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President's Perspective: Mind Your Langauge
President's Perspective: Mind Your Langauge

The importance of communicating according to cultural preferences

By Sue Cunningham

Daniel Peck

Estimados amigos de nuestra organización. Forgive me if my Spanish is not quite perfect, as I am only a few lessons into my Rosetta Stone tutorial. During my recent visit to Mexico for Congreso CASE América Latina, where I had the benefit of translators and the people whom I met were kind enough to speak English to me, it became apparent that it was time for me to learn another language.

I advocate looking at our work through different lenses—and no lens is more important than language in the context of culture and respect. When I worked in Wales, for example, I did my best to learn Welsh out of a respect and desire to engage with the community.

As our work recruiting students, engaging alumni, and cultivating private philanthropy increasingly transcends borders, we have an opportunity to expand our personal horizons and knowledge of other languages and cultures. It not only will make us more effective (and marketable) as individuals; it will also help us build important bridges and show respect and genuine interest—key to relationship-building.

Of course, developing cultural understanding is not just about language. It also involves an understanding of customs and traditions:

  • In China, gifts of clocks and watches are considered bad luck because they represent running out of time.
  • In parts of India, addressing people by their first name without permission is rude.
  • In the United Kingdom, discussions about money, while not taboo, are much more sensitive than in the United States.
  • When dealing with potential donors and alumni in Australia, be aware of "tall poppy" syndrome: In a profoundly egalitarian society, people display discomfort with being feted or put in the spotlight.

Do your communications reflect that you are a member of a global society? In your international communications, do you adapt spelling based on the recipient's preferences, substituting, for example, programmme for program or honour for honor? Do you include your country code with your phone number in email signatures and on business cards?

Another significant difference (and one that can create real problems if you get it wrong) is "tabling" an item at a meeting. In the U.S., this means to remove an item from the agenda. In the U.K. and Australia, it means to present the item for discussion.

On this important subject, let's not "drag the chain with this one" (Australia) or "kick the can down the road" (U.S.). I encourage you to, as those in the U.K. would say, "grasp the nettle" and become a cultural champion for your organization (or organisation).

Thank you, vielen Dank, merci beaucoup, diolch yn fawr, muchas gracias!

About the Author Sue Cunningham Sue Cunningham

Sue Cunningham is the president of CASE. Follow her on Twitter at @CunninghamCASE.




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