Mind the Communication Gap with Polysemy and Homonyms
mind the gap

Communication is a basic necessity to get work done for a business so it is important to understand the variety of challenges when working with international teams. Misinterpretation and issues can arise if you don’t mind the communication gap with polysemy, homonyms and cultural differences. Overly complex and unusual words are tricky for business use. Especially for teams that are in other countries and have English as second language. In fact some of the bigger issues may originate when people from different countries, that are both English speaking, have different meanings and spellings for words. Often issues are subtle and not picked up until something becomes critical and missed. Leading to realisation that a small nuance has totally different implication comes to the forefront.

It is impossible to list a full set of possible problem areas, but it is easy to highlight some issues that could build up from a few examples.

Even the Dictionary Shows its Complicated ..

The dictionary has several terms to explain complexity from dual meanings. Therefore this hints there are issues lurking waiting to trap the unwary.

homophone – a word pronounced the same as another but differing in meaning. Whether spelled the same way or not. e.g. heir and air.

homograph – a word of the same written form as another but of different meaning and usually origin. Whether pronounced the same way or not, as bear “to carry; support” and bear “animal”.

homonym – a word that is both a homophone and a homograph,. That is, exactly the same as another in sound and spelling but different in meaning. e.g. chase “to pursue” and chase “to ornament metal.”

polysemy – a condition in which a single word, phrase, or concept has more than one meaning or connotation.

We All Speak English Don’t We?

During a meeting between two teams from the USA and UK the following communication niggles came up:

  • Meeting kicks off with “good morning”, “good afternoon” (as appropriate to respective time zone). See earlier blog on how to avoid time zone trauma when planning times for meetings
  • The video link shows an apple thrown in the trash can (or is it the rubbish bin)? This is unlikely to cause any confusion as the meaning is clear, but always using one style can bias the feeling of the meeting. If the client is American then the supplier may wish to use American terms to make client feel more comfortable.
  • UK team member raises a key topic at the start of the meeting, and gets a reply that it is “tabled“, in the UK this means it will be added to the agenda, in the USA it means it is off the agenda. A significant difference and one that will cause confusion and problems.
  • Another key deadline comes up and is discussed and recorded as a date 1/2, but does that mean 1st February or 2nd January?, as UK dates are typically day/month and US dates are month/day
  • A time is also proposed for a future key meeting of “Half eight”, is that 08:30, 08:30am or 20:30? The 24 hour clock favoured in Europe will cause confusion for Americans unless they are veterans. And if any of the team were German they would interpret Half Eight as half way to 8 i.e. 7:30. Good luck with getting the team assembled for that meeting!
  • The first delivery is described as “quite” good. Americans use this word to mean “very” , and the British team as “somewhat” leading to differing views on how things are progressing.
  • The senior managers are not happy so want “oversight“. Does this mean they want a high view over the entire project? or are they concerned that something has been missed out?

And We Certainly Write English The Same Way?

  • The minutes are then circulated with the decision on the color of the pants chosen was gray, or should it be the colour of the trousers chosen was grey (Britain’s expect pants to be underpants, so this could be a big problem
  • The minutes are then printed out, but it looks a bit odd, is that a documented formatted as an English A4 page being printed on US custom legal paper or vice versa?

Cultural Differences

Yes or is it No?

There are also some cultural differences that if you are aware of can make a meeting flow better and information understood as intended.

For example when communicating with an Indian business be aware of:

  • Yes” replies. Often they will reply to a closed question with Yes as an answer. A combination of issuing a reply to say Yes they acknowledge they heard it and trying not to displease by giving a No response means there may be a communication gap. By using open questions to get a more detailed reply it is possible to check information has been heard, understood. And consequently that the requirements and actions are transparent and clear.
  • Hierarchy is also important in how people behave and make decisions culturally so information needs to flow in a cultural acceptable way to facilitate judgements and manage respect to organisational structure.

Other cultures have different norms when it comes to:

  • Relationship building before a meeting or just diving straight in
  • Punctuality and accuracy
  • Timeliness
  • Avoiding or handling conflict
  • Questioning that can appear to be querying someone’s professional skills or position

Mind The Communication Gap

So consider in advance how you can mind the communication gap with polysemy, homonyms and cultural differences. Avoid or minimise issues by being conscious that it will exist. Define guidelines and rules for what is an acceptable norm and best practice to stop gaps appearing. Be pro-active and adopt using a style of open questions to ensure complete alignment and to check understanding. If all that fails and you fall in the gap, then suggest to the others you table the issue…


[1] https://www.dictionary.com – For definitions of words.

[2] https://outsource.dev/timezone-trauma-for-outsourced-projects/ – article on how to avoid issues with teams in different time zones.

[3] Book “Virtual Teams Across Cultures” by Theresa Sigilito Hollema

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  • Yvonne Aburrow
    11 December 2020

    Many years ago, I was in an office where a Scottish supplier was in conversation with an English customer. The English customer was dissatisfied with the delivery from the Scottish supplier, and wanted to return the goods.

    I could only hear the Scottish side of the conversation, but the Scottish person assured the English person that the goods would be uplifted, and ended up repeating this several times. It became apparent that the English person was both baffled and annoyed.

    After my Scottish colleague had put down the phone, I explained to them that English people don’t say “the goods will be uplifted”, we say “the goods will be collected”, so the English person probably thought the Scottish company was going to send a choir to sing to the goods, or something.

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