To the extent that there is a degree of contention between some U.S. IT workers and their colleagues who are working in this country on H-1B visas, the contention often stems from the difficulty the two constituencies have in communicating with each other. For H-1B workers here from India, for example, even when English is the workers’ first language, cultural, pronunciation, and word usage differences can create plenty of misunderstandings.
I recently discussed this topic with Vikas Jhingran, a technology leader in the oil industry in Houston, who came to the United States from India on an H-1B. As I wrote in a post a couple of weeks ago, Jhingran successfully overcame his own formidable communication difficulties to become a world champion public speaker, so I was eager to get his views on the communication challenges that H-1B workers and their U.S. colleagues face in the workplace.
I asked Jhingran if he had any advice to help these two groups communicate with each other. He said they have to look beyond the words:
I come from that environment, in having come to the U.S. on an H-1B visa and worked through that whole process, so I completely understand where the communication might break down between those two groups. The approach I suggest is particularly meaningful for groups like that. People sometimes have to look beyond the exact words that are being used by the person who’s communicating. I say that particularly with immigrant groups, because we tend to use words to convey the same meaning as words that a person born and brought up in the U.S. would use. That causes a lot of misunderstandings, because the two groups use the exact same words, but they convey a different meaning in the U.S. setting—the person from India means something else. What really needs to happen is that both sides need to look beyond the words, and understand where the person is coming from and what they are trying to say. That’s really the basis of what I say in my book [“Emote: Using Emotions to Make Your Message Memorable”]—you have to go beyond the words, and work with the emotions of the people and understand where they’re coming from. If you start doing that, I think communication becomes a little bit easier, and puts both parties on a more relaxed footing.
It all sounded a lot easier said than done, so I asked Jhingran for some practical tips on how to go beyond the words. His response:
For that, you need to ask a lot of questions, and ask for clarifications. Don’t just take the words that you hear on face value. You have to go back and say, “This is what I understand from what you’re saying. Is that correct?” Go and dig deeper, and try to figure out exactly what they’re trying to say. Because on many occasions, what’s happening is the information that is conveyed by the exact words that are used, because the cultural context is different, is not accurate. You have to go beyond the words, and figure out what the actual message is. That takes a little bit of effort in going back and asking questions, and not just staying with the words that were said.
On a related note, there was an excellent article on the Harvard Business Review’s website last week on how to encourage foreign-born employees to participate more actively in meetings. Here are some of the tips that were shared in the article:
- Make it clear in performance reviews that participation in meetings matters, and have a robust reward system in place to recognize that participation.
- Provide foreign-born employees with insight into what effective participation looks like by pointing to others who do it successfully, and then connect them with mentors who can help.
- Offer psychological support by helping them to understand what it is that’s especially challenging for them when participating in a meeting.
- Emphasize not only how important participation is for their own personal growth and success, but for the success of the business.