3 Ways Living Abroad Improves Your Own Communication Skills


By Robert Windon 

Earlier this year my wife was offered a two-year assignment in Munich, Germany. We discussed the pros and cons of such a move, albeit a temporary one, for our family. We ultimately decided the experience would be invaluable for everyone. Therefore, in July, we relocated to Germany along with our 5th grade son and 1st grade daughter.

So far the experience has not disappointed and is one that I encourage everyone, from college students to seasoned professionals, to pursue. Among the many things this experience has taught me so far are numerous lessons about different forms of communication. The following are three fundamental communication lessons that have been reinforced since my arrival. While these are important for someone living abroad, they are valuable to any communication situation.

Know your audience:

This may be both the most important and most time consuming thing you need to do to communicate effectively in any situation. The strategy is the same for moving to a foreign country, as it is for a speech to the local rotary or an op-ed in the local paper. To effectively communicate your message, you must know: what your audience responds to, how educated they are on the discussion/ presentation topic, what is their biggest concern, and a lot more. While you cannot learn everything about your audience, especially with limited time, it is important to get a quick lay of the land as soon as possible.

In preparation for moving to Germany I learned that Germans generally speak their mind. German children are taught that telling the truth is important; they will not sugarcoat criticism. While this is not true of all Germans in every situation, it has been invaluable information during my integration into German culture allowing me to avoid aggravation and confrontation in my interpersonal communication.

Chose your words carefully:

As a prosecutor, one of the most important lessons I learned for conducting a jury trial was to eliminate any industry jargon or slang from my arguments or witness testimony. This applies to any situation whether it is a one-on-one office meeting or a speech in front of five hundred people. If your audience does not understand the words that you use, they cannot understand the message you are trying to deliver. Over the past two months, this has been drilled home. While the vast majority of people I come into contact with speak English, it is not their native language. On countless occasions I have found myself changing a sentence in my head half way through because I realized my audience would probably not understand the word or phrase I had intended to use.

Be concise and speak clearly:

There is an old saying- often attributed to Albert Einstein: If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. Unfortunately, people often use far too many words in all kinds of situations, even if they understand the topic very well. They also often mumble and speak too quickly. While I am not perfect, I believe that if speakers can get their point across in 10 words, there is no reason to use 11. This practice has been very helpful since moving to Germany. Whether I am talking to someone with limited English or someone who is close to fluent, it takes that person more effort to understand me; by getting my point across with fewer words and by speaking clearly, it is easier to communicate effectively.

 Robert Windon Robert Windon is a lawyer and communication professional native of the Chicago area currently living and working in Munich, Germany. A former prosecutor, Robert now consults with small businesses and non-profit organizations on legal and communication issues. Email: rlwindon@gmail.com. LinkedIn


2 thoughts on “3 Ways Living Abroad Improves Your Own Communication Skills

  1. Hello, my name is Remy Terbrock and I am currently a student at Southeast Missouri State University. I found your article about living abroad very interesting! I was wondering if it gets easier to communicate with someone whose first language is not English? Also, what communication skills would you recommend for someone that has never been to a country where English is not the native language?

    1. I find non-English speaking people are more tolerant of Americans and their inability to speak their language. Before traveling outside the U.S., I try to learn a few key words in the language of that country (Hello. Thank you. How much?). Showing even a feeble effort to communicate in their language shows a degree of effort on your part that is appreciated. I’m also impressed when I hear that students take a foreign language course. Hiring managers love seeing foreign language proficiency on a resume, especially if the company does business in the country where that language is spoken.

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