Are you speaking their language?Jun 06, 2022
You've made it! You're fluent in English and can communicate clearly in meetings with international clients – almost. English, like most languages, isn't one-size-fits-all. It comes in all shapes and sizes, from Received Pronunciation to Texan English. So, even if you know every vocabulary word and grammatical rule in business English, small things like tone, word choice, and location can make an innocent statement sound inappropriate. You're not alone: even native English speakers have trouble.
Recently I spoke with leadership coach Catherine Stagg-Macey, a native English speaker who moved abroad and learned just how different English can be. She's originally from South Africa but now lives and works in England. Working as a communication consultant to international engineers, she's acutely aware of cultural differences and communication blocks.
In this article, we're talking about Catherine's experiences, dialects, and how to make sure you're understood no matter what the circumstance. Are you ready?
What's a dialect?
You might be thinking, "Yeah sure, British people have a different accent than Americans." But dialect goes beyond how you pronounce things. A dialect includes the pronunciations, grammar, and vocabulary that people use. Typically, the difference between dialect and a separate language is dialects are mutually intelligible – although in some extreme cases, they aren't. Language is really just a big dialect, after all.(1)
It's important to note that dialect refers to all varieties of language. "Proper" or "standard" English is just a made-up dialect like all the other varieties. It is just as much English as Black English, Australian English, or Kockney English, for example.
The importance of speaking the same dialect
You've probably learned a specific dialect of English but don't necessarily work with people from this location. This could be a bit of an adjustment. For example, if an American or Canadian person asks you, "How are you?" you're not going to tell them actually how you're feeling.
But the nuances of dialect can get you in trouble, too. Catherine experienced this at her British company. In general, British people tend to be less direct than South Africans. Catherine was raised by British parents, so she thought the slight dialect change would be no problem. But within a couple of months of working in the UK, her boss pulled her aside and told her she was being too direct. She had never been told she was blunt in South Africa.
The different dialects of English
There are so many variations of English, but here are some common confusions when using technical English.
Take the word "interesting." What does it mean to you? Is it a word used to describe something fascinating and original? It depends on who you're speaking to.
In South Africa, if you get an email that says, "Thanks for your email. It's very interesting." You won't think anything of it. You might respond, "I'm glad you liked it!" In the UK, this same email would be interpreted entirely differently. "Interesting" is a loaded word and could mean anything from problematic to this annoyed me. Usually, it's a polite way to say something is wrong.
This difference can frustrate people from direct cultures, English-speaking and otherwise – looking at you, my German speakers! "Got your email. We need to talk. I don't like what you said." Is it really that difficult to type that?
It can get even more confusing for many Europeans when speaking to Americans. Americans can be direct yet friendly. They'll say, "We need to talk. I don't like what you just did," with the biggest smile on their face. Or, they can openly ask about your life which could feel like an invasion of privacy. No, I don't want to let you know my life story in the queue at Starbucks. Why are they talking to me in the first place?!
Dialectal differences can become part of the law. In Canada, saying "sorry" isn't considered an admission of guilt because Canadians, on average, apologise for a lot of things they didn't do.
Pro tip: If you want to figure out if you're speaking to a Canadian or American, listen for the differences in the dialect beyond accents.
How to speak English no matter who you're talking to
So how do you make sure your English isn't getting lost in translation? The last thing you want to do is upset colleagues accidentally.
Here are some tips to make sure you get your message across, even if you aren't familiar with this variety of English.
- Take your time. Listen to how others interact. Pick up on the language and gestures they use with one another.
- Speak up and speak slow. If you're not sure what something means, don't be afraid to ask for clarification. When it's your turn to talk, take your time and consider using repetition like, "This is a great concept. I really think you're on the right track." That way, if someone doesn't understand the first phase, they'll be able to interpret it accurately with the second.
- Choose phone calls over emails. A lot of miscommunication can be solved when you can hear the other person. For example, the word "interesting" might mean different things in print, but you can sense what the speaker is actually thinking by using your voice. This can be especially helpful in dialects where speakers aren't known to be direct.
- Call out the differences. Chances are, if you don't know this variety of English, others in the group don't. Making light of the situation and explicitly saying things like, "as they say in the US/Germany/Australia" can help everyone understand what you mean when you say something.
- Give yourself a break. Native English speakers don't know every English dialect in the world. Don't set too high expectations, and know that making mistakes will help you next time. Most people will be forgiving as long as you're respectful and always want to learn more.
Curious to learn more about the different varieties of technical English and how to apply it to become a better leader? Tune into my podcast episode with Catherine Stagg-Macey: Conversations on the Edge.
(1) The Atlantic, Online article 'What is language anyway?' by By John McWhorter, accessed 6/06/2022 [link]