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The Power of Words Across Cultures

In recent centuries, English has become a global language. Over 380 million people speak it as their first language and more than 200 million as their second language.

According to the National Standards for Foreign Language Education, people cannot truly master a new language until they have grasped the cultural context in which that language occurs. This means that understanding the relevant culture is an important element in successfully acquiring a second language. Not only the literal meanings of words, but also their cultural context must be taken into consideration.

When you use a different language than your native tongue, you need to do more than just replace the words in one language with equivalent ones in the other – since there is, as indicated, another layer of translation: cultural translation. In the business arena, companies and individuals have a responsibility to understand what their colleagues, partners, superiors, competitors, etc., want to communicate; not only the literal meaning of their words but also the intentions and assumptions behind them. When people work in and with diverse groups, cultural intelligence is a must for smooth operations and relations.

People from different countries use dissimilar styles of speech. People who usually speak in a more straightforward manner in their own culture may need to “soften” their messages when communicating with people from other cultures. This can be achieved by using more positive words, being more considerate and polite, and working on their ability to wait and listen.

On the other hand, people from countries who use more of an indirect style of speech would do well to differentiate between their own cultural sensitivity and a necessary degree of directness in business – and adjust their language to be immediately understood by others. For example, if you are Swedish and you work for a Dutch company, saying to one of your coworkers that you are “a bit disappointed” will not be clear to them if that is your way of subtly hinting that you feel absolutely frustrated and fed up or you completely disagree with the work they just did.

As an Israeli organizational consultant with expertise in cross-cultural communication, I am aware of the challenge of learning how to “soften” messages without losing the ability to share honest thoughts and maintain authenticity. In my one-on-one consultations, workshops and lectures, I work with participants from different cultures on how to “soften” or “toughen up” communication, depending on their origin culture and those of the people they communicate with. Let’s look at the example below:

You are a German manager working for a global company as a data and BI leader. Sam, one of your American employees, comes up with some useless data about online sales. Since you have high cultural intelligence, you know that an outright negative statement to an American will be too blunt and aggressive for him. Therefore, the message needs to be “softened.” Here are a few ways to do so:


  1. Start with setting expectations (or presenting facts)
  • The reports should show “A” and “B.”
  1. Use modal verbs (would, should, could…) and open questions
  • Should we consider improving the data consumption standards (availability and refresh time)?
  1. Use the passive voice and positive words
  • Data quality and system stability is sensational for our company success.


Changing the way you speak may be frustrating at first. It takes time to learn how to “soften” or “toughen up” the message without losing your ability to keep it real and honest. However, the power of words and styles of communication, and their impact on our global business success, should not be underestimated! It is essential to translate your manner along with your words, and add the necessary dose of cultural adaptation when working in this culturally diverse modern world. Good luck :)


OLM Consulting Founder

Osnat Lautman is a well-known intercultural expert and the author of the Amazon bestselling book ‘Israeli Business Culture’. Osnat is passionate about cultures, connecting humans and breaking through culture barriers. She created the ISRAELI™ model of Israeli business characteristics (Informal, Straightforward, Risk-Taking, Ambitious, Entrepreneurial, Loud, Improvisational) to reveal the foundations of the Israeli innovative culture. Osnat supports many organizations and individuals to effectively connect and engage with Israelis, avoid misunderstanding and maximize the value of combining the innovative Israeli spirit into a multi culture environment.

Osnat is the founder of OLM Consulting and her customer include the Manufacturers’ Association of Israel, The Jewish Agency, Verint, NYU Tel Aviv, the British Embassy, the Swedish Embassy, the Belgium Embassy, FIDF, Israel Defense Ministry delegation in New York, JCC Association, National Bank of Australia, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 888 Holdings, Corning, SkyVision, ObserveIT, MX1, Israel Export Institute, StartApp, Tel Aviv Municipality, and many others.

Osnat lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, from 2009 to 2013. During this time, she started her extensive research on the differences between Israeli and non-Israeli business cultures, including video interviews with businesspeople from numerous origins. The recorded discussions are incorporated into her lectures and workshops for demonstration purposes.

Osnat holds:
M.A in Social Science and Communications, Bar Ilan University, Israel
Certificate in Organizational Development, New York University, New York
Coach License from Co-Active Training Institute, Israel

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Absolutely. It’s just like coding – when using different code languages. You need to de-code, use the right ‘code’ depending on who you’re talking to.

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