Failures are covered up.

Does this intercultural difference and communication problem result in failures? Quite often it does, but only a few can be recorded, and become known. Such business failures happen, but they are not often seen as a direct outcome of an international communication problem. Excuses are usually found elsewhere. However, recently The Economist had their Intelligence Unit poll 572 top executives worldwide on the true cost of language differences. That report says that nearly half the executives at global companies believe language barriers have spoiled cross-border deals and caused financial losses for their companies.

Outside of business, failures are much easier to identify. We know the case of the Avianca Flight 52, which crashed near JFK Airport close to New York City, on January 25th, 1990, after the crew tried many times to tell the control tower that they were running out of fuel in the middle of a terrible snow-storm. Had they been able to communicate better with the American controllers, 73 people might not have lost their lives.

Or take the very sad story of Yoshihiro Hattori, who was shot dead in October 1992 in Louisiana by a homeowner who thought Hattori-san was dangerous. The homeowner shouted, “freeze,” with a very threatening handgun in his hand. However, Hattori-san did not know that, in American English, “freeze” (become ice) can have more than one meaning (in this case, “Don’t move!”).
In the business world, there must be many similar stories, quickly covered up and blamed on other causes. I was one of the leading representatives of IBM in the deal our company closed with Amadeus, the airline reservation system created in Europe in 1987. Our competitor was Unisys (the company built by joining Burroughs with Sperry-Univac, and at that point the long time supplier of Air France). Air France was leading the discussions, also representing Lufthansa, Iberia, and SAS, the other early fathers of Amadeus. On one hand, the Unisys CEO and most important representative was W. Michael Blumenthal, former Secretary of the Treasury of the USA in the Administration of President Jimmy Carter. I remember a meeting in Madrid where one of the participants reported that the discussion with this gentleman had not been easy, although he was one of the best travelled Americans you could dream of, having also left Nazi Germany for the USA at age 13; of course his English was perfect.

Now I ask: Was my very limited English, in support of the CEO of IBM for Europe, more suitable for this group, where no-one else was English speaking by birth? I cannot tell for sure. All I know is that IBM declared later that the outstanding technology and the creativity of the sales team had made all the difference. On the other side, I suspect Unisys found another nice explanation for losing. Who would blame communication difficulties? Who could realize there could have been any such difficulty? In global communication, people do not tell you when you are not communicating well; they just keep smiling, hoping that things will get better soon. Only non-native speakers can see a difference.
Victories and failures have a lot to do with the effectiveness and the comfort of communication, but are not described as such. Credit for them is usually given to better quality of the offering on the winning side, or to unfair competitive practices or lack of the right products on the losing side.