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“Thumbs up’ not always a sign of approval

Sandeep Tatla, Financial Post Published: Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Understanding communication in today’s diverse workforce can reduce conflict and get you noticed.

“Give me a ring about the figures after the May two-four weekend and we’ll go over them then with a fine tooth comb.” For many, these instructions are very clear: Give me a telephone call about the figures after the Victoria Day holiday and we’ll review them in great detail. However, some are left confused. Those new to Canada may not yet understand our slang or colloquialism. What type of ring? If the 24th doesn’t fall on a weekend, what weekend? It’s even more confusing if this conversation is not taking place in May. And, what does a comb have to do with the figures?

To communicate effectively in today’s diverse workforce, employers need to understand the context of the listener and appreciate that the way people communicate depends in large part on their cultural context. Across cultures there are variations in language, tone, phonetics, verbal and non-verbal cues and appropriate modes of communications.

There are different cultural connotations for words or sayings. For example, “to make a pass” in the Canadian context can mean, to hand something over to someone and also to make a sexual advance. We have what I call Canadian “slang”, such as “double double”, “jump the gun”, and “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” There are also sayings that have become familiar by virtue of popular culture, such as “Bert and Ernie” from Sesame Street, “D’oh” from the Simpsons, “The real McCoy” and “The O.J. Trial”.

Different meanings are also attributed to non-verbal cues. A nod of the head from right to left in Canada means no, but in India a similar head nod signifies understanding, confirmation or yes.  A “thumb’s up” in Canada means good job or good luck but in Australia, Thailand, Iraq and other cultures it is an obscene gesture.

Tone can also send very different messages. The Canadian norm is to be professional, even toned and generally reserved in our speech. This is recognized as respectful. However, in other cultures natural speech is more boisterous or animated, which in the Canadian context connotes that someone is excited, agitated, or angry.

As Canadian workplaces begin to rely more heavily on immigration to fulfill labour demands, unaddressed communication gaps will grow, resulting in misunderstandings, productivity issues and conflict. It is important for individual employees and management to understand and address the cultural differences in communication in their workplace to reduce the communication gaps.

This doesn’t mean that new immigrants to Canada do not have to learn that May two-four refers to the Victoria Day weekend or what the phrase “fine tooth comb” means. New immigrants will learn and adopt these cultural communication variations. However, it takes time. Meanwhile, to reduce misunderstandings and conflict, and increase productivity, colleagues and managers in the workplace can recognize the gaps and work proactively to reduce them.

Here are some tips for reducing the communication gap:

If you get the feeling a co-worker, colleague, or customer hasn’t really understood what you said, rephrase the statement. Do not get frustrated and/or raise your voice and repeat the same statement. Saying it louder and repeating it doesn’t mean they are going to understand it better.

Try to reduce the use of slang or colloquialisms in your speech when working with recent immigrants.

Pay attention to your non-verbal cues, including your use of gestures, body language and space.

If it appears the other person’s reaction is not congruent with your understanding of the situation, ask what is wrong and clarify.

When you are unclear about something, ask for clarification.

— Sandeep Tatla is a human rights lawyer, diversity advisor and the managing principal of Tatla Diversity Group. Her focus is on creating inclusive workplaces. She can be contacted at

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