Sara Helm introduces a new series on meetings skills with an article highlighting some of the challenges faced by participants in multinational and multilingual meetings.

Introduction What is a business meeting? The challenge of the international business meeting Particular difficulties of the international business meeting for non-native speaker (L2) participants Regular complaints from my business English language students Impact on international business A few tips for successful international meetings


In today’s globalized market place, many companies, whether or not their parent company happens to be registered in an English-speaking country, have adopted English as their official language of communication. Awkwardly for some, these multinational companies increasingly conduct all their business meetings in English regardless of whether native (L1) English speakers are present.

What is a business meeting?

A business meeting can have a variety of objectives.

  • The business meeting to simply communicate management decisions to the company.
  • The business meeting to brainstorm new ideas.
  • The business meeting to kick off new projects.
  • The business meeting to make very specific business decisions and allocate follow-up action points.
  • The project progress business meeting.
  • The internal quarterly or annual business figures reporting meeting.
  • The annual general meeting for shareholders.
  • The meeting to pitch new ideas / projects / products and persuade colleagues.
  • The emergency crisis business meeting.

There are, no doubt, many more types of business meeting.

The challenge of the international business meeting

Different nationalities have very different expectations about what happens in a business meeting. For some, the meeting is not the place in which the real decisions are made; it is more of an open discussion forum, which may well open up ideas and issues not taken into account in the agenda. For others, the meeting should have a very strict agenda which should be adhered to; concrete decisions and action points should be agreed within the time allotted. Certain nationalities are more likely to expect the meeting to be led by a very strong leader, who will invite participants to speak and maintain tight control over turn-taking. Others consider the meeting to be more of a free-for-all situation, where turn-taking and interruption is more open, and leadership is less obvious.

The nationality of a parent company can have a great influence on the corporate behaviour of the employees of a foreign subsidiary, who might otherwise have very different expectations of a meeting. The employees of the French subsidiary of an American company are likely to conduct meetings in quite a different way to French employees of a French-owned company, for example. As well as nationality, industry type and the corporate culture of individual companies can directly influence the nature of business meetings. An IT company might feel quite comfortable about its employees being on-line, or at least ‘doing stuff’ on their computers whilst a meeting is in progress. A finance company might not feel the same way however.

So, combine all these factors with a meeting conducted in the mother tongue of possibly only a small percentage of participants, and the likelihood of an international business meeting being relatively ineffective is fairly high, unless it is managed very carefully.

Particular difficulties of the international business meeting for non-native speaker (L2) participants

• Verbal communication situations are much more challenging than writing emails or business letters because there is no time to check language. It needs to be reasonably accurate first time. Meetings usually have a fairly short time limit, which doesn’t necessarily take into account the fact that generally speaking, L2 speakers need a little more time to communicate their ideas or to understand their colleagues.

• Because of the interactive nature of meetings, poor listening skills are also a major issue.

• Many people find face-to-face business situations stressful in any language. In a foreign language, weak spoken-language skills are quickly exposed, which can be embarassing, and ultimately devalue the contribution of L2 participants.

• Many L1 business people have little or no formal foreign language training themselves, or at least not to working-knowledge level. They seem to assume that anyone who ‘speaks English’ will automatically understand anything they say. They don’t fully appreciate the difficulties of their L2 colleagues and consequently do not make very great efforts to assist L2 speakers in verbal communication situations.

• Different nationalities have a different understanding of English and use it in a very different way. Misunderstandings between L2 speakers with different first languages can be just as likely.

Regular complaints from my business English language students

"L1 participants make little effort to speak simply, slowly or even clearly when holding meetings with L2 speakers."
"L2 participants often agree to suggestions in meetings then do exactly the opposite in practice!"

"L2 speakers who fortunately happen to have a reasonably high level of English and plenty of experience of doing business in English can sometimes cause problems for colleagues who are less proficient. They are more likely to ‘show off’ their language skills in these situations than help their weaker colleagues and counterparts by encouraging ‘simple English’ in meetings, even when this is really necessary for the meeting to work properly."

"L2 speakers often feel that they are deliberately left at a disadvantage to their colleagues. This can undermine any spirit of cooperation."

"L2 speakers start to feel that there is no point in their paying attention or playing an active part in many meetings because they are unable to keep up or make an effective contribution."

Impact on international business

Time and money is wasted on less-than-effective international meetings, especially where people have to travel long distances.

Participants waste further time trying to get information from colleagues of the same nationality, who may have experienced similar difficulties and therefore have an inaccurate picture of the situation.

Participants rely on more general written information. The lack of interaction and the inability to ask questions or contribute ideas can lead to serious quality issues.

A certain degree of mistrust and ill-will can develop between colleagues.

Colleagues avoid communicating with each other, which can create technical difficulties.

Misunderstanding leads to costly future mistakes which have to be rectified.

International teams experience difficulties due more to language difficulties than anything else.

Joint-ventures fail. Companies pull out of international ventures which have already incurred heavy set-up costs.

A few tips for successful international meetings

An effective international meeting leader should:

  • allow extra time for the meeting to accommodate language difficulties.
  • state the meeting objectives very clearly and explain the rules and procedures for this meeting.
  • ask participants to agree that the best form of cooperation and the most efficient way of working is for everybody to be included in the discussion and to be able to follow it clearly, given that there are different levels of English in the group.
  • set some communication ground rules to address the extra difficulties of multi-national participation and L2 speaker participants.
  • ask L1 speakers in particular to use simpler language than they might otherwise use.
  • ask everyone to speak slowly and clearly and L1/stronger L2 English speakers to help their weaker colleagues.
  • encourage participants with a weaker level of English to make a contribution to the meeting.
  • ask everyone to check meaning if they don’t understand a point.
  • summarize each point carefully then ask a participant to reformulate it for the group.

Meetings participants should:

  • pay attention.
  • speak slowly and clearly.
  • check and clarify anything they don’t understand or didn’t hear correctly.
  • be ready to repeat points that other participants don’t understand.
  • be prepared to summarize any point they are asked about, in their own words.