Bridging the Communications Gap: Expat’s Guide to Cross-Cultural Understanding

The quick deployment of expat assignments without proper training can be challenging for both the global mobility managers and international assignees, especially for those who may have the requisite job skills necessary to thrive in a country like the United States, but still require thorough guidance when it comes to navigating its customs and culture upon their arrival. Fortunately, US companies have global mobility managers and communication specialists to smoothen expat adjustments.

Global mobility managers play the managing role when choosing and managing expat assignments. They ensure smooth international transitions, legal compliance, employee satisfaction and talent retention. They liaise across HR, legal and employees to facilitate efficient and positive overseas experiences. They assess candidate qualifications, adaptability and fit for overseas roles in partnership with HR and hiring managers. 

What people don’t normally hear about are the roles of communications specialists in an expat’s life. They are in charge of preparing expats for communicating properly in their new roles. They help expats with executive coaching, accent modification, team dynamics, voice training, speech therapy, stuttering, public speaking, performance anxiety and other communication-related issues.

Communications specialist’s role

As a communications specialist for the past 20 years, Judith Weinman (in photo) has formulated an effective system when working with expats. In her initial contact with these international assignees, she asks the following questions:

  • Are you sending the message you intend to give?
  • Does your communication style convey competence and confidence?
  • Can you command a space with your voice?
  • Are you clear and succinct in your message?
  • Does your voice have a pleasing quality that makes people want to listen?

Those are just a few questions that she asks her clients. 

Communication for greater wellbeing

Weinman believes clear and dynamic communication is key for professional success. If aspects of a speaking style — such as pace, volume, or vocal dynamism — feel like impediments, solutions exist.

She says even subtle shifts can profoundly impact how others respond to you. Tapping into their full potential as a communicator unlocks doors. Over the years, Weinman has seen countless clients achieve promotions, raises, and greater wellbeing through focused communication coaching.  

“Tailoring a message for the listener shows skill. Research says vocal tone outranks word choice in persuasiveness,” she says.

Consider this — two people can say the same thing, yet make vastly different impressions based on delivery alone.

Mastering communication elevates your professional brand and image. But the personal growth and confidence gained are equally profound. Whether seeking to improve public speaking, interviews, vocabulary, cross-cultural exchange, small talk or mental barriers, customized coaching can provide the expat the skills needed to boost their career and life. 

Accent reduction

Of late, many of Weinman’s clients have been undergoing training for accent reduction or modification. While it’s not a reflection of intelligence or ability, expats consider being understood clearly when they speak part of their goal to compete in today’s heated job marketplace. Accent discrimination is still a pervasive issue.  

Accent modification or reduction training is sought by non-native English speakers, as well as native speakers with strong regional or foreign accents. 

International students enrolled in intensive English language programs in the International Educational Exchange have accent reduction as part of their course. 

While some people may balk at the idea of “removing” their accents, there is also a growing demand for accent modification among international medical graduates and faculty which make up over one-quarter of physicians in the U.S., contributing invaluable expertise. They understand that pronunciation patterns and intonation from their native languages can impede understanding and undermine patient care. 

In one study, an accent modification program led to statistically significant improvement in pronunciation, word stress, syllabic emphasis, and use of body language/facial expressions.

The instructor assessed audio recordings of the participants before and after, as did two independent observers evaluating pre- and post-video recordings.  

These results powerfully demonstrate that targeted training for non-native English speakers can meaningfully enhance communication abilities critical for medical practice. However, it’s important to note that accent reduction or modification also applies in other countries when speaking their native language. For instance, speaking in Spanish with the proper accent will also help locals understand you. It goes both ways.

Unpacking expat learnings

In a thorough study titled Crossing Cultures: Unpacking the Expatriate Learning and Adjustment Process Over Time, responses from 171 expats surveyed 30 days before leaving for their assignments and then nine more times over the first nine months of their international assignment generated positive results.

The respondents—nearly three-fourths of whom were men, and most of whom had a spouse and children moving with them—were from three multinational companies. Their assignments spanned 38 countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia and Europe.

The study found that the expat’s psychological well-being, language fluency and training before relocation had a positive overall effect on adjusting in the first nine months of the international experience. The findings, the researchers wrote, underscore the importance of HR practitioners understanding the expat’s adjustment process. HR professionals must make sure their organization:

Global mobility managers can work closely with communications specialists in terms of providing the employee with a self-assessment tool prior to the international assignment in order to set realistic expectations for adjusting to the host country. 

From his interview SHRM, the largest HR association, Matthew Chan of the U.S. language-learning software company Rosetta Stone cited studies that show that the longer an employer helps an employee prepare for an overseas position, the better acclimated that employee will be to the language and the more confident he or she will be in the assignment.

How do you know if your expats need help

So, how does one know if they need to improve their communications skills? Weinman said it’s important for expats and even their recruiters to ask the following questions: 

  • Do you feel your voice and speaking style represent who you truly are? Are you able to bring out the best of yourself in your communication?
  • If you had full access to your voice, what would be different about your life, work, relationships and connection to yourself?
  • Does the way you deliver your speech represent your authentic self?
  • Exploring your voice might just uncover gifts you were not even aware of. Are you open to these discoveries?

Weinman offers group classes but limits her number of participants to 5 to make sure that her expat-students get the best training that will prepare them for the workplace. She has worked with companies such as Bloomberg, Citi, IBM, Ernst & Young, BTG, Merrill Lynch, Palmolive, Bank of China, Thomson Reuters, HSBC, Mt. Sinai Hospital, NYU Business School and the United Nations. She is certified in Speech Language Pathology (SLP) and Teacher of the Speech and Hearing Handicapped (TSHH).

With commitment and quality instruction matched to their needs, expats can equip themselves with the language capabilities necessary for thriving in American companies. Communication versatility is an asset for ambitious professionals in a globalized world. Strong communication abilities are indispensable for workplace success. (Dennis Clemente)