Tips for Online Communication with Non-Native English Speakers



September 5, 2013 (Updated: May 4, 2023)

If you are a blogger, digital marketer, or website editor, chances are you are regularly engaged by people who have learned English as a second or third language. These relationships can sometimes prove to be challenging because they require us to alter our communication.

This confusion can lead to even greater levels of stress when the exchange of money is involved, as is often the case.  Today, I wanted to go over a few quick tips that can help you make sure your email messages are read loud and clear by your bilingual associates.

Avoid Negative Questions

English is a fairly complex language because it is one of the only languages in the world where a negatively phrased question takes a negative answer.  i.e. You don’t mind if I ask a negative question do you?  No, of course not.  Many non-native speakers will respond to this with “Yes” because they are agreeing with you.  They don’t mind if you ask a negative question.

This is a simple problem to avoid.  Once you are aware of the issue you can quickly check your message to make sure the question is framed in a clear and concise format.  Do you mind if I ask a negative question?  See what I did there?

Avoid Jargon and Acronyms

Ideation, SOW, EOB, Long Tail, Sharebait, CRO, etc, etc.   Workers in the digital landscape live in a world of new concepts and new words, phrases, and acronyms to describe their meaning.  This can give even the best communicator a hard time explaining these concepts quickly to less English-experienced colleagues.

A good rule of thumb for preventing this type of miscommunication is to ask yourself if your friends that don’t work in the online world would know what you are talking about if you include the word/acronym in question.  While this doesn’t hold true 100% of the time, it’s good to reflect on your message before you hit send. It’s also recommended that you spell out the words for an acronym in the first mention of the phrase so you give the reader a reference point of clarity for subsequent uses of the acronym.

Be Literal, Literally

The fewer words you can use to communicate your message, the better. Keeping this thought in mind, also make sure that you communicate your exact intentions.

I recently was working with a blogger to have an infographic we created posted on his blog.  He liked the piece at first, then the communication troubles began.  Here is an excerpt from our conversation:

Blogger:  Okay, I will publish your infographic next week.  What is your compensation for this? Me:  Great news!  I can’t wait to see my infographic published on your site.  I actually do not require any compensation for this piece.  Please just publish everything as I sent it to you, and I am happy. Blogger:  Okay that is fine.

Looks good so far, doesn’t it?  That’s what I thought, but then the conversation deteriorated. I assumed the compensation was for my work while he assumed the compensation was for placing the article on his site.  In the end, poor communication led to a ruined relationship.

I should have taken one extra step to lay out my exact expectations in the beginning, this would have been a clearer response:

Me: Great!  I can’t wait to see my infographic on your site.  As for compensation, I usually don’t get paid by bloggers for my content.  I will give you my infographic for free…etc.

This would have given him the opportunity to clarify what he meant by compensation and could have saved the relationship.

Ask for Confirmations

This is probably the most simple, but necessary step of this whole article.  A brief review of the conversation with a confirmation statement or question can go a long way to ensure that both of you are on the same page.

Let’s go back to my example from earlier.  I could have simply asked my blogger contact if he understood my comment.  I, however, assumed he understood, and we already know how that worked out.

Before you send that next email, take a second to make sure you are communicating your message as clearly as possible.  Sometimes, communication problems are inevitable, but if you put a conscious effort into improving your communication techniques, you will see a drastic improvement in your effectiveness of communication and quality of relationships.  Respect and patience translate the same in all languages.

Tell me about one of your most interesting communication snafus with non-native English speakers in the comments.

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