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Lost In Translation: Communication, Multiculturalism And The Middle East Clear communication is essential to good business practice, and yet so many Middle Eastern firms suffer from what we can call the "fog of war."

By Liam Farrell

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Clear communication is essential to good business practice, and yet so many Middle Eastern firms suffer from what we can call the "fog of war." What is this, how can we spot it early on, and what can we do to prevent it causing poor performance in our business?

Let me begin by recounting a story of the blue stripes.

One day, in my business, I was briefing my production manager on the striped frosting I wanted applied to our conference room. To make matters easier, I drafted the design as a schematic, and as a further visual aid, I colored the glass in a blue gradient, and the frosting was in semi opaque white stripes over the blue gradient -a similitude to the final finished frosting- or so I thought.

I sat with the production manager, and discussed where I wanted the frosting and explained my illustrative drawing, pointing to the scale and touching the glass wall of the conference room to point out the positioning of the frosting versus the picture. From our conversation, I felt assured the glass would be frosted as per my specification.

After a few further update meetings in which we had discussed the frosting project (design, scale, supplier estimates, fit out scheduling and final approved quote), my production manager said the "blue stripes will look great." I asked him to explain what he meant by "blue stripes," and after a head-in-hands moment and a few OMGs, I finally managed to get my production manager to understand my briefing, and what my image was illustrating.

I was thus taught a very useful lesson in Middle Eastern comprehension: take nothing for granted. Ever.

Ironically, one of the first things that become quite clear when you start working in the Middle East is just how much confusion surrounds everyone in the work place. Uncertainty seems to cloud every day and almost every decision. In your first business in the Middle East, you may think that it's just your company that's riddled with confusion, but then you start a second, and a third, and before long, you recount how almost every interaction in the Gulf is tinged with uncertainty, misdirection, or total confusion.

For everyone in the region, this must be a frustration: for clients, an annoyance, and for business leaders, a real cause for concern. Getting a coffee order wrong or missing a dish from your starter course is a daily frustration we can all deal with, but for an entrepreneur, trying to get and then keep a firm off the ground, daily confusion is a real cost business leaders can ill afford.

Related: Diversity Matters: Defining (And Developing) Your Cultural Quotient

Linguistics is clearly a key factor in regional miscomprehension. An insight we discovered is almost everyone in the Middle East is talking to each other in a foreign language. While English is the common tongue and de facto business language, actual native speakers are few. Everyone's comprehension is subject to translation, every order and instruction is being translated, and a lot can go wrong. For an illustration of the issues with comprehension, try to share a 13-digit telephone number with someone else. How many times does it take to get it right? Simple specifics like a telephone number or email address typically require a few goes to get right. Expand this situation to your detailed and specific brief, and you can begin to imagine how little comprehension should be expected between people of the same tongue- now, add in a translation.

They say people hear but rarely listen, and this can be true here as much as anywhere. Listening is key to comprehension. Experts believe that humans comprehend better if they have heard the message before- hence why good presenters sum up. A lot of people use monologue rather than real dialogue when talking to their teams- hammering their message at an indifferent recipient, instead of engaging them in a two-way discussion. Active listening massively enhances comprehension. You need your message's recipient to be actively engaged in your communication for them to be able to comprehend your instruction or request. Asking your recipient to repeat what you say is also just repetition, not comprehension. It's more effective to ask your recipient to explain what they are going to do, based on the instruction, in their own words. Then you will know they have fully understood and internalized your communication.

Multiply these cultural and linguistic issues together and you have the causation of some fantastic misalignment. We can begin to understand why business leaders in the Middle East often complain that they are not understood by their teams. So is there a remedy leaders can rely on? Is there a way through the miasma? Well, we have realized a few and offer up this simple checklist for reducing confusion in your business.

  • Firstly, lower your expectations of comprehension. If your recipient can grasp three out of five of your instructions accurately the first time, then you are doing well. Brief in and check up often. It's not so much micro management, as the frequent steerage of an eternal beta.
  • Make it a point to consider the cultural etiquette of your recipient, and how they deal with miscomprehension of a senior's instructions.
  • Remember that we are all communicating in a foreign language, so use simple, idiom free language. Explain what you mean in different ways. If you need to use troubling words, explain what they mean, and get the recipient to own their understanding of those terms.
  • Get your team to repeat your message in their own words, to explain what you meant rather than just blindly repeat your request and then 'debrief and debrief' until they can clearly comprehend all your points correctly in ways which are meaningful to them.
  • Remind your team that it's ok not to understand and get your people to practice saying "I'm sorry, I didn't fully understand that last bit; can you rephrase it for me"?
  • If all else fails, don't deviate from the items on the menu- just point and smile!

Related: Why Local Knowledge Matters: The Importance Of Contextual Intelligence For Your Business

Liam Farrell

Founding Partner and Executive Creative Director, Unisono

Liam Farrell is Unisono’s Founding Partner and Executive Creative Director. The branding firm Liam started back in 2006 is the only branding practice in the entire Middle East to be inaugurated into the REBRAND Hall of Fame. Liam is probably the region’s most highly awarded branding designer with a slew of international branding awards from notable creative shows such as REBRAND, Transform, Design & Design and the German Design Council. As well as his awards, Liam’s work regularly features in online branding blogs, design books and archives. Liam is also currently the strategic communications sponsor for EO Bahrain.

Liam graduated with a first class honors degree in design practice from Salford University in Manchester, UK. After a spell in the music industry, Liam entered the design world working for design and online agencies such as Attik in Huddersfield and Amaze in Liverpool and London before starting his own agency Tap. In 2003, Liam moved to Bahrain to take up the Design Director seat at Saatchi and Saatchi, before starting Unisono in 2006.


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