Cooperation requires strong communication. But it is especially demanding when employees in a Norwegian firm are communicating with colleagues abroad, in English, when it is a foreign language for both parties. (Photo: Sigrid Folkestad, NHH)

How to avoid insulting co-workers in other countries

Irritation, frustration and misunderstandings can arise when employees in Norwegian companies communicate with colleagues abroad. Poor English can cause more confusion than cultural differences, according to a Norwegian researcher.

It can be challenging for Norwegian employees to write comprehensible e-mails to colleagues on the other side of the world.  Annelise Ly at the Norwegian School of Economics helps shed new light on this problem.

She investigated internal communication in English at a Norwegian engineering firm that has branches abroad.

“Misunderstandings and discourtesy can lead to a lack of cooperation and setbacks for the company, even though this is hard to assess economically,” says Ly, who recently took her doctorate on the theme at NHH.

She thinks cultural differences are often exaggerated and they have overshadowed problems with language competence.

Called in to help

Ly is originally from France but is well acquainted with both Norwegian and Chinese cultures. She has previously led courses on cultural understanding at workplaces and been an instructor in Chinese business culture.

So she was contacted by a Norwegian engineering firm with branch offices in Asia, including in China. The company had run courses for its employees about cultural differences and how they should tackle disparities in Norwegian and Chinese cultures. 

That did not put an end to the problem of misunderstandings between employees. The firm needed Ly’s help to figure out how communication was faltering. This led to her PhD work at NHH’s Department of Professional and Intercultural Communication.

In her dissertation she criticises many who hold courses on cultural differences.

“They simplify reality and categorise people in particular cultures. Pigeonholing on the basis of whether they are Frenchmen or Norwegians,” says Ly.

Observed meetings and peeked at e-mails

Ly investigated how the employees in a particular engineering enterprise communicated. She analysed their e-mails, observed verbal communications in meetings and interviewed these staff members. All of them used English as their working language, although it was a foreign language for them.

She found that e-mails were a special challenge, as senders cannot see how recipients are reacting to the message.

When Ly analysed the data she found that communication skills in English were even more important than cultural barriers.

“When working for shared goals and having the same educations, the cultural differences have a smaller impact than presumed,” says Ly.

A study from Hedmark University College, incidentally, showed that in Thailand, Norwegians are less liked as leaders than Danes.

Are Norwegian rude?

The market is flooded with books about global cultural differences in business and tips about the dos and don’ts in trade with companies in other countries.

For instance, Norwegians are seen to be more open and direct than people of other nationalities. They think this to be the case themselves. 

“Norwegians can in certain contexts be too direct and this is perceived as rude,” says Ly.

However, she did not find that Norwegian were less polite than other nationalities when writing e-mails.

“Some can be overly direct and others are great at adapting. It depends on what type of message is being expressed, who the recipient is and how the e-mail is interpreted,” says Ly.

“Still, it’s important to communicate in a way that doesn’t insult the recipient – to avert misunderstandings,” she adds.

Your data is incorrect

Ly can recall many troublesome episodes, where communication went awry and led to misunderstandings, frustration and dissatisfaction. 

“An example is a person who was criticising a preliminary result from a colleague in Asia, and wrote: ‘Your data must be incorrect’”.

Ly says this was interpreted as impolite in Asia. It’s conceivable that the recipient lost a wish to cooperate.

“The sender just meant something was a little off and wrote so in a very direct way. Perhaps he should have something like ‘Your data does not coincide with mine.’ Or ‘Can you explain how reached your result?’”  

Not fully a common foreign language

English is the lingua franca in many international trades and organisations. Since the technical terminology for engineers is English, many leaders mistakenly assume their employees master the language in general.

The communication went fine until the project failed to work as planned.

“It’s when a problem arises that there is a need to communicate without hurting the feelings of the recipient. This poses challenges. It is hard to criticise or disagree without coming across as insulting.”

“Most engineers master the English terminology of their profession. Moreover, English is Norwegians’ second language. But for colleagues in Asia it might be their third or fourth language. So there is often a tacit understanding that the e-mail will not be grammatically perfect.”

Ly stresses that we have nuances in daily language which can trigger misunderstandings when both parties are have English as a foreign language.

Better when verbal

Evaluations of verbal meetings were more uplifting. Generally, things went well.

“When you communicate face to face it is easier to be understood, even if the English is not that great. Each sees the other’s reaction, whether they are insulted, or whether they have understood or not,” says Ly.

Would it be good advice to recommend communicating via Skype or something of the kind?

“Yes, either that or meeting physically. But that has its limits, financially and environmentally,” she says.

No response

E-mail communication within the global workplace can be challenging.

“Most people don’t realise this can be a problem because we master the writing of e-mails. We do it all the time.”

“But the point is that many write in English just like they write in Norwegian. That means they are more direct and informal without thinking about how the recipient might actually interpret it. There are pitfalls here,” says Ly.  

Ly informs that many of the employees complained about getting no response and return mail. So misunderstandings arose about who was supposed to do what and when. Both were sitting in their offices waiting for the other to act.

According to Jan Ketil Arnulf at the BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo, communication and leadership are two sides of the same coin.

Communication rules

It is hard to place a number on how much it can cost an international company to have employees with poor English communication skills.

“This is hard to assess. But certainly if people are not communicating in a practical way the result can be frustration and this can spoil a cooperative atmosphere,” says Annelise Ly.

She thinks companies should invest more time and resources in improving their employees’ communication skills.

“Enterprises have a lot to gain from setting up routines for how employees should write e-mails across national boundaries. This is a problem which will become all the more important as workplaces get increasingly global,” she says.

Annelise Ly: “International Internal Communication in the Workplace: A Transdisciplinary Approach”. Doctoral dissertation, 9 September 2016. NHH.


Read the Norwegian version of this article at

Translated by: Glenn Ostling

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