Communication Beyond Words

You can spend hours, days and weeks on end studying verb tables, revising nuanced uses of the subjunctive and rifling through vocabulary flash cards, but there is a kind of cultural language that you simply cannot learn through traditional book learning. This is the system of gestures, formalities and behaviours unique to each individual culture. How are you to know, for example, that in China a bow is a much more accepted form of greeting than a handshake without interacting with Chinese people? Admittedly you can learn the simpler aspects through reading about them, but to develop a true ‘cultural fluency’ direct experience is necessary. Here are some interesting, funny and sometimes baffling customs from across the globe:

  • Les bises

Although a kiss on the cheek as a greeting is fairly common in many cultures, this is a prospect that terrifies Brits and other Northern Europeans venturing south, who would much sooner settle for the safe distance of a handshake. The situation is particularly complicated in France, where the number of kisses you give depends on which region you find yourself in – just take a look at this map:

  • The Italian ‘squillo’

Imagine yourself in Italy and you receive a one ring phone call from an Italian friend. The natural reaction of most would be to call this person back, which is in fact the entirely wrong thing to do, and will leave your Italian friend slightly taken aback. What you just received was a squillo, Italian for ring, and a new cultural phenomenon whereby you are expected interpret the meaning of the call from the context rather than answering. This could be “I’m running a bit late” or “I got your message” or perhaps simply “I miss you”.

  • Exchanging business cards in Asia

In many East Asian cultures the business card holds an almost spiritual significance. Your card should be printed in both English and the relevant Asian language, with the host country language side presented face up. Remember to accept business cards with both hands and to spend an inordinate amount of time examining it as if you suspect it may contain explosives – proper consideration of a business card is a sign of respect.

  • Gestures

Gestures are a complete minefield when travelling internationally, so be very careful. The widely accepted ‘ok’ symbol (thumb and index finger together) is considered rude in Brazil, and curling your index finger towards you in a ‘come here’ gesture can be mistaken for a goodbye in Southern Europe. For those travelling to Bulgaria, take note that to the Bulgarians a head nod confusingly means ‘no’ and shaking the head side to side means ‘yes’.

  • English apologies

Perhaps the most vexing of all these international customs is the British tendency to apologise for absolutely everything, also shared by their Canadian cousins. Perhaps it’s just reflex, but the English will even apologise when you step on their feet on a crowded tube, leaving foreigners utterly perplexed. This apology should not be taken entirely seriously and is simply a way of diffusing an otherwise awkward situation.

As you can see, sometimes vocabulary and grammar is not enough, and some of these customs can be the hardest part of living abroad to master, given that our own are so ingrained in our psyche. Don’t worry about slipping up though, people understand that you’re a foreigner and that these things can take time, and misunderstandings like this always make for funny stories! If you enjoyed reading this, you can find more of the same here, and don’t forget to take a look at our job offers for bilingual assistants in Paris.


The Value of The French Language


English is the most widespread language in the world and is more widely spoken and written than any other language. As English is now considered the “universal language”, does bilingualism in French have any value in the recruitment process?  The answer is yes.

Being bilingual in French leads to more benefits than just raw human dialogue. It opens a new world of communication skills that are essential in the work place. As the world becomes a seemingly smaller place, the influence of the French language is becoming wider in tandem with the internet and new markets. For candidates in the job market, a grasp of the French language might be what it takes to shine out from the rest as its value is ever increasing.

As the world becomes more socially, economically and technologically connected, competence in languages such as French is increasingly important.  There are a total of around 355 million French speakers worldwide including new markets that are considered economically important in the near future. The French speaking market is eminent and drives up the demand for French speakers in the job market.


The French language is also opening new doors for international companies that were not considered valuable in the past. Half of the top-10 fastest growing countries in Africa have French as an official language and we can thus expect Africa to be an increasing focus of global trade and international relations.

Moreover, French is the third most used language on the internet ahead of Spanish. The internet has enabled entirely new forms of communication, research and business in recent years and is now considered a ‘basic need’. Bilingual candidates have goldmines of information at their fingertips that would otherwise be inaccessible to those relying on English.

Good communication skills are valued by many employers as “the most important of all life skills” and the candidate who can deal with a customer in their own language will without doubt have an edge. With the graduate job market crowded and a poor economic climate, bilingual communication skills are bordering on essential.  The recipe for successful communication skills is to understand the culture of the country you are doing business with which comes from being bilingual.

A grasp of the culture gives an understanding of acceptable behaviour and ethical differences that should be recognised for any real communication to take place. Miscommunications may have a serious impact on the success of the negotiation process. Whether it is following instructions or perceiving the motives of a client, it is essential in a working environment.

No one can deny the importance of the English language on an international scale however this does not reduce the value of French.  With the expanding Francophone sphere of influence combined with the necessary communication skills that accompany fluency, bilingual candidates shine out ahead of the rest.  The French language is therefore invaluable during the recruitment process and is becoming even more important with global development. Set yourself apart from the rest and learn French.

Why can’t everyone just speak English?

Image via zinjixmaggir (Flickr)

It is impossible to deny the importance of communication. Verbal communication in particular plays a colossal part in our day to day lives as humans. How could we continue with life as we know it – business, relationships, entertainment – without this vital tool? We just couldn’t, it’s as simple as that. Today, Globalization continues to bring people from all over the world into contact, making communication between speakers of different mother tongues a day-to-day occurrence. It is common knowledge therefore that learning foreign languages is incredibly helpful if you wish to advance your career, particularly in international business.

Wouldn’t it be easier if we all spoke the same language?

The concept of a Lingua Franca has been around a long time. The term describes a third language used to communicate by two people who don’t share a mother tongue. A Lingua Franca – also called a “bridge language” is often used by business people who don’t speak each other’s language, but do share a common third language.

Do we already have a Lingua Franca?

Although there has never been one language used all over the world, several languages have been used in this way around the world at various points in history. Since the Roman Empire, languages such as Latin, French and Spanish have all taken their turn to dominate global commerce. Today, it is English that is usually chosen as the “bridge language” in Business and Politics. It is thanks largely to the dominance of ex British colonies that English is so widely spread.

As an English person, the foreigner’s attitude to English is apparent within minutes in many non-Anglophone countries. While young Brits rush to drop languages at school, youngsters from countries such as Germany and Sweden spend as many school hours learning English as they do their mother tongue and jump at the chance to chat with a native English speaker. Thanks to its global dominance in Media, Film and Music, English is fashionable and many students dedicate considerable time and energy to learning English, often seeing it as vital if they are to succeed in their chosen profession. In other words, the current importance of English is no secret.

English is particularly dominant in Technology, with a huge 56% of worldwide Internet content written in English. Thanks to the global understanding that learning English is essential, the vast majority of native Anglophones are able to ignore foreign languages altogether – thinking perhaps “of course the receptionist in our tiny Vietnamese village hotel will speak English”. Luckily for such people, most foreigners do appreciate the current value of English – but how long will this last?

Time for a change?

Just as previous Lingua Francas have faded away to give another language its turn, it is unlikely that English will stick around forever. The main language used in Business and Commerce does of course depend on the main players in those areas at the time, so will the emergence of developing countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China affect how businesses communicate? One thing we can be sure of is that Globalization is unlikely to slow down, so international communication will undoubtedly be a necessity for many years to come.

Some people suggest that we should adopt an official universal language to facilitate international communication, but I feel that this idea presents difficulties. Choosing an existing language to use globally would be close to impossible and the creation – not to mention the learning – of a whole new language would require an incredible amount of time and effort. Moreover, would speakers of over 6500 languages worldwide really agree to abandon their language (which many people link closely to their national identity)? It seems unlikely.

A world with just one language would arguably be a far less interesting place. Even without engineering a universal language however, it seems highly unlikely that English will maintain its dominance for long.  Perhaps a new Lingua Franca will soon develop (Mandarin? Hindi? Portuguese?) and Anglophones worldwide will be forced out of their linguistic ignorance. Only time will tell!