in communication and the Germans think they’re very direct in communication and the Americans think we’re very direct in emissions, and I find that the British are much more. It’s a combination between them and they’re in the middle of the ocean, there between the Europeans and the Americans. So, to me, the Brits are much more polite and soft-spoken.
You know, in a way, gentlemanly, where Americans are very abrupt and direct, and it seems very rude. So, if you ask an American something, it’s often, yes, no, or yeah, I’ll get to it. I’ll do it wherever I am. ‘Are you sure this can be done?’ ‘Yeah, yeah, I can do it.’ Whereas if you ask a Brit the same question, it’s usually not direct: I’m quite certain it can be done’ or ‘I rather think so’…. putting in these qualifications, these qualifier words, while an American would never say, ‘I’m quite certain.
It’s a normal-tone oxymoron, isn’t it? I mean exactly. And you often find these kinds of qualifiers, you know, or softening extremes of language, saying something is, you know, quite an undertaking. “Good, maybe it’s not so good after all.” Yes, well, it’s quite interesting.
I did, yeah.
But I believe a lot of it. Also, the other thing that I work on with diplomatic communication is that it’s not just what you’re saying. It’s the tone of voice as well as how you’re saying it. “Oh, that’s quite interesting, and that’s nice and positive,” I could say, or “that’s quite interesting,” and that more hesitant question. The different tone would suggest indicating in a very subtle way that I’m not that interested at all. I think it’s not that interesting.
So, I think, you know, it’s subtle, and for some cultures, that style of diplomatic communication is a total nightmare because it’s hard to interpret what’s going on, and it feels like it doesn’t feel anything in some situations.
Somebody said to me, “Actually, it doesn’t feel very honest, does it?” And I replied, “What do you mean? Of course, they’re being honest.” But actually, I did get what they meant, which was, it doesn’t feel like it’s being totally honest. Whereas, in German style, I lived in Germany. If somebody doesn’t like something, they’ll say, “No, I don’t like it,” and if there are no extra words with no tone of voice, it’s just a message that’s given. In some ways, I quite like that. It used to make me smile because I realize there’s no intention to be rude there or to hurt my feelings. They’re just purely giving their view, and that’s the normal way of doing things there, right?
Yeah, that’s very true. Yeah, this. This has been quiet fast, and quite fascinating.
I’ll take that positively.
Frankly, because in French, the French tend to be more negative in their language. So, you ask someone, how’s it going? For an American, I would say good, or well, or OK, where the French would tend to say ‘pas mal,’ not bad, and the ‘not bad’ is sort of an indication of how one mentally focuses on the negative instead of the positive, and I found that in other French interactions as well. Americans are generally optimistic and if you tell an American that something can’t be done, that American will find a way to do it.
So, there’s that positive mindset and their belief in it, yeah.
And especially men, they love the challenge. You can’t tell an American man, ‘No, it can’t be done.’ Immediately, he’ll start thinking of how to get it done. Whereas the French would much more readily accept, “No, it can’t be done.” In a way, it’s the weight of history.” Very interesting.
Well, that’s it. There are lots of different factors that feed into these cultural dynamics.
And I think, you know, it is a fascinating area. And if people want to know more about it, then absolutely come and have a chat with me, or I can recommend some resources and some books. But I think it’s something that we all have to be aware of and we have to be clear that, yes, we live in a globalized world, and we can just jump on a call with each other across the pond, across the Atlantic or wherever we are based.
But the reality is, if we don’t understand the cultural dynamics, we might end up in really difficult situations, which could lead to really costly mistakes for our business. So, it does add value to pay attention to it.
Thank you. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we conclude?
Yeah, thank you. Well, Philip, it’s been a real joy to join you today. Thank you. It’s kind of you to invite me on the podcast, and I suppose if anybody listens to this episode and is interested in the topic, there are a couple of things that people can do as a follow-up. So, please do come and connect with me on LinkedIn. I’m Victoria Rennoldson, a funny name with two ends. So, R E doubleN O L D S O N but also if you are somebody who’s particularly challenged in terms of communication and confidence, I have a free course called “Keys to Communication Confidence,” so if you want something like that, please reach out to me on LinkedIn and you’d be very welcome to that.
But yes, come and ask me any further questions. I am really happy to always chat on LinkedIn. I’m there every day during the week, so I always have to have conversations over there.
Thank you so much, Victoria. It’s been a wonderful pleasure to connect with you, communicate with you, and thank you so much for teaching us about these subtle styles of communication.
Thank you, Philip.
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