Manage your words well

Using English well in an international context is as important for native speakers of the language as it is for non-native students and other international users of English.

Whether this is because English happens to be the lingua franca of the organisation, company, corporation or community, or because those involved in any meeting have chosen to use English themselves, there is every chance that there will be people with differing ranges of experience and ability in the language, just as this would also be the case with people speaking French, Hungarian, Russian, Spanish, Mandarin, Turkish, Arabic, Swahili or Gaelic!

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Who of us can say we would be confident to attempt to do all that we do in our own language in any other language? We can perhaps learn how to order a prawn sandwich or a taxi, or to greet someone at the airport, wish them a good journey or thank them for their help. This does not take long and is a sensitive and polite thing to do when doing business with others.  It shows that we have made a little effort to learn about their ways.

Just as we can learn a few words, we can also learn about the cultures we interact with.

This process works both ways, because – though there is common ground within cultures for anything that we may need to discuss, and certainly room for exploration in a number of areas (or business would never happen or have been going on for thousands of years!) – there are also certain highly sensitive areas of “sacred ground” where discussion may be very difficult or even impossible.

Encroaching on these sensitive spots is risky and potentially rude. This is as true of the English-speaking culture as it is of any other.

The things that affect our identity are hard to define and having a well-researched book to refer to is essential; I recommend Richard Lewis’ excellent work for a clear and intelligent model when entering new ground in any culture.

Where the deeply-embedded elements of a culture’s specific core value system and the individual’s own modus operandi can have multiple layers that are not open to scrutiny, the language itself can give us the clues we need to how a people think.

We should take care with our words whether with other native speakers or with non-native speakers.

The Ratners Jewellery store in Regent Street, London, part of the chain owned by Gerald Ratner, which made a 112 million profit in 1990.

The Ratners Jewellery store in Regent Street, London, part of the chain owned by Gerald Ratner, which made a 112 million profit in 1990.

Careless language can be very costly. 

A famous story is that of successful businessman Gerald Ratner who in 1991 wiped £500m off his share value with one speech, when talking of his own high-street jewellery, he inadvisedly announced it was “cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich and probably wouldn’t last as long”.

Another story is that of the Topman clothing chain and the firm’s brand director, David Shepherd, asked in an interview in 2001 to clarify the target market for his clothes, he replied: “Hooligans or whatever.”  He went on: “Very few of our customers have to wear suits for work. They’ll be for his first interview or first court case.”

The company later suggested that the word “hooligan” would not be seen as an insult among its customers.

happy hooligan

Such careless words may seem amusing or tough but they have consequences. In 2006, John Pluthero, the UK chairman of Cable & Wireless, sent a memo to staff, which said: “Congratulations, we work for an underperforming business in a crappy industry and it’s going to be hell for the next 12 months.” He warned of job losses and added: “If you are worried that it all sounds very hard, it’s time for you to step off the bus.”  Many did just that and found work elsewhere.

Another pitfall is translation and translation devices. They are not capable of understanding cultural and linguistic nuance. The ambiguity of translation is well summed-up with the example of a biblical quote, meant to express the struggle facing the industry at that time and to motivate the employees to make an extra effort, and that was used in an after-dinner speech translated into German
“The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”.
This came out as “The schnapps is strong but the meat is rotten”

turn off

Language is not a set of conditioned responses triggered by previous words, because we can change these patterns at will. This allows us creativity and individualism.  Chomsky’s “poverty of the input” hypothesis tells us that what a child can produce in language is MORE than the input they have received via their parents or peers. This “new potential language” has come from within the child as he/she has acquired the deeper syntax. Somehow, the child knows that the structure  “Daddy what did you bring that book that I don’t want to be read to out of, up for?” is the only right use of syntax for English, for this question.

Pace is a deciding factor. People are more inclined to get excited and emotional speaking their own language than speaking English, this is hard to lose in a foreign language, suggesting that the control of output and having to pace themselves, will affect themselves and others

Impact

There are several negative and positive associations: native speakers are imagined to have more sensitivity but often they have less. Consequently natives can benefit from observing how a non-native speaks, or try to compose themselves in FL to see how it feels.

Having a slower pace enables better listening and more self-composure. However the emotions inside the L2 speaker are likely to be very high and for the L1 speaker, having to modify their language to obtain better results may at times feel frustrating, too.

portfolio-style

At PIE we can help you develop sensitivity to language that leads you to better outcomes. As a non-native we can show you how English works and how to use it effectively, in your own specific situation, according to different scenarios and your personal choices, understanding norms and idiosyncrasies.

Equally important, as a native speaker we can show you how good language management will lead you to better relationships, deeper awareness of communication and the avoidance of costly mistakes, and to a level of self-composure that is not over-confident but mature and manifested in a spirit of mutual respect.

U or non-U

English as spoken in Britain is a confusing thing at times.

U and non-U English usage (the “U” standing for “upper class”, and “non-U” representing the aspiring middle classes) was a curious debate that began in the 1950s.

During this debate, it was shown that the upper classes in Britain tended at times to use words that were more common with the working classes than they were with the middle classes.

Since the middle classes were keen to use “fancy words” (neologisms that made them seem fashionable and up-to-date) the upper classes sought to distance themselves from this by using ordinary (“common”) words instead!

Being “posh” was one thing, but sounding “posher than posh” was altogether “Non-U”.

Mitford56
The expression “U or non-U” was coined by the British linguist Alan S. C. Ross, professor of linguistics at the University of Birmingham, and soon afterwards, popularised, in an article and also her books, by the authoress, Nancy Mitford, from the famous family of socialites.  Nancy Mitford was one of the renowned Mitford sisters and one of the Bright Young People on the London social scene in the inter-war years,  and wrote novels about upper-class life in England and France.

What the upper-class were doing was showing that they were, above all, not middle-class!

The complexities of a meal…

For example, when issuing an invitation, it should be written on writing-paper rather than note-paper (a decidedly middle-class word!).

And what about the correct term for the meal itself? Is dinner taken at midday or in the evening? What about lunch and supper?  Lunch (or even luncheon) is in the middle of the day and dinner in the evening. To refer to lunch as dinner, or to use the term “evening meal” is to betray your non-U origins!

If a dinner guest praises the supper, then the implication is that the meal was insubstantial and unsatisfying. Never issue an invitation to high-tea, as this is an exclusively non-U invention. When stating the dress code, don’t use the terms dress-suit or evening-dress, but state simply: ‘We will be changing for dinner’.

On arrival, ensure that you praise your host’s lovely house rather than home.  When introduced to strangers, the correct response to ‘How do you do?’ is to repeat the phrase. Giving an answer, such as ‘Fine thanks’, is a major faux pas!

formal meal

During the meal

Linguistic etiquette during the meal is crucial. If you need to wipe your mouth, use your napkin, not your serviette.  Never ask for the toilet; U speakers refer directly to the lavatory or the loo. Saying pardon me or sorry is frightfully non-U. Say jam, not preserve; vegetables, not greens; eat rather than dine; have a drink, not a refreshment. Have pudding, not dessert.

Partly this was due to the middle-class believing that French-origin words and expressions were more fashionable; but the established upper-classes decided to set themselves further apart by resolutely using the Anglo-Saxon vernacular.

Since the 60s
In the last few decades, much has changed and it’s far more likely that eating together will be a relaxed and fun event, and not so “strait-laced” as it used to be; and the language we use is far more laid-back. The main thing is just to “be yourself” rather than conforming to a stereotype.

dinner-party-clip-art

As most know, English is a mix mainly of Anglo-Saxon and French words, linked back to Latin. The latter are more elaborate, mannerly and intellectual in sound; the former, more direct and down-to-earth, “calling a spade a spade”.  Whereas the common man might say “look into what’s been going on” or “get back to me when you can”, the more erudite person would say “explore recent events” and “please respond as soon as you are able”.

In this we can see the tremendous importance in spoken English of verb forms as contrasted with the use of nouns and adjectives in ordinary language. The peculiarity of U and non-U was to allow the upper classes to get away with sounding common!

The sometimes hilarious elements of the so-called “British class system” are well illustrated by the much-loved TV comedy series “Keeping up Appearances“; it makes good listening practice too!

These quizzes provide a bit of fun if you want to test yourself!

What should I do?

Don’t tell me what to do! – help me find it.

We sometimes feel we know what the other person means to say, or is trying to get across, and so advise them consciously or unconsciously towards solutions that we think work for us, and therefore would like to work for them. When we don’t understand, our first question is “why?” – but does this really help?

Business slogans on a road and street signs sign exit

The author and coach, Nancy Kline, provides a good list of what not to do, when another person is speaking, which is quite useful in helping us eliminate bad habits. These include:

  • Don’t finish the other people’s sentences.
  • Don’t interrupt them in mid-sentence.
  • Don’t look overly critical.
  • Don’t fill in the pauses with your own stories and anecdotes.
  • Don’t add information and ‘rules to follow’ during these listening phases.
  • Don’t distract them by – perhaps unintentionally – looking at the clock, sighing, etc..

matterhorn

These seem like good general rules, but bad habits die hard! When helping someone to reach their goals, our own goal of “good helper” might take priority. Putting it more positively:

  • Allow people to finish off their ideas
  • Let them get to the end of their sentence
  • Show interest in what they are bringing up
  • During pauses, pay attention to the thinking process that you are observing
  • While listening, develop rapport and collect important information
  • Encourage speech and think of deep questions.

Questions
If we want to really know what the best solution is, and to help someone reach it, the more time spent knowing what they feel and how they see the world, the better. One does not climb a mountain without a map of the terrain. What if there is a smoother path, a quicker one, or a more picturesque one? How do I know what you prefer if I don’t take the trouble to ask? And how do I know what you are willing to change, unless you tell me?

treasure map

I work regularly with managers and leaders who need to overcome difficulties of miscommunication – frequent where English is the lingua franca for business and negotiating. Finding ground for exploration working up from stable common perceptions is a very important skill, and one that, in the emotional heat of the moment, can be lost.

For this reason it is important to choose questions carefully and – often – to avoid the question “why?” until we have collected a lot more information first.

Where are we?
Where do we want to go?
How long do we have?
How long have we already spent?
Who are the best people to have involved?
What common ground do we have?
What makes the other person say what they do?
What are they not saying?
What is their aim?
What do they want to avoid?
What are they willing to consider changing?
What will they never change?
How can we proceed?

Being able to step back in one’s mind and having the firmly-anchored physical resources for doing so, are equally important (and very distinct). What may seem like a mountain to climb may be anything but

ziggurat