Olivia Augustin and Ama Zbarcea talking about international business communication and the differences between US English and UK English, sharing tips for engineers and non-native English speakers, how to improve their Business English.

Lost in Translation, part 1

accents + dialects business english conversational skills office communication podcast Jan 13, 2022

Have you already heard about my latest endeavour? Since November 2021, I am hosting a podcast. Every fortnight, I'll greet you with:

"Welcome to 'English for Engineers'. I'm your host Olivia Augustin. Join me on my podcast as I dig deep into all things Technical English, Business English and International Business Communication. To bring you a lifetime of knowledge in a digestible format."


But maybe you're more of a reader than an avid podcast listener? I've got you covered. Here's the transcript of the episode 'Lost in Translation, part 1', which aired on December 22nd.


Olivia Augustin: Today, I'm excited to have Ama here with me. Ama is not an engineer, but her weapon of choice is–if I may say so–the English language. Ama has an international background regarding her personal life, and she has also worked with people from a vast number of different cultures. I appreciate her so much because she has an analytical mind and is straightforward. Even though she doesn't mince words, she's always kind. And our working title for recording this episode is 'Lost in Translation'. But Ama, I throw it over to you - why don't you introduce yourself a bit?


Ama Zbarcea: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to be here. So my name is Ama Zbarcea, I'm a legal expert, but I had a kind of weird introduction to law. I have an undergraduate degree in economics; I lived in the United States at the time, and I came to London for a semester abroad. During that time, I had an internship for a very large multinational corporation, and that's when I was first introduced to law. I went back to the US, finished my degree, and got a job there.

A while later, I got a phone call from my old boss in London saying, "Hey, do you do you wanna come work for me? I'm creating a new position on my team. I want you to come work for me. You have to move to London, but I'll pay for law school." So, I said yes, and three weeks later I was on a plane, and I moved to London. I started Law School in London while working full time in a corporate legal department, and then three months later, the boss that I came here for left the company. But I did finish school; I have a graduate and a postgraduate degree in English law. Then I left the company 2.5 years later and started my own company doing consulting for large legal departments. Because I want to help more than just a single company. So that's my background.


I forgot to mention that there were some Visa issues moving into the UK and being from the US. But luckily, I'm born in Romania, and I have Romanian citizenship as well. So, my background is Romanian, American and now British.


Olivia Augustin: This is quite exciting. So, you do have all three passports?


Ama Zbarcea: I do, as about three months ago.


Olivia Augustin: So you are an American, a European citizen because of Rumania, and you're Brtish.


Ama Zbarcea: I think Britain is actually part of Europe ;-)


Olivia Augustin: You're right. I was talking about the EU, my bad.

So, how was that culturewise? Because people may think, "Yeah, she's moving from the United States to Great Britain, from the US to the UK. Maybe you have to adjust your pronunciation a bit, say trousers instead of pants, and that's about it." It's the same language. English is English, innit?


Ama Zbarcea: It is, and it's not. It's funny, when I came over as an intern, as a student, I had a deadline; it was for three months. I stayed another three, but that's another story. But I came with a deadline. I came over, and I worked in a British company–a British headquartered company–and with Brits and with people from all over the world because that's how we companies are. I felt like I had assimilated. I felt like part of the culture; I spoke English, and they spoke English, it didn't feel like a big deal. When I came back with no end date, it felt like a completely different situation because suddenly, I had to assimilate and adapt. I wasn't just a visitor anymore. And English is not just English. There are cultural differences; there are nuances in the way people speak. Even saying the same sentence can have a completely different meaning because the Brits have a different cultural interpretation of it.


Olivia Augustin: Can you give us an example. That sounds potentially confusing.


Ama Zbarcea: Absolutely. It happened during my first Secret Santa. Do you do Secret Santa?


Olivia Augustin: I know what it is. But to be honest, I have no idea if they do that in the Netherlands. I do know that it's done in grammar school in Austria.


Ama Zbarcea: Let me explain it briefly. Everyone's name in the department went into a pot. And then everyone drew a name out of the pot, and that was the secret person you're supposed to give a secret gift for Christmas. It's just a jokey thing; it doesn't have to be a serious gift. Usually, there's a £10 limit kind of thing. It's not a big thing; it's just something fun for the office. And the gift I received was 'English humour for beginners'. One of the first things I learned from one of my colleagues through the book actually was that if you say, "It's completely my fault." in American, that means, "It's completely my fault. I made a mistake. I'll fix it."

And I say that all the time because you know people make mistakes, it's OK. Apparently, if you say it to a British person, it means "It's completely your fault!" and vice versa. And I sat there thinking, "oh my, for the last few months, I used to say that."


Olivia Augustin: You thought you were humble and reasonable, but you insulted people all the time


Ama Zbarcea: I might have been. We'll never know now. But that's one of those cultural differences. You say the exact same sentence, and it means the complete opposite of what you meant.


Olivia Augustin: Wow. So, how do you solve that inherent challenge? What's your workaround? Or did you adopt British English a hundred per cent?


Ama Zbarcea: A little bit of both. It's really important to be aware of it in the first place; be mindful that once it happens–once you know–it could happen with other things as well, and you just don't realize. And it's important to know what you don't know. I will never be one of them, one of the Brits; I've been a foreigner all my life because I moved to the United States as a Romanian when I was four years old. I've learnt to adapt to these sorts of situations, and one of the things I do is whenever I introduce myself to someone new, I never do it by email. I always pick up the phone and let them hear my voice. Because especially here in the UK, their perceptions change if they hear an American accent. They become accepting of things that they might have not been otherwise. They understand, 'Oh, you're not part of my culture; what you say might mean something different than I expect'.


Olivia Augustin: It's a smart move to first call them. I do something similar. Because if I'm speaking Dutch, it can take about 5-10min for people to realize that I am not Dutch, that it is not my mother language (on a good day). So very much in the beginning, I try to sneak in something like, "Oh, how do you say that word in Dutch?" or simply tell them that I'm an expat. And then, they are aware that there might be grammar mistakes or cultural mistakes popping up along the way.


What you just said about calling people first is a good tip for my podcast listeners: my engineers, whose mother tongue is not English but have international projects. Introduce yourself like,


"That's not my mother language; maybe there might be different perceptions of what I say. I try not to be just rude; I'm coming from a very direct, straightforward culture."


Ama Zbarcea: And that's a great introduction. After all, we think of companies, but we are working with people, with humans. Every company is made out of humans. We understand that there are other people in the world–and sometimes Americans forget that. But you know, it is vital to remember that other people are just people too. If you introduce yourself in that way, they'll understand that you know you're doing your best or you don't mean to insult someone. That's really important.


Olivia Augustin: That's very much true so. When you go visit family and friends back in the States, do they still see or perceive you as American, or do they say, "Ach, you're so British?"


Ama Zbarcea: They do say that, actually. In terms of my family, I don't know if they ever saw me completely as America. Yes, I grew up there, but I grew up in a Romanian-American household. We spoke Romanian at home, but we talked about things like school and work only in English because that's the vocabulary now. After so many years, we don't have the vocabulary in Romanian to speak about those things because words change, language evolves. Especially me because I was so young. I can talk about cooking in Romanian quite easily because I always did. Still, I can't speak about work, school, or various other topics in Romanian. So, they do notice the change in my accents. Brits will say, "You're American. You have an American accent." They might say, "You have a soft American accent.", which I heard a few times because it doesn't sound as harsh. I think my accent is still almost a hundred per cent American, but my intonation has changed. The ups and downs of how I speak have adapted more to the British way. That said, because I speak multiple languages (I speak Romanian, I speak English, but I also speak French and Spanish, I've learned a bit of Japanese and Korean), I adapt to my audience a lot. It's called mirroring. So when I hear a particular speaking pattern, I mirror it. So the longer I'm in the US, the more American I start to sound, and then when I come back to the UK, I shift a little bit back to more of a British accent. But it's funny, the first time I went back home after living in the UK permanently–it has been maybe six months of living and working in the UK–I was at the checkout at the grocery store. This woman behind the checkout says, "Oh my gosh, are you from England?" and I said, "Oh my gosh, I'm not!".


Olivia Augustin: And the longer you hang out with me, you probably even get an Austrian accent.


Ama Zbarcea: You never know. I might.


Olivia Augustin: Ama, I have another question for you. We both are really, really big fans of the book 'Culture Map' by Erin Mayer. We both love it; it's such a great book that helps you navigate the minefield of international business relations. And there's one example I read there. That example is the basis for my next question. Let me paint the scene for you:


International project, the engineers involved are German and Japanese. And due to the nature of different time zones, most communication is via eMail. The Japanese engineer had a question that he emailed to his German counterpart. The German technician knew the answer and immediately replied - Problem solved, you would think. The other way around, when the German guy had a question for his Japanese counterpart, it sometimes took a week until he got a reply. And here's the trouble. They both assumed that the other was not doing their work properly or diligently.

Why? Compared to Japan, Germany has an egalitarian culture to as what Japan is more hierarchical. 

Even if you know the solution to a problem, you go and double-check with your boss. And that takes a day or two, so the longer response time is perceived by a German as slow, as not knowledgeable. The other way around, the fast response of the very knowledgable German is perceived as hasty or lazy by his Japanese counterpart. A quick response means you didn't check with your boss, which means you are a) lazy or b) you don't respect your boss. 

The problem is thus not a grammar problem, not a language problem, not even a technical problem. There was a cultural misinterpretation of behaviour. They were lost in translation.


So my question is - the question that I started 5 min ago - is there a difference between the US and the UK regarding how they handle projects and project communication?


Ama Zbarcea: Absolutely! That's the short answer.


Olivia Augustin: The short answer is yes. But let me just stop you there. Because I want to save the long answer for the next episode when the two of us continue our conversation about the minefield of international business communication.

That was it for today, my friends. This was English for Engineers. I'm your host Olivia Augustin. Talk to you soon.


Curious what Ama's long answer was?

Follow this link to part 2 of our 'Lost in Translation' podcast. 

Happy listening ;-)


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