English: A Delicate Barrier

Tips That Can Help You Overcome Communication Problems

By Mahtot Teka

Imagine a scenario. You are a non-English speaker, a newcomer. The situation: a conflict between you and an English-speaking colleague. How do you resolve it?

It is all about communication (explaining your point of view assertively and politely, listening attentively, apologizing sincerely, and accepting apologies). Ah, that skill – it’s great to have but hard to master. I bet everyone is willing to give their left arm in exchange for it. Well, since you are communicating in a new language and culture, you might want to add your right arm, as well.

So, to solve this conflict you cautiously begin by explaining how things look from your point of view. But in the effort to be polite, you overdo it and you sound timid. You instantly realize that and try to sound more assertive. But there is another small problem: you don’t know how to assert yourself in this new language, and therefore you resort to what you know – your first language. You directly translate sentences and expressions, along with a tone of voice that doesn’t go well with English, and it makes you sound rude – very rude.

You hear gasps from behind. You turn around. Huh, other co-workers are watching and listening! You blush. The size of your vocabulary shrinks from the stress. Then it
becomes worse – with whatever words you do remember, you cannot pronounce them right. Suddenly, you have a strong accent. Or was it always there?

Your colleague, an enemy now, cannot understand a word you’re saying. She cannot even hear you. There is a blank stare on her face. You repeat what you just muttered under your breath a bit louder, but more hesitantly, now that you know you are in the spotlight. However you are still speaking too softly! It may be good manners where you come from, but it’s not helping with the situation at hand.

Your colleague is getting impatient. Her impatience makes you agitated. You start imagining things. I don’t like the expression on her face and the tone of her voice. It is very patronizing. Is she talking down to me? Is it because I am a newcomer? You overanalyze.

Come on! Your colleague is really nice. Seeing your apparent stress, she helps you with words. But you have a problem with that. Why does she finish my sentences? That is not what I want to say. Why can’t she have the patience to wait until I finish?

While you fume and rant in your head, she starts talking to you loudly and slowly. That just does it for you! I have no problem comprehending. I only don’t speak her language as well as her! Is that a surprise? Whoa, calm down!

As things heat up, you realize that you will end up looking like the bad guy. Maybe it is not your fault; maybe it is. But I am right!, you think – which is just silly, because that’s what everybody thinks. You just haven’t had a chance to explain your side of the story!

Was there a different way of resolving conflict back where you are from? So what? I am here now. And I should do things as they are done here. Except that you are not sure exactly what the norms are here, yet. I am trying to learn their way only because I chose to come here and not because it is the only way. But since I and so many people like me are here, why cannot they at least consider that their way is not the only way? Maybe that is another issue for another time.

A piece of advice, if you don’t mind? Say no more in the heat of the moment. Cool yourself down. Go outside. Get some air. Outside? It is snowing like crazy! Welcome to Canada! So, find somewhere quiet – indoors – and be by yourself for a while. Take a deep breath. Good. Now you can deal with the humiliation and anger without yelling at anyone. Call a friend to share. It helps. But I just came here. I have no friends! Okay, then let it boil up inside you. Let it run its course. It won’t kill you.

Instead of preparing speeches and writing angry emails in your head to get back at your colleague, just muster the guts to ask her if you could both discuss the problem at a later time. Most likely, you will get a yes. Discussion is the norm here. Sit down and talk!

Think of the cultural aspects of communicating and try to address as many problems as you can, starting with your language disadvantage first. Then you can use some of your old conflict resolution skills with this new context in mind. Some things work universally. Easier said than done! I know it is not fun finding yourself groping for words and expressions, and hoping for the miracle of clearing your accent or, even better, vanishing into thin air in the middle of a conflict situation. That is an enormous barrier to healthy communication. I get it.

But people will appreciate your effort.

Here are some general tips that might help.
• Pay attention to people in conversation and learn how they politely assert. Watching movies helps.
• Maintain a physical distance when you talk to people. Don’t get too close.
• If you decide to talk about a conflict, go straight to the point of the discussion. Start with something like “So that we can have a great working relationship, I want to talk about what happened earlier.”
• Take responsibility for how you feel. Use “I” more than “you”. “I felt angry” instead of “You made me angry.”
• Admit how you felt. Say you felt hurt or embarrassed. Get it out of your system. In the new culture, you won’t sound weak for saying that.
• Avoid negative terms such as “bad”. Instead use indirect expressions like “not very nice”. Learn to use polite terms.“Please” and “thank you” are mandatory.


Mahtot TekaHaving immigrated from Ethiopia in 2008, Mahtot Teka is an intern architect registered with the Ontario Association of Architects. She is currently doing a post-graduate certificate in Media for Global Professionals at Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning. Check out her new blog about architecture in Toronto at architectonicto.blogspot.com/ or contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .