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International Service – A Question of Culture

This year, unprecedented numbers of international visitors are set to descend on Northern Ireland for Derry-Londonderry UK City of Culture and the World Police and Fire Games in Belfast– but are NI businesses prepared for the challenge of cross-cultural communication?

When it comes to dealing with customers from different cultures, getting it right can be challenging. Front-line staff, in particular, can run into problems.

For example, in many Asian countries, it is considered impolite to point with one finger. It is more acceptable to use an open hand, palm up, which essentially means “I bring no weapons.” How many times do we indicate an item on a menu, or the location of room, with pointed finger – unaware that we could be causing offence?

Misconceptions work both ways too. People from Cambodia, Thailand and Japan tend to avoid direct eye contact when speaking – it is seen as threatening and intimidating. A customer of this culture may think they are being polite by avoiding a receptionist’s gaze, but the staff member may well feel that the customer is being rude and that, clearly, they are not deemed important enough to warrant eye contact.

With 70 different nations set to be represented at the World Police and Fire Games alone – and with up to £21m in tourism spend up for grabs  –  helping front-line staff to be aware of cultural differences, and how they communicate, will be crucial to building effective staff-customer relationships and attracting future tourism.

This is the rationale behind the WorldHost Service Across Cultures training programme – a half-day course designed to help staff deal with customers from a diverse range of backgrounds. The programme has been brought to Northern Ireland by People 1st, in partnership with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) and the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL), as part of the wider WorldHost suite of customer service training programmes.

To help businesses of all sizes prepare for 2013, hospitality, passenger transport, tourism and retail businesses with 250 employees or less can benefit from funded support to train their staff via WorldHost programmes.

“International visitors are a key market for hospitality businesses year-round,” explains Roisin McKee, director of Northern Ireland for People 1st. “But the events taking place across Northern Ireland this year are unprecedented in terms of the volume and variety of visitors they will bring, and this creates both opportunities and challenges.”

Louise Kearney, NITB’s director of organisational development, said “We want visitors to be wowed by the service they receive, and to go home and tell all their family and friends what a great welcome they were given in Northern Ireland. This kind of word of mouth endorsement can be as effective than even the most innovative marketing campaign, and will be absolutely vital in securing the tourism legacy we all hope for.”

The good news is that there is still plenty of time to get front-line staff prepared. If training is not an option, there is a wealth of information on different cultural norms available online. Preparing short handouts for staff, highlighting some key points to be aware of, could help to avert difficult situations or misunderstandings.

Language too, can be a barrier, but it’s one that the hospitality industry is better placed than most to deal with. Research by People 1st in 2007 found that 81 percent of hospitality employers claimed to employ staff who speak more than one language. Over 40 different languages were mentioned in total, but 64 percent of employers admitted that they did nothing to publicise their staff’s multilingual abilities.

If you have staff that can speak other languages, advertise it – use signage to tell customers that there is someone who can speak to them in their language, and encourage staff to speak to customers in their native tongue where possible.

Even if you don’t have multilingual staff, there are still things you can do to go the extra mile. Simply learning a few key phrases in different languages, such as ‘hello’ and ‘thank you,’ can impress international visitors, and make them feel that much more welcome.

Additionally, printing a few extra menus/ price lists in different languages can help reduce communication problems, and can help make service quicker and more efficient at peak times.

Few international visitors will expect staff to be experts and aficionados of their language, culture and customs, but that’s not to say that it isn’t worth making an effort. Small gestures can make a lasting impression – and if that impression is positive, so is the effect on your bottom line.

WorldHost top tips for clear, cross-culture communication

  • Speak slowly and clearly – not more loudly
  • Choose simple words – avoid slang and jargon
  • Use appropriate gestures
  • Use universal signage
  • A smile means the same thing in every language
  • Above all – be patient!

More information about WorldHost training is available at

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