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English for English speakers

In Howard Myers’ 1972 short story, “Out, Wit!” physicist Jonathan Willis discovers the secret of alchemy, and publishes a paper describing how to make gold. Unfortunately for him, he writes the paper in an ironic style that leads people not to take it seriously. Making things worse, his work contradicts the prevailing wisdom in the scientific community, and senior researchers shut him down.

No one takes Willis’ paper seriously…except the Russians. They understand English well enough to comprehend the content of the paper, but not well enough to understand the humor in it. They return to the USSR, where they apply the techniques described in the paper to produce large quantities of gold, which they use to collapse the capitalistic economies of their enemies.

The common language of work

In the global economy of the 21st century, English has become the de facto common language for international scientific and academic exchange, business, and technical work. It’s the official corporate language in many international companies. It’s the practical working language for software teams that include members from different countries.

The situation sounds like an automatic “win” for native English speakers. We already know the global language of business. We don’t have to overcome that barrier to be effective in international work – conferences, user group meetings, training classes, working in multinational companies – all doors are open for us.

But…Jonathan Willis.

Why English?

From time to time, an empire fades away and leaves little or nothing behind it, except its dominant language. This happened with Latin after the fall of Rome, for instance. Latin continued to be used for centuries after the fall of Rome in the Catholic church and for scientific writing. Several European languages descend directly from Latin, and other languages have been strongly influenced by Latin. People still study Latin, and many consider it a useful foundation for learning other languages.

The British Empire has ended, too, even if some Brits haven’t come to terms with it yet. The English language, as it is used today for international diplomacy, academic exchange, and business, is a remnant of the Empire. Like Latin, English remains behind in the areas once dominated by the British; and like Latin, English in one locale may be quite different from English in another locale.

English != English

There are many native speakers of English in many countries. In each country the language is used differently. When we grow up speaking English, we don’t practice speaking it in accordance with grammar books. We just speak it as we hear it, in whatever way is natural in our locale and within our cultural group.

Indians, Scots, Nigerians, Jamaicans, Australians, and many others speak English natively…but not the same English. People raised in different parts of those countries speak English differently, too. There are countless variations of the English language.

Those who must learn English as a foreign language tend to learn it in a specific way. Many in the software field are interested in English only to the extent they require it in their work. They may become very good at reading technical material in English, and in writing work-related text messages and memoranda in English. But they do not care about the variations of English that are spoken in different countries or regions or by particular cultural or ethnic groups. They are not interested in English-language literature, movies, and the like.

Avoid metaphors

A common mistake native speakers make when we work in multinational teams or organizations is to assume everyone who “speaks English” speaks English. They don’t. When we forget this, we tend to speak naturally and fluidly, and to use cultural references, slang, regionalisms, metaphors, and idioms that are unknown to our international colleagues. In some cases, we may use a cultural reference or regionalism without realizing it…it’s just the way we express the thought natively.

The results can range from confusion to misunderstanding to offense. Even if an international colleague understands the words we speak, they may not respond to idioms and expressions in the same way as members of our own culture do. We can sound foolish or crazy or cause offense without realizing it.

One example is the common idea of a team’s “bus number” or “truck number,” which has been bouncing around the c2 wiki for many years. It turns out that a lot of software developers around the world never look at the c2 wiki. When you start talking about team members being killed by a truck, your international colleagues may become so upset that you can’t proceed with your work until they’ve calmed down a bit.

Avoid wise old sayings

Every culture has its wise old sayings. Often, people communicate by stating the first half of a wise old saying, knowing others will recognize it and mentally complete the phrase. We might say, “A bird in the hand,” knowing other members of our culture will complete the phrase with, “is worth two in the bush.”

When we’re working with a software development team and we want to express the idea that catching errors early is preferable to discovering them late, we might say “A stitch in time.” But when we’re working with an international team, how will they know the rest of the phrase is “saves nine?” And if we say the complete phrase, will they understand it? Stitches? Why stitches?

Native speakers of any language automatically use wise old sayings like these without thinking about it. When we’re working with international teams, we must think about it. It’s possible some of your international colleagues will have a strong background in English, and will be familiar with some wise old sayings. But which ones?

It’s also very likely the majority of them will have no idea what you’re talking about. Many of them will feel embarrassed to ask for clarification, and may assume a meaning other than what you intended, or they will spend seconds trying to parse the phrase and miss your next statement altogether. It’s best to avoid such phrases.

For empathy, consider the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled Darmok, in which the Enterprise encounters a civilization whose language consists entirely of standard sayings that refer to elements of their culture and history. When you pepper your speech with wise old sayings, some of your international colleagues may feel the same way as the crew of the Enterprise did when they tried to understand the Children of Tama.

Avoid movie quotes and song lyrics

I’ve seen American friends carry on whole conversations using only movie lines and/or song lyrics, for fun. We often use well-known quotes from movies and lines from popular songs in our normal conversations, too. But international colleagues may not be familiar with these quotes and lines. Using them can cause confusion, or lead them to miss something important as they try to interpret the line. It’s best to omit movie quotes and song lyrics when working with international colleagues.

Avoid idioms

On one engagement years ago, I was pair coaching with a colleague who had a background in the US Navy. We were working with a team of Indian software developers. My colleague was explaining something to the team, and at one point she said “mox nix.” The developers nodded gravely and she continued with her explanation.

When she had finished, I asked the team if they had understood the phrase, “mox nix.” Not one of them had understood it. In case you haven’t heard this before, “mox nix” is somewhat commonly used in the US military to mean “it doesn’t matter” or “it isn’t important” or “it makes no difference.” It’s a corruption of the German phrase, machts nichts, but most Americans who use the phrase are not aware of its origin and don’t realize it’s non-standard English.

In some English-speaking cultures, it’s common to modify the basic meaning of words and phrases to create culturally-specific idioms. For instance, in some places in the United States people will describe something “good” using the words “dope” or “stupid.” International colleagues will understand those words to refer to people of low intelligence, and they might take offense.

People who grew up speaking Cockney are well aware of which phrases are non-standard English, yet they may let slip a rhyme or two when they’re feeling relaxed among international colleagues. A phrase like “dog and bone” or “Barney Rubble” probably won’t cause offense, but may well cause confusion (unless you’re on a coffee break and building relationships).

When working with colleagues from the southestern United States or Texas in international engagements, I’ve seen regionalisms cause confusion many times. When they mean to say, “That is probably not a good idea,” a southerner might say, “That dog won’t hunt.” When they mean to say, “That’s a very impressive result; you did excellent work,” they might say, “That’s slicker than owl shit on a door knob.” Countless expressions like those exist.

They are not trying to confuse people when they speak this way. It’s just normal speech for them. I’m reminded of the scene in the 1986 movie, “Gung Ho,” in which the new Japanese owners of a failing US car factory ask Michael Keaton’s character, “Can we count on you?” and he replies, “Fellas, is a frog’s ass watertight?” The Japanese confer with one another before responding, in all seriousness, “Yes, we believe it is.”

Note that both the idiomatic expression regarding a frog’s ass and the allusion to a 1986 American movie are cultural references that are unlikely to be understood by a person who learned English from books, who was born after 1986, and whose interest in the language extends only as far as it pertains to their work.

Avoid sports references

Many Americans, and I suppose others as well, like to speak in terms of sports. Americans like to use references to American football and golf. Many times when working with international teams I’ve seen the confusion on people’s faces when American consultants said things like, “make the extra kick,” “do an end run,” “Hail Mary,” “punt,” “hole in one,” “in the rough,” or “choose your club.”

The popular process framework known as Scrum refers to a sport called Rugby that is apparently popular in some countries. You might hear consultants say, “The daily Scrum is just like the scrum in Rugby.” If you aren’t familiar with Rugby, you might find this explanation less than helpful. That’s how it was for me, when I was first introduced to Scrum. Far from clarifying, the Rugby references only added another layer of unfamiliar concepts to the topic.

It’s best to assume your international colleagues are not familiar with the same sports as you are, and to think of a more standard way to express your ideas.

Avoid humor, double entendre, irony, and sarcasm

Humor and various forms of word-play are characteristic of human languages and are part of every culture. Many who give presentations, teach classes, or coach teams use these devices to give people a mental “hook” to help them remember things, or to keep people engaged. However, that strategy may not work so well when the audience is listening in a foreign language. People may not relate to word play or humor in a language other than their mother tongue, especially when they are trying to capture work-related information.

For many of your international colleagues, it will be challenging just to follow the gist of what you’re saying. When you mix in humor, irony, sarcasm, puns, or other forms of word play, they will not be able to keep up. Many of them are translating mentally as they listen, and they don’t have time to parse unusual words and phrases, or to chase meaning through multiple levels of indirection.

Even individuals who are quite creative with their own native language will not necessarily relate to your creativity with English. The safest assumption is that they will take everything you say literally.

Another reason to avoid humor is that different things are considered “funny” in different cultures. You might cause offense by being misunderstood. You also might cause offense by being understood perfectly.

A colleague at Connexxo who is originally from Romania is helping me learn Italian, and I’m helping her improve her English. Her command of English seems quite good on the surface, but she has no frame of reference for American idioms. She asked me to tell her American jokes; a good way to gain insight into a culture.

I’m not too good with jokes, as I can’t remember them. But I did recall a so-called “dad joke.” In principle, dad jokes should be pretty safe, as they’re intended for small children. But even something as innocuous as a dad joke can misfire.

I told her the one that goes: “Why is there a fence around the cemetery? Because people are dying to get in.”

She recoiled in horror, and said the joke was disturbing. How can you make light of death? There’s nothing funny about it.

She was not familiar with the idiom, “dying to [do something].”

Pondering how we Americans tend to express ourselves, I realized we have quite a bit of death in our language:

  • I’m dying to see Yosemite.
  • That’s a killer app.
  • The status meeting this afternoon was murder.
  • That was a close call; we dodged a bullet.
  • I’d kill for a piece of cheesecake right now.
  • Those shoes are to die for!
  • Dad will kill me if he finds out I was smoking.
  • That new song slays me.
  • Did you catch her guitar solo? She killed it!
  • That comedian is dying up there.
  • Life is hard and then you die.
  • Kill two birds with one stone.
  • Shoot first and ask questions later.

Even my statement above is morbid: “a dad joke can misfire.” The word misfire is connected with firearms, an invention whose sole purpose is to cause death.

It’s possible there are many more common expressions that can make the wrong impression if people take the words literally. As the native speakers in a mixed work group, it’s incumbent on us to be aware of how we express ourselves.

I’ve worked with teams that had members from as many as six different countries. There’s probably no example of humor or irony that would be well-received by all six. If you speak at conferences or teach training classes, you can’t tell where all the participants in the event come from. You may be addressing representatives of a dozen or more cultures and languages.

Think carefully before including any form of humor. Imagine how you, yourself, might react to the humor if you lacked a cultural frame of reference and you depended solely on the dictionary definition of each word.

That said, it’s been my experience that people are more accepting and forgiving of English variations when they are attending conferences and training classes than they are when working directly with you in their everyday work setting.

Pace yourself

It’s widely reported that we absorb between about 17% and 25% of what we hear, when we’re listening to our native language. We can listen passively and filter out unnecessary words. To understand what is being said in a foreign language requires especially close attention and focus. Your international colleagues will attempt to identify and translate every word you say. Many of them don’t know English well enough to listen passively. Listening to you is physically and mentally tiring for them.

The longer you speak and the more “extra” words you use, the more challenging and tiring it will be for your international colleagues to follow what you’re saying. Pace yourself, pause periodically, ask whether people have understood you, and enunciate as clearly as you can. Avoid extra words – like, you know, uh, well – because at least some of the listeners will try to parse each and every word; they don’t automatically filter out those “extra” words the way native speakers do. They aren’t sure whether a word is “extra” until after they’ve mentally translated it.

It’s easy to forget how tiring it is for our colleagues to listen to us. I had an opportunity to work closely with a German consultancy for a couple of weeks, and I got a sense of how it feels for non-native English speakers to work in English all day. There were times when one or more of the Germans became tired of English. They wanted to speak German so they could express themselves naturally and fluidly, and I had to listen closely to try and parse every word. My German is not as good as their English. It was a good way to gain empathy for the way non-native speakers feel when they have to operate in a foreign language all day, properly understand everything, and express themselves precisely.

Imagine you’re working with an international team with members from, for example, Thailand, Vietnam, Slovakia, and Brazil. Which of the team members can speak in their own native language, when they become tired of working in English? None of them can, because their team mates can’t follow that language. They’re stuck with English. In the previous example, everyone was German except me, so we only had two languages to contend with. In a mixed team, there’s no opportunity for the non-native speakers to get a respite from English. It’s up to us, as the native speakers in the group, to make it as easy on them as we possibly can.

The extrovert’s dilemma

I was raised in the United States, which is a majority-extrovert culture. Because they’re the majority, extroverts behave according to their nature without thinking about it, and many common social situations are crafted to suit extroverts’ preferences. Because we’re the minority, introverts have to think consciously about why we’re misunderstood, and learn coping mechanisms to deal with the numerous uncomfortable social situations that extroverts steer us into.

In the context of a native English speaker who is addressing, teaching, coaching, or working alongside non-native speakers in a multinational organization, we introverts enjoy an advantage over our extroverted colleagues. It’s relatively easy for us to stop and think before we speak, to pause to allow others to process what they’ve heard, and to try multiple ways of expressing an idea.

Extroverts tend to think out loud; that is, they refine their ideas by talking about them. In contrast, introverts tend to formulate an idea (at least up to some reasonable point) before expressing it out loud. Imagine a non-native speaker of English who has to concentrate very hard and parse every single word they hear in English, trying to understand extroverts who contradict themselves every other sentence as they gradually refine their ideas out loud. This can be extremely tiring and confusing.

In this situation, if you’re an extrovert you can’t just run on automatic pilot as you do at home. You have to learn to stop and think, formulate clear statements, express them simply and plainly in standard English, and then allow time for your international colleagues to process what they’ve heard.

Cultivate a newscaster’s accent

Numerous variations of English are spoken around the world, but non-native speakers almost always learn one particular variant: American broadcast news reader English. Actors on the majority of American television shows and in movies also use this accent most of the time, including actors who come from other English-speaking countries to perform in American productions. Shows and movies are widely exported and people use them to practice their English skills.

This is a learned accent; it isn’t anyone’s native English accent. White Americans raised in the upper midwestern United States speak a version of English that is similar, but not exactly the same as this artificial accent. Non-native speakers usually study and practice this accent. If you mindfully speak in the same way as an American newscaster, your international colleagues will have an easier time understanding you.

A smaller percentage of people learn British English. They learn a standardized form of English and will probably not easily understand all the numerous accents in use in Britain. Either a “standard” American or “standard” British accent will be best. For many of us, that means learning to speak in a contrived way that differs from our natural accent.

Good news, bad news

For native English speakers, the good news is our language has become the de facto standard for working in multinational organizations and with mixed teams, as well as for international conferences and training classes.

The bad news is that we can’t speak English naturally. We have to be aware of our audience and adjust our language accordingly. That may mean any number of things:

  • cultivating an artificial “newscaster” accent;
  • avoiding idiomatic expressions;
  • avoiding sports analogies;
  • minimizing or eliminating humor;
  • slowing the pace of our speech;
  • reducing the content density per minute of our speech;
  • using simple words and phrases; avoiding esoteric vocabulary;
  • pausing to allow time for people to digest what they just heard;
  • mentally rehearsing everything we want to say;
  • avoiding thinking aloud and filling the space with “noise” words;
  • pausing frequently to verify clarity of understanding;
  • repeating statements and expressing ideas in different ways.

We need not learn English nouns and verbs as our international colleagues must do, but we have to learn a particular way of using the language that will probably feel rather lifeless and inexpressive to us, if we intend to assure clarity and avoid offense. We can’t be Jonathan Willis.

Much ado about nothing?

If you’re a native English speaker who frequently travels to give conference talks and training classes, you might find some of my advice a bit extreme. You’re right. In my experience, that’s because we can get away with more when we’re an honored guest who’s just visiting to give a talk or training than we can when we’re embedded with teams and working directly with managers in client organizations for an extended time, guiding them through challenging projects that have high stakes for them.

In the former situations, people can easily ignore incomprehensible foreign humor or forgive strange-sounding comments that may or may not be offensive. In the latter situation, the constant direct interaction at an individual level, the relative stress of ongoing day-to-day work as compared with attending a talk or training session, and the greater depth of communication impose stricter limits on how freely we can use our native language.