In Focus:  Speak English!

This is the time of the world's most important sports event. Well, at least according to my German friends and countless others around the globe. Obviously I am talking about football or, if you prefer, soccer. More precisely, the 2010 World Cup tournament held in South Africa. Those who cannot be there to cheer up their team often look for other ways to share in the excitement. One option: all over Germany, people gather by the thousands to collectively watch the matches on large public projection screens, made available by local governments and commercial sponsors. The Germans use an English-language term to refer to these events: Public Viewing.

Uhmm, here in the States, a public viewing usually involves a group of people dressed in dark colors, a half opened casket, and a dead body.

Which meaning is the correct one? Is there something wrong with the way the Germans use the term? Cheap jokes aside, there really isn't. One of the great characteristics of the English language is its enormous flexibility. Using the same term for different things is quite common. Do you table an issue when you put it on the agenda (British English) or take it off (American English)? Does mugging mean robbing someone (American/ British) or studying hard (Indian)? Is a holiday a special cele- bration (American) or simply time off (elsewhere)? Decide for your- self!  Even more frequent is the use of different terms for one and the same thing. Whether you say restroom, washroom, lavatory, or toilet may tell me something about where you are from, but these terms pretty much refer to the same place. Zero, null, nil, naught, or nought? Thrice or three times? Twenty seven hundred or two thousand seven hundred? Silverware or cutlery? Pull in an order or prepone it? Go ahead, use whatever you're comfortable with!  Oh, and let's not forget the wide range of spelling differences, from color/colour to organize/organise.


Microsoft's Office software supports thirteen different versions of the English language, from English-Australia to English-Zimbabwe. Wikipedia list more than 130 regional dialects, reminding us of yet another factor, the differences in pronun- ciation, slang, et cetera that add further variety. From the Texan y'all to the Irish/Scottish amn't, a myriad of regional/local expressions spice up the language.  Not enough yet? Let's add sports language, abbreviations, colloquialisms, proverbs, and other forms of culture-specific code. Does going the whole nine yards (American football), hitting a homer (baseball), or catching someone offside (football/soccer) leave you hit for six (cricket)? Let's go see a vet (Veteran or veterinarian? Can't tell without context info...), hit the sack (American: go to bed), meet a bra (South African: male friend), have a bash (British: party), and call someone a drongo (Australian: idiot). Isn't this language wonderful?

All this flexibility comes at a price. Misunderstandings between speakers of different flavors of English are common, as is evident from the legion of stories about British-American communication challenges. Worse, learning to communicate in English and deal with all this variety can be hell for non-native speakers. Native English speakers regularly underestimate how the way they talk causes confusion or misleads others.

Speaking Well

So what can you do to reduce the risk of being misunderstood? If you communicate with colleagues across different dialects, accents, native languages, as well as varying levels of familiarity with the language, you'll want to follow these simple rules:

•  Speak slowly. Doing so gives your counterparts more time to translate and/or reflect on what is being said. That is well worth the risk of appearing a bit boring.

•  Speak clearly. Try to sound like a TV commentator or reporter. Members of these professions know that saying 'going to' instead of 'gonna' or 'it is' instead of 'tis', for example, makes them much easier to understand.

•  Use simple terms. Tame your urge to employ elaborate language and sophisticated expressions. After all, how smart are you going to look if your counterparts don't understand what you're saying?

•  Avoid colloquialisms, slang terms, proverbs, and similar expressions. Be your own censor: if there's even a remote chance that your counterpart may be unfamiliar with what you were about to say, say it another way.

Following these rules takes practice. With discipline, though, you'll quickly be able to embrace them. So go ahead, speak English. It's the world's premier business language. But pleeeeeeeeze, try to speak it in ways others can understand!

This article is also available in PDF format  (requires Adobe Reader ).

Book Of The Month
The World's
Business Cultures and
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Web Site Of The Month
How to Say Hello in Different Languages


You won't get all of the 2,800 or so languages needed to greet everyone living on this planet, but this site present a pretty good selection.

(click title to visit this web site)


Quote Of The Month

The English never draw a line without blurring it

Winston Churchill


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Global Business Practices:
Ten Tips for Doing Business in the United Kingdom

  • "How do you do?" is not an inquiry about your health. Respond with "How do you do?" or something like "Very well, and you?"
  • Don't introduce yourself using only your first name, and use academic titles if your counterpart has one.
  • Building lasting business relationships is important in the UK, but not a precondition for negotiations.
  • However, even long-term partners may appear somewhat reserved during business interactions.
  • British humor can be ironic and sometimes sarcastic. This could convey displeasure or disagreement.
  • Communication can be quite indirect. Watch carefully for subtle points and between-the-line messages.
  • Emotions are rarely showing in business settings. Understatement is highly valued in this country.
  • Decisions are often made committee-style. It is important to influence several stakeholders, not only the person who appears to be 'in charge', and to remain patient.
  • Being loud, in meetings or at business restaurants, could be regarded as very bad manners.
  • Eye contact conveys sincerity. However, don't overdo it. Being stared at tends to make Brits nervous.

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