Intercultural communication consultant
Torlach (Terence) MacNamee is a consultant on language and intercultural communication. A linguist by training, he has been studying culture and intercultural communication for thirty years. In the course of his career he has himself experienced a wide range of cultures: born in Ireland, he studied and worked in Canada for twenty years, and for the past ten years he has been living in Switzerland. So he knows European and North American cultures; at the same time, he has encountered the cultures of Asia and Latin America. He has written three books, and he is active as a freelance journalist. His main working languages are French, German and English.
After undergraduate studies in Dublin and a doctorate obtained at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, MacNamee worked in the field of management training for Canadian provincial and federal governments. On returning to Europe, he worked in high-tech industry in German Switzerland, and at a research institute of the University of Geneva.
On cultures and languages
It is often assumed that the problem of international business communication in a world of many languages can be solved by people speaking English. If I talk English, and you understand what I am saying, no problem. Right? Wrong. There is a lot more to communication than language. Communication involves not only what is said, but also what is left unsaid. When we think of international communication and its problems – especially in Europe – we think of the factor of language for the most part. In fact, language is only the tip of the iceberg.
What is culture? The sociological definition of culture includes three items:
1. perceptions and assumptions – the way a group of people see the world.
2. values and norms – what is valued and how people are expected to behave in that group.
3. artefacts – characteristic products of the group, such as song, food and costume.
Traditional and everyday notions of “culture” focus only on item 3 (artefacts), intercultural management presupposes the full sociological definition.
One can describe national cultures such as France or Germany, but also generalize about culture in larger areas such as “Northern Europe”. But cultures themselves are not entirely homogeneous. In each culture, sub-cultures can be identified. The most important sub-cultures are the social classes: one can speak of middle- or working-class subcultures in Western countries. There are also occupational sub-cultures, which may be similar from country to country. For example, engineers or computer scientists have a great deal in common, wherever they live and work.
Culture is certainly associated with language, but is distinct from it. Two countries may speak the same language but have different cultures. This was what G.B. Shaw meant when he famously remarked: “England and America are two nations divided by a common language”.
It is nonetheless true that cultures tend to be associated with languages. Languages function as a wall to isolate cultures and maintain their distinctiveness. For that reason, while American and British cultures are different, an American has more in common culturally with a Briton than with an Italian – unless, of course, he or she happens to be an Italo-American.
It is all too frequent, especially in North America, to have a negative view of the culture factor in international business, and to talk of “cultural pitfalls” that “get in the way of communication”. However, I suggest that we would be better to take a positive approach and to talk of culture as a resource that can be mobilized for good communication and building working relationships that last.
Where does intercultural management come in? “Managing across frontiers” can be a real challenge not just for large multinationals but for any company that has a subsidiary, business partners or customers abroad. Problems of communication can arise which turn out to be problems of cultural understanding. Intercultural analysis and intervention in these situations will be found to facilitate communication – and business.
Does your company have business with partners in foreign countries, whether “exotic” or not? Is communication a problem? MacNamee can advise your staff on the learning of languages, including the use of English or another lingua franca. He offers seminars in intercultural communication. He can also operate as an intercultural consultant and coach. In the case of cultures where he is not an expert (for no-one knows all cultures, just as no-one speaks every language!), he can draw upon a network of specialized resource persons with whom he can work as part of a team.
Culturally sensitive translation
MacNamee has experience of all kinds of translation from French, German and Italian into English, from the technical to the journalistic. He now specializes in culturally sensitive translation, that is, translations that require a particular awareness not only of the source and target languages but of the cultures associated with them. Business texts, for example, often require cultural adaptation as well as translation into English. Otherwise they may seem peremptory, over-emotional, or something else equally undesirable. An important point here is that translations into English are often intended for the consumption of non-native speakers, in Asia for example. Here cultural sensitivity is particularly needed, for the translator working with two languages is actually working with more than two cultures.
MacNamee is active as a freelance journalist. He contributes to Swissinfo and other media outlets. His writing often makes use of his expertise and experience in the field of languages and cultures.
MacNamee is an experienced rapporteur and offers this service particularly for meetings held in English but involving native speakers of other languages. A rapporteur is a person who attends a meeting, makes notes on what is said, and summarizes it in a report. Computer technology adds a new dimension to this activity. The rapporteur, working at the keyboard, can display his summary of the discussion via an overhead projector or other device at intervals or at the end of the meeting, and outstanding points can be clarified.
The task of the rapporteur is to capture all the discussion and see where it is leading. He may intervene to get clarification. He can also give on-the-spot help with appropriate terminology and help non-English speakers to express what they are saying in good written English.
Immediately after the meeting, the report is available on-line to the participants and can serve as a basis for further discussion. Where a series of meetings is involved, the reports cumulate into a final report at the end.
The presence of a rapporteur is useful in meetings where different languages and cultures are involved, so that all viewpoints are heard. It is particular useful in situations of consultation, where groups of people are asked to give their ideas on a topic of concern; through his analysis and feedback the rapporteur can help the group or groups reach a consensus.
For more background see MacNamee’s article (in Fr., w. Eng. abstract) “Le rapporteur et l’interprète de conférence” downloadable from