Fluency Problems – Communicating With Other Cultures


We’re pretty arrogant in America – we expect other cultures to comply with our world perspective and to understand and do things our way – how dare they not see things the ‘right’ way, which is, of course, our way. 

I called United Airlines on a ticket issue, and of course I got the customer service dept representative sitting in Pakistan.  Even though foreign employees take English lessons and adopt English names the accent is a dead giveaway.  And when I hear a foreign accent answer the phone, I have been trained, after repeated exposure to foreign customer service voices, to react automatically with annoyance, regardless of who the poor person on the other end of the phone is.  To me, they are all alike – how very judgmental and unfair of me.  But I can’t help it — or is it that I don’t want to?

Actually, I do want help, so I would be better served to try to work with this person, since this is really the end of the line on getting through to a live person.  But somehow I know that this is going to end badly and it will just be another dead-end phone call to customer service.  And no surprise, that’s exactly what happened.

I can’t believe that you can buy a round trip airline ticket, change your mind on flying out and they have the right to cancel you out of the return leg of the trip, when you paid for both parts (of course, there is no refund either).  How unfair is that?  But of course, I got nowhere explaining it to a Pakistani employee, or to anyone else for that matter.  But somehow, dealing with a foreign voice made it so much worse.

In dissecting why this is true we come back to the fluency communication problem (for more on fluency see the blog post on Oct 2) and to likability (see post Sept 27).  We like people who are like us, and when a big difference like language presents itself AND we are in problem mode, likability is very hard to establish, with the extra burden of just being a phone voice.  It’s hard to like a strange voice that you can’t understand well (fluency).  And without some likability, there is little rapport.

So logically, since I am in the business to know this, you might think that I would override my emotions and rationalize that since I am the one needing the help of the other person, I would at least try to overcome the communication barrier, to try to get further in resolving my problem.  But instead, the minute I hear the accented voice, I know it’s a lost cause, and I give a half-hearted try then give up, with a concurrent rise in blood pressure.  How is any of this helpful?

At this point, conspiracy theory kicks in and I’m convinced that all greedy big (and some not so big) companies are trying to drive consumers to drink by setting up customer service departments with the real job of making sure that nothing is resolved satisfactorily.  (Rationally, I also know that this isn’t true either.)  What I do know is true is that emotion rules over logic 90% of the time – it’s pretty hard to fight getting upset/angry/emotional when there is perceived unfairness and no satisfactory resolution.

Another factor compounding the problem with other cultures is that they really ARE from different cultures; they truly don’t think like, understand, or get American thinking.  They can’t help it since they weren’t raised here, with all our particular vocal nuances.  English, a language that is not very precise, is heavily nuanced.  You really have to have lived here for decades, preferably from childhood, to fully ‘get’ much of the real meaning of the language.  How can that poor Pakistani employee really appreciate the depth of my annoyance?  Maybe that’s why they are hired – since they don’t have the real power to help, it’s probably best for turnover if they aren’t bothered much by angry customers shouting at them from thousands of miles away.  But what a bad reflection on the US based company, when that unresolved anger is left to fester – and often unloaded online in open social media forums.

COMMUNICATION TAKEAWAY:  Fluency is a real communication problem with customer service functions located in foreign countries.  The language and cultural differences greatly hamper understanding and problem resolution, since emotions run high when problems are present.  If you are on either end of the equation, knowing that there are additional barriers, in addition to the problem situation, would go a long way towards a win-win for both sides, which is ultimately what everyone wants.

QUESTION:  Can you relate with your own experience?

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