Embracing a Multicultural Committee

Standardization is a global effort and enticing committee members from around the world can assist in ensuring your standard has broad application and appeal. For multicultural committee members, this may be your first time participating on a committee let alone, one with members from multiple countries you may or may not have visited before. Facilitating successful conversations in multicultural committees and understanding international counterparts brings new challenges, a very common one being the language barrier; speaking different languages can prevent work from being accomplished, using the same language differently can result in confusion and frustration, and communicating with each other using different styles can anger some members and create conflict within the group.

Language barriers are a common issue, making it difficult to have technical discussions or come to agreement on how to phrase different sections of your document. One solution is to bring in interpreters to participate in meetings, but this can be impractical due to the cost and complexity of coordinating such discussions. Another option is to decide on a prevailing language to use during meetings; as an example, the language being used to draft the standard under development could be set as the prevailing language. This doesn’t mean that members from the same country or speaking the same language could not communicate in that language, but they would also be asked to communicate their comments in the prevailing language for the other members. [1] 

Even when two members are speaking the same language, accents or usage of certain words can also vary and cause confusion within the group. Common expressions in one language can have no meaning in another. The same can said for abbreviations such as ASAP and FYI. In such cases, committee members can ask each other to restate a comment using different words or to ask their counterparts how they are using a word. By doing so, the committee can better understand that speaker and improve the language used in the standard and with each other.

Approaches to conversation may also differ between committee members. In some countries, it is considered impolite to speak over another speaker, while in others it is a normal practice. As you can imagine, these two approaches can lead to misunderstanding and disagreements. To assist with this, team building to help build trust within the committee may help – also it can helpful to remind members that each of them has only good intentions. If confusion is approached from a viewpoint of positivity, members are more likely to see the issue as a misunderstanding and not an intentional slight. Those in attendance may also assist by asking speakers that have been interrupted to complete their points on a topic or to note that they thought the speaker may not be finished and would they like to continue.   

In all cases, having patience and speaking slowly is a frequent recommendation, because it allows others to hear, translate, and understand what you’ve said and keep up with the conversation happening around them. [2] Speaking slowly and other requests from participants should be encouraged and at the end of successful meetings, it can be beneficial to thank all participants for embracing the differences between members and being welcoming to requests for accommodation.  

[1] “ How to Successfully Work Across Countries, Languages, and Cultures,” Tsedal neeley, Harvard Business Review; https://hbr.org/2017/08/how-to-successfully-work-across-countries-languages-and-cultures
[2] “People Skills for a Multicultural Workplace,” Lisa McQuerrey, Chron; https://work.chron.com/people-skills-multicultural-workplace-16445.html

Tip: Also check out the Inclusion in Standards resources page

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