We all have our little speech quirks, turns of phrase, specialist business and technical language and colloquialisms. They are the little things we often say without thinking, the things that make perfect sense to us and, usually, though not always, make as much sense to our colleagues. They can be things we have picked up from our parents, our children, our friends, favourite films, books, music, etc. and while they may wear a bit thin on some of our colleagues, they are typically inoffensive and are often deemed to be quite endearing.
Using these little colloquialisms in conversations or correspondence with people from other cultures or countries, who may have a relatively rudimentary understanding of your native language, can lead to all sorts of unintended consequences, such as the following example which was relayed to me several years ago.
Damage From Colloquialisms
A negotiation party from a UK company were meeting with an asian client to discuss contract terms and conditions. One morning, the UK negotiation manager, after greeting the prospective client in the first meeting and exchanging pleasantries for a few minutes enquired after the client’s health and said
“You are looking a little grumpy today…”
The client, not familiar with the word grumpy pulled out his phrase book and looked it up, to find the following definition “Grumpy – A small, bad tempered, dwarf”, understandably feeling terribly insulted so early in the discussions, the clients negotiator, along with his team, walked out of the meeting and negotiations halted for several hours while the two teams met to resolve this international incident and for the UK company’s manager to explain that what he had intended his comment to mean was that his client’s representative looked a little unhappy, and that he was going to ask next if there was anything wrong that he could assist with.
While the story above seems a little comical on the surface, what it does do is show how easy it can be to offend others with innocent comments, comments that are often intended as relationship building by the unthinking speaker and are taken as insults by the listener who, without thinking, may be quick to assume the worst. In this example, neither party here acquitted themselves well, the UK’s manager should have been far more careful in his choice of words, if he did not yet know his client well he should have kept to simple, unequivocal language, and the client could have asked for clarification before walking out.
Choose Your Words Carefully
Such simple communication breakdowns occur all the time, a careless word here, an unthinking gesture there and the barriers go up and negotiating or collaborating return to an adversarial stance that can take weeks or month to overcome, causing unnecessary delays to the project and diverting time of both parties from their primary tasks. These trips and traps are there for all of us to fall over, regardless of our years of experience in international relations, our level of seniority and our own self confidence. It is up to everyone in these situations be be tolerant at all times and, when a perceived slight is encountered, to query the intent with the possible offender. It is most likely they will be terribly concerned that they have made the offended party feel slighted, retract and offensive colloquialism, comment or gesture and be keen to see both the error of their ways and learn the accepted way to conduct things.
So, the message here is, think before you speak or act, and if you don’t understand the intent behind a comment or action and it is out of context, clarify what was meant before you react to it.
Share your experiences
Do you have any experiences with the challenges of the use of specialist language and colloquialisms you would like to share? If so, we would love to hear from you.
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