English Idioms are Hard. Just Ask Joe Biden.

Do English idioms make you ill at ease? [1]  Does the thought of having to use them cramp your style or cause your heart to miss a beat?  Are you afraid you will look like a fool if you use an expression incorrectly?  Idioms trip up native and non-native speakers alike, including our business and political leaders.  Just ask Vice President Joe Biden, also a 2020 presidential candidate.

Fondly known as America’s favorite gaffe machine, Joe Biden has long been famous for his spoken blunders and miscues.  In a recent campaign speech, Vice President Biden sought to sway potential voters with a passionate proclamation of his fundamental political beliefs.  With confidence and enthusiasm, he declared, “we believe in truth over facts.”  A collective groan could be heard across America by the crowd in attendance, along with the question, come again?’   Speaking of rhetorical questions – here is a useful idiomatic practice tip, compliments of Joe Biden.  If someone asks you a question with the phrase, Come again?”, “Are you kidding me?”, or even WTF?”, chances are pretty good that you have misused an English idiom. 

This was not a one-off misstep for Vice President Biden.  While campaigning in Iowa back in August, 2019, he told a reporter that there were “at least three” genders.  When asked to name all three in a follow up question, Vice President Biden became a little hot under the collar and refused to respond further.

WTF are Idioms. Why Should Business Leaders Care?

Using idiomatic expressions and turning phrases are the essential tools of persuasion for those who must speak English, the international language of business and diplomacy throughout the world.  However, the complexities and challenges of communication in the modern world require business leaders to have more than just a fluency with English.  They must know how to communicate on a deeper level if they want to do so effectively and persuasively.  What does that mean exactly?

To answer this question, we draw upon our collective professional experiences.  We have worked and represented clients across many industries and cultures over many, many years.  We have negotiated mega business deals and multi-million-dollar settlements of commercial disputes with counterparts who spoke English as a second language.  Many spoke English fluently but were not particularly effective in negotiations.  They could discuss basic facts and details but could not communicate on a deeper, more convincing level.  However, those that spoke English with the ability to use idiomatic expressions were able to level the playing field by earning a deeper respect from their native English-speaking counterparts.  In fact, they often wielded a distinct tactical advantage because their ability to use idioms in their communications gave them a powerful tool of persuasion and a psychological advantage over their native speaking counterparts who were confronted with the reality that using English did not give them the upper hand in negotiations.  At the end of the day, no one can speak English persuasively without the ability to use idiomatic expressions effectively. 

The English language is permeated with idiomatic expressions at every level.  Native English speakers use idioms daily, whether communicating at home, at work, in public or with friends.  Multi-media, whether in the form of news or advertising rely heavily on idioms as a means of persuasive communication.  Idioms are viewed as powerful rhetorical devices, routinely used by politicians and business leaders in speeches and presentations.  With over 25,000 idiomatic expressions in the modern English language, the proper use of these phrases can be challenging for native and non-native speakers alike.      

What are idioms and why are they so challenging for second language learners?  In its most basic form, an idiom is a group of words with two defining characteristics: 1) a figurative or metaphorical meaning that is particular to a specific language; and 2) a literal translation that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.  Idioms are difficult because they are phrases that evolve directly from a people’s history, heritage and culture.  Learning the correct use of idioms, therefore, requires a deeper understanding of the language beyond vocabulary and grammar.

Fluency Doesn’t Cut It. Just Ask Greta. . .

To anyone under the false impression that using English idioms are a piece of cake or no big deal, Greta Thunberg would be delighted to offer you a different perspective.  The 16-year-old global climate change activist recently experienced the consequences of murderingan English idiom on a world stage.  This event is particularly interesting considering that Thunberg’s English skills are excellent, and she routinely gives speeches and interviews in English throughout the world.

Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg, photo by European Parliament from EU – Greta Thunberg at the Parliament, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81699733

While speaking at a rally in Torino, Italy last December, the 16-year old caused quite a stir in the English-speaking world with her ill-fated use of an old idiomatic expression.  During her speech, she tried to make the point that politicians should be held collectively responsible for taking action to combat climate change.  Specifically, the young activist vowed to put world leaders “against the wall” if they fail to address climate change.  The English idiom of putting someone against the wall; however, is a phrase associated with firing squads and assassinations of political leaders.  As a result, Thunberg’s intended message was lost in the ensuing sea of criticism caused by her idiomatic gaffe.  Instead of making a passionate and persuasive plea, Thunberg created a cringeworthy moment that left the rest of the English-speaking world wondering whether she really was calling for violence to fight climate change. 

While Thunberg’s embarrassing mistake was unfortunate, it provides an important teachable moment.  To her credit, Thunberg quickly apologized for her error as she was not intending to incite violence with her speech in Torino.  In her apology, Thunberg explained that in her native Swedish language, an expression with words akin to the English idiom merely means to hold someone responsible. Her English fluency skills were not the problem.  Rather, her mistake was in assuming that the Swedish meaning of an idiom was the same in English.  Thunberg learned the hard way that idioms and expressions rarely are universal across languages.  Their meanings are particular to a given language and derive from unique cultural experiences, attitudes and values.

Idioms are Equal Opportunity Challengers      

Greta Thunberg’s recent gaffe was not the first public misuse of an English idiom and it most certainly will not be the last.  That list is far too long to repeat here.  Nevertheless, one of those experiences is worth a mention for its educational, if not its entertainment value. 

Electrolux is a European appliance manufacturer that makes vacuums. In the early 1970s, Electrolux sought to enter the US market by launching a massive ad campaign.  In promoting its line of vacuum cleaners, Electrolux boasted about the quality of their products with the slogan, “Nothing sucks like Electrolux!” While there is no question that at least 9 out of 10 Americans want their vacuums to have good suction, it is also true that 10 out of 10 Americans really don’t want to buy products that suck.        

We can’t just pick on the Europeans when it comes to idiomatic gaffes.  The British – and even the Americans are guilty of misunderstanding and misusing expressions in the common language they share.  In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that English is the common language that divides the British and Americans.  Idioms are often the source of division as they mean different things to Americans and the British, two people that have different historical and cultural experiences, despite a shared language.  This dynamic has posed communication obstacles at the highest levels.  For example, American and British diplomats have grappled with the challenges of using a common language.  In one diplomatic session, American negotiators wanted to table the discussion of a topic.  Although the British voiced their agreement with the request, there was no actual agreement because the subject expression meant something different to each party.  By ‘tabling the discussion,’ the Americans wanted to postpone consideration of the topic.  To the British, however, ‘tabling the discussion’ had the exact opposite meaning and the Americans became quite agitated when the British persisted in discussing a topic they were done with.   

Americans can be the worst offenders as they often butcher the idioms of their native language.  That said, we should all be grateful to the many American politicians from both sides of the aisle that have so generously provided the rest of us with innumerable teachable moments.  A few notable examples from the highlight reel are worth mentioning. 

President Gerald Ford spent just over two years in the Oval Office from 1974 to 1977.  During that short time, he earned a reputation for putting his foot in his mouth when giving speeches. One of his notable gaffes occurred during a speech given at a public celebration of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.  First, a bit of background on the idiom he attempted to use.  When English speakers want to voice their own displeasure of or opposition to a certain event or situation, they use an expression that invokes the memory of a deceased love one or famous person.  Here, we say that this person would ‘turn over in his/her grave’ if he/she knew about a current event or situation.  President Ford, unfortunately, missed the mark when he said that, “if [President] Lincoln were alive today, he’d be turning over in his grave.”  Serious question:  if you were alive, would you want to turn over in your grave?  Most Americans agreed with you and elected Jimmy Carter President in 1978.     

Arnold Schwarzenegger, famous bodybuilder, turned famous actor, turned politician, became the Governor of California in 2003.  During his tenure, he announced his support for same sex marriage.  When asked by the media about his support for sex marriage, Governor Schwarzenegger confidently responded, “I think gay marriage is something that should be between a man and a woman.”  (As we write this, we hear C + C Music Factory blaring in our ears, “Things that make you go Hmmmm”).

Arnold Schwarzenegger, photo by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80653226

Last but not least, who could forget President George W. Bush’s effort to speak idiomatic Italian at the G 8 in 2008?  To get then Prime Minister Berlusconi’s attention, President Bush yelled across a crowded room, “hey Amigo, Amigo!”  It is anyone’s guess what President Bush was thinking when he broke out his best Spanglish for the occasion.  Perhaps he was using a lesser known Italo-Texan dialect?  Chissà?

Recommended Best Practices & Concluding Thoughts   

Learning how to use English expressions is admittedly difficult, but not impossible.  In closing, therefore, we offer you a few recommended best practices for mastering English idioms. 

First and foremost, there must be a recognition that idioms are derived directly from a people’s history and culture.  As such, you need to step out of your own experiences and into a different cultural paradigm to learn the proper use of idioms.  You cannot assume that an expression in your native language has the same meaning in English.  It probably doesn’t.  Just ask Greta. 

Second, understanding the context is critical.  Idioms are generally used to express a person’s opinions, emotions, feelings or attitudes.  Thus, you should identify the typical situation in which the idiom is normally used.  Did someone make a big mistake?  Did someone misunderstand a situation?  Did someone underestimate his competition?  Is someone seeking to express contrary opinions?   These are some typical situations in which specific idioms are commonly used to express attitudes and opinions.   

Third, you should identify an idiom by its theme.  For example, is this expression being used to persuade, express anger, criticism, disagreement or humor?  Remembering idioms by theme is invaluable for retention, comprehension and ultimately, for proper usage. 

Fourth, music and literature are excellent language tutors when it comes to idioms.  It is easy for most of us to remember the lyrics to our favorite songs and lyrics are often written with idiomatic expressions. Reading is also a great learning tool as novelists routinely use idioms in storytelling.  Reading also has the added benefit of allowing you to control the pace of the lesson.

Lastly, if you need to learn the idiomatic expressions and jargon used in certain business or professional industries, the traditional methods of language instruction by language teachers will be of no use.  The modern communications paradigm requires you to learn from industry experts who are also trained as language teachers.  That is because modern communication occurs on a deeper, more complex and more nuanced level.  Accordingly, an innovative learning approach is needed to equip today’s business leaders with the skills necessary to use idiomatic expressions as powerful rhetorical tools of English persuasion.

In summary, learning how to use English idioms properly is both difficult and challenging.  But it is not impossible.  In that spirit, we leave you with some encouragement from Audrey Hepburn, a famed and beloved actress who mastered English as a second language: “Nothing is impossible.  The word itself, says ‘I’m possible ‘!”  Like Audrey Hepburn, if you put your mind to ityou can conquer English idioms.


[1] For definitions of all idioms used in this article (in bold & italics), check out our Urban Idiom Glossary at the end of the article. 

URBAN GLOSSARY OF IDIOMATIC EXPRESSIONS

Ill at ease: To be uncomfortable in a situation or circumstance

Cramp one’s style: Something that inhibits, interferes or prevents you from doing your best

Cause one’s heart to skip a beat: Phrase used to describe a feeling of fear, apprehension or excitement

To look like a fool: To appear or come across as dumb or unintelligent

To trip up: Phrase used to describe when someone or something causes another to make an error or blunder  

Come again? Phrase used to ask someone to repeat what was just said; also, used to express anger or disagreement with someone

Are you kidding me? Phrase used to express surprise, disbelief, anger or disagreement with someone or something

WTF? Slang expression (somewhat vulgar) used more in written than spoken communication to express annoyance, disbelief or surprise at someone or something

One off: Phrase used to describe a situation or event that has occurred or will occur only one time and has or will never be repeated

Hot under the collar: To be intensely angry or upset

To turn a phrase: To use words and idiomatic expressions in a distinctive and persuasive way

To level the playing field: To take action to ensure that the competition or interaction between two or more parties is fair to all

To have the upper hand: To have the dominate or controlling position; to have the advantage in a situation

At the end of the day: A summary phrase meaning, ‘in conclusion, in summary, after everything is considered’

To cut it: To have the qualities to cope with or meet the needs of a given situation or undertaking

Piece of cake: A task or undertaking that is very easy to do or accomplish

No big deal: A phrase used to describe something that is of little importance; also, an informal

To murder something: To harm or destroy something; to make an egregious error

To cause a stir: To create something that creates alarm, excitement, or agitation in others (can be positive or negative)

To put someone against the wall: To put someone in front of a firing squad; to assassinate political enemies

To do something the hard way: To choose the most difficult or challenging means to do something (usually negative)

Equal opportunity: When used as part of an idiomatic expression, it describes a situation or circumstance that impacts everyone in the same way, regardless of background, ability, etc.  

9 out of 10. . .: An expression used to help express the opinion that something will or will not occur with certainty or near certainty (e.g. “He is late 9 out of 10 times for our weekly team meeting” 

To suck: Someone or something that is very bad or poor quality, talent or ability

To pick on: To criticize, treat badly, bully or tease

To table something (AmE): To postpone or defer discussion of a topic or subject

To table something (BrE): To bring up or proceed with discussion of a topic or subject

To butcher something: To botch or commit an egregious error

Both sides of the aisle: Phrase derived from the physical walkway the House of Representatives and Senate that separates the Democrats seats from the Republicans. As an idiom, it refers to both American political parties or both sides of a dispute

The highlight reel: A collection of the best parts, occurrences of an event or subject

To put one’s foot in one’s mouth: To say or do something inappropriate or embarrassing

To miss the mark: To make a mistake or error

To turn over in one’s grave: To be very upset about a situation; expression uses the memory of a deceased person to indicate that he/she would be extremely unhappy about an event if that person were alive today

Last but not least: A concluding phrase indicating a topic that is discussed last in the sequence but that is just as important as the previous topics discussed

Amigo: American slang word derived from Spanish used to address or refer to a good friend  

Anyone’s guess: A phrase used to describe a situation in which it is impossible to know what is true or what will happen

To break out [something]: To begin using or doing something

Chissà?: Alternative expression for ‘who knows’?

To put your mind to it: To give something one’s complete attention, effort or determination

The Essential Partnership of Knowledge & Communication (Part 2): The Solution

This is the second in a 2-part series where M-POWER Senior Partners, Lisa M. Marchese and Raj Panday explore how “the art of communication is the language of leadership” (James Hume). In Part 1, the authors identify the characteristics of what makes a great communicator and highlight the challenges for today’s international business leaders. Read Part 1 here.

The Solution: A New Approach

English is the official language of the global business world.  For today’s professionals, however, the objective should not be to learn English.  Rather, the goal must be to develop the skills to communicate with a purpose and with persuasion.  This approach is aimed directly at the acquisition of communication fluency.

To better understand why a new approach is needed, we must return to our ever expanding and ever connecting commercial world.  The international marketplace continues to create new growth opportunities across diverse geographical platforms.  Success in this environment requires business leaders to form alliances with companies from different cultures, with different values and who speak different languages.  They must use a common language to communicate – even if that language is not their mother tongue.  When those company leaders sit across tables in boardrooms, conference rooms and dinner tables to explore commercial opportunities, they need to use a common language to communicate.  That language likely will be English, the most spoken language in the world with nearly 1.5 billion speakers.[1]  English is also the most studied language in the world[2]  It is also the formal language in 70 countries worldwide.[3]

Sawe, Benjamin Elisha. “What is the Most Spoken Language in the World?” WorldAtlas, Jun. 7, 2019, worldatlas.com/articles/most-popular-languages-in-the-world.html.

English is the universal language of the international business world.[4]  The world’s major financial centers such as the New York Stock Exchange, the NASDAQ, the London Stock Exchange, the Toronto Stock Exchange, the Australian Securities and Exchange and the Hong Kong Stock Exchange all conduct business in English.  The official language of the World Bank and the working language of the United Nations is English.  Multinational companies such as Airbus, Samsung, Microsoft, SAP and Renault all have designated English their official corporate language.[5]  By this action, they seek to facilitate communication and strategic growth across the diverse geographical reaches of the global marketplace.   English is also the most used language on the internet.[6]  Roughly 56% of all websites are in English.[7]  It is also the medium for 80% of the information stored on the world’s computers.[8]  The presence and prevalence of English in the commercial world is a growing trend that continues today.

That business professionals must now speak English is a given.  To become successful leaders, however, they must acquire communication fluency.  Development of this skill requires a new and innovative learning approach – well beyond traditional methods.

When considered against the demands of the contemporary business world, traditional methods of language instruction are a recipe for failure – particularly when it comes to English.  These outdated techniques seek to teach new vocabulary, basic grammar rules, listening and conversation skills.  The goal is to enable students to use words and phrases to speak English – or any other second language.  However, learning how to speak with persuasion and effectiveness are well beyond the traditional language curriculum.  In this context, speaking persuasively and effectively are merely aspirational concepts left for the student to figure out on his own.  Here, we have arrived at the source of the breakdown of the conventional approach.  If we cannot communicate persuasively in a language – we do not know that language.  When it comes to English, business professionals must have the ability to use it as a means of persuasion and production in a competitive global environment where opportunity courts risk daily.

The acquisition of communication fluency requires a multi-faceted approach that begins with an essential partnership between learning and teaching.  Teachers must first understand the specific duties, responsibilities and needs of their students.  Then, they must customize their curriculum to meet those needs by conveying essential knowledge well beyond vocabulary, grammar and conversation skills.  The traditional “one size fits all” approach is no longer viable.  The goal is to enable students to develop skills of persuasion beyond the mere use of a language.  This type of contextual communication fluency requires a profound understanding of cultural habits and practices as well as specific business and industry practices.

Knowledge of business culture and specific industry rules and practices are at the core of this new approach.  An expansive English vocabulary and impressive command of grammar, alone, won’t enable us to communicate with fluency.  With that as the source of our knowledge, how would we know if English speakers typically say what they mean in certain situations?  Is it their practice to be direct when an issue or problem arises?  How about interruptions and aggressiveness?  In what situations are these behaviors acceptable or expected?  In what circumstances would they be deemed offensive, and perhaps destructive to the business relationship?  What about common idioms and expressions?  If we don’t understand the meanings behind these cultural and practical nuances, we will miss important details that could “make or break” our next great business opportunity.  If we do not understand the business situation or syntax, we are likely to misinterpret the words of our peers or professional counterparts.

In general, a company’s commercial risk tolerance represents a combination of its cultural attitudes, practices and values.  Armed with this knowledge, a professional can formulate strategies to pursue commercial opportunities with an awareness of the motivations and preferences of his counterpart.  Without this knowledge, a professional is likely to draw inaccurate conclusions based on incorrect assumptions or incomplete information.  Understanding business risk and motivation, therefore, are also crucial for communication fluency.

In summary, business leaders need to learn how to communicate, not how to use English with fluency.  This solution requires an innovative partnership between teaching and learning.  This approach must encompass a broad and strategic view that leads to knowledge of culture, business and industry practices.       

Photo by Samuel Pereira on Unsplash

Conclusion

To become business leaders, professionals must be effective persuaders.  Like all great leaders from history, their tools of persuasion are comprised of the words from the language they use.  Our global commercial world has connected diverse companies and cultures across sweeping geographical platforms.  English is firmly established as the official language of international business.  Business professionals must do far more than speak English – they must communicate with fluency.  Those that learn how to communicate effectively and persuasively are the ones who know English.  They are tomorrow’s leaders and the next great success stories of the international business world.


[1] Sawe, Benjamin Elisha.  “What is the Most Spoken Language in the World?”  WorldAtlas, Jun. 7, 2019, worldatlas.com/articles/most-popular-languages-in-the-world.html.

[2] Pajak, Bozena.  “Which countries study which languages and what can we learn from it?”  Duolingo, May 5, 2016.

[3] Essays, UK. (November 2018). Why Is English Considered a Global Language? Retrieved from https://www.ukessays.com/essays/linguistics/why-is-english-considered-a-global.php?vref=1

[4] Ibid. 

[5] Neeley, Tsedal.  “Global Business Speaks English: Why You Need a Language Strategy Now”.  Harvard Business Review; 90, n. 5 (May 2012): 116-124.

[6] “Top 10 Languages Used in the Web”.  Internet World Stats, April 30, 2019, www.internetworldstats.com/stats7.htm.

[7] “Usage of content languages for websites”.  W³Techs, November 26, 2019, w3techs.com/technologies/overview/content_language.

[8] “English Language Statistics”.  English Language Guide, englishlanguageguide.com/facts/stats.

The Essential Partnership of Knowledge & Communication (Part 1): The Problem

“The art of communication is the language of leadership” (James Hume)

Every notable achievement the world has ever known was the result of great leadership.  First born of an idea, then put into action by a leader with the ability to recreate his vision in the minds of others and inspire action.  Words are what give every vision, every inspiration life.  But the inspiration to act comes only from those who are fluent in using a language purposefully and persuasively.  This ability is “communication fluency” and it has been – and will forever be – the one true language of leadership.    

Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

When we speak of history’s most revered leaders and personalities, we measure their importance first and foremost by their accomplishments.   Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela each inspired their countries to confront painful histories, cultural norms and oppressive laws that perpetuated racism and inequality.  Winston Churchill stood up to Hitler at a time when most western leaders willingly turned a blind eye to the atrocities of Nazi Germany and readily embraced a policy of appeasement. Churchill demonstrated great courage and leadership that inspired the resolve of his people and helped lead the Allies to victory in World War II.  In 1928, an obscure and diminutive Catholic nun went to Calcutta to work as a teacher in a small school.  She later moved to the slums to start the Missionaries of Charity, an order dedicated to serving the poorest and neediest members of society.  She became famous throughout the world for her boundless generosity and selfless service to the neediest among us.  She remains a timeless source of inspiration for all of humanity. 

For every person revered by history, the first thing we often remember is what they did – not what they said.  We see this tendency reflected in the time-honored English maxim, “actions speak louder than words.”  Yet, there is a basic irony in this conventional wisdom.  Every one of these historical figures were first and foremost – great communicators.  Their words are what inspired action.  Absent that, we never would have known who these famous leaders were.  Their monumental visions of change would have lived and died as merely unrealized thoughts.

Indeed, the world’s greatest triumphs all began as nothing more than ideas – raw and unrefined at their inception.  One’s ability to explain that great idea to others and translate it into action can only be done with powerful communication.  Great leaders all have insight.  They can see beyond what is – and envision what is possible.  Winston Churchill was a great leader because he was a great orator.  Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech rallied a nation to confront its painful history of racial discrimination.  Mother Teresa’s simple, powerful devotionals and daily meditations continue to inspire future generations to charity and service.

Like their predecessors from history, today’s great leaders can only truly lead with the skills of “communication fluency”.  This capability is what allows them to build bridges between cultures, resolve conflicts and inspire progress.  Leaders who communicate with fluency can also create successful business ventures that generate wealth, improve living standards in underserved populations and lift many out of poverty.  Learning communication fluency has two basic requirements:  first, we must recognize the problems and shortcomings with our conventional wisdom and methods.  Second, we need to embrace a new approach to language use and communication.

The Problem

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” (George Bernard Shaw)

In our world today, global communication is on life-support, a fact that most do not acknowledge or fully understand.  Why are our communication skills in such rapid decline and on the verge of an unceremonious demise?   The problem is rooted in our conventional wisdom which has no regard for the true essence of communication fluency.  This deficit is compounded by technology.  While our means of communication have become more sophisticated – and purportedly more convenient – technology makes us less effective in our interactions with others.  The first crucial step on the road to communication fluency, therefore, requires an understanding and acceptance of the root cause of our predicament.  Beyond any doubt, the culprit hides in our conventional wisdom.

George Bernard Shaw in 1914, aged 57, PD-US-unpublished

‘Conventional Wisdom’

Conventional wisdom is the notion that certain ideas or beliefs are so generally accepted, they must never be challenged.  While often anchored in truth, conventional wisdom is routinely wrong as evidenced by the fact that science once believed the world was flat.  The same body of scientific thought – or conventional wisdom – later contended that Earth was the center of the Universe.  It was a good thing for all of us that some had the courage and conviction to challenge those commonly held beliefs.

When it comes to understanding global communication skills, today’s conventional wisdom rivals the belief that the world was flat.  We have a distorted and incomplete view of the essence and efficacy of effective and persuasive communication.  As a starting point, we think of communication as a skill that is tangential or peripheral to actual knowledge.  However, knowledge and communication each are inseparable parts of the other.  One cannot function without the other because we cannot effectively communicate what we do not know.  Knowledge, therefore, is at the heart of communication fluency.

One of the biggest fallacies of conventional wisdom is that those who speak a common language understand each other.  The ability of two or more people to use a common vocabulary and the same grammar rules does not necessarily lead to a mutual understanding.  Ordering a meal or asking for directions in a foreign country is one thing.  Simple, basic and factual.  It is relatively easy to communicate and be understood in these situations.  The margin for error is small and any mistake usually can be overcome with ease.  The more complex the situation, however, the more likely it is that a misunderstanding will occur.  These complexities are routinely encountered by business professionals.  For example, negotiating a business deal, making a presentation or counseling a client are events that require us to express our opinions, attitudes, beliefs, perceptions or preferences.  Here, we must use language to persuade within a specific cultural paradigm.  It is in these challenging circumstances that we most often confront the problems and obstacles that separate us from communication fluency.    

The ability to speak a common language is not synonymous with the ability to communicate effectively.  Yet, we instinctively – and mistakenly assume we share the same cultural values of our target audience when we use a common language.  We tend to mirror image our own values on others, assuming our general knowledge, motivations and methods are equivalent to those with whom we seek to communicate.  When communications breakdown we are at a loss to understand why.  The failure wasn’t caused by our foreign accent, mispronunciations or even our grammatical errors – even though they are the first things we tend to blame.  The truth is that our communication failed for lack of knowledge.  We lacked essential knowledge of different business practices, cultures, etiquettes, habits and attitudes.  These are the core elements of a cultural paradigm within which all communications must occur – regardless of language.  Imagine how different our communication would be if instead we consciously reflected a sensitivity and understanding of these diverse factors when we used our second language.  For example, instead of searching for words to describe our position in a negotiation, we first considered the cultural and industry particularities of our negotiating partner.  Then, we formulated a strategic response that conveyed this understanding.  In any language, that is the approach of persuasion.  Yet without demonstrating this understanding to those we seek to influence, we cannot persuade.  This is because we cannot communicate what we do not know.  Communication fluency, therefore, requires knowledge.

Technology 

Our “problem” with communication fluency is further exacerbated by technology.  Indeed, we have become victims of our own success.  Thanks to technological advancements, we now live in a highly connected global environment.  The internet, cell phones and social media allow us access to one another in real time across continents and time zones.  Our linked world has created new and lucrative commercial opportunities for international businesses.  Despite these great achievements, our collective ability to communicate has not improved.  Rather, it has become much worse.    

The world is now addicted to social media and other virtual methods of communication.  These tools allow us to connect with others quickly and efficiently – often at the expense of accuracy and comprehension.  This addiction has destroyed our attention spans and patience.  We now expect to be informed and to understand things at the speed of light – well beyond what is otherwise reasonable.  Likewise, our patience for listening to others continues to grow shorter with every new app or method of virtual communication.    

The Perils of Multi-Tasking

The practice of “multi-tasking” has become a common – and even admired practice amongst busy professionals.  Current conventional wisdom is that multi-taskers are more efficient because they can double their efficiency by doing several tasks at once.  In truth, however, this habit is much more a vice than virtue as it often leads to many unforced errors and self-inflicted wounds.  Recent studies have found that when a person “multi-tasks” or seeks to do two or more things at the same time, he becomes less efficient every time he switches his attention between tasks.  In a study published by Stanford University in 2018, researchers found an interesting – and perhaps ominous paradox between heavy and occasional multi-taskers.  Although more practiced at the undertaking, heavy multi-taskers were found to be much worse at switching between tasks than light multi-taskers.  Heavy multi-taskers also were more easily distracted by irrelevant external cues.  Further, their memory and recall were poor, and they had difficulty filtering out environmental distractions.[1]  These are consequences that make it difficult, if not impossible to learn a second language – let alone anything of substance.

Today’s business professionals are heavy multi-taskers – often not by choice but by necessity.  The demands of clients, managerial duties and other essential job responsibilities require that they remain available and connected during work and after hours.  As a result, it is common to see working professionals routinely check emails or texts during important meetings, conference calls or networking events.  The issue isn’t that professionals’ multi-task.  Rather, the problem is that professionals have become addicted to a practice that they abuse – instead of using it as a tool of necessity.  Every time we try to read an email or text while doing something else – we divide our attention and set ourselves up for failure.  Our multi-tasking becomes nothing more than a distraction.  When we are distracted, we become passive, not active listeners.  As passive listeners, we will miss crucial information which limits our understanding and knowledge of a given situation.  Passive listeners do not lead.  Passive listeners fail because they do not fully understand the dynamics of a given situation.  Passive listeners never communicate with fluency.  Don’t be a passive listener.

Email communication is perhaps one of the greatest sources of misunderstanding, miscommunication and risk in our contemporary business world.  This is because most of today’s business professionals over-rely on email as the preferred and primary means of business communication.  By this choice, they put themselves at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to communication fluency.  They deprive themselves of the opportunity to hear the tone of someone’s voice or inflection that they would hear on the telephone or in person.  While necessary in our global business world, email is a very limited form of communication.  It does not allow us to observe facial expressions, tone of voice, demeanor, reactions and all other essential dimensions of communication.  Because it is a limited form of communication, email should supplement, not supplant strategic and important business communications.  The misuse and overreliance on email is a universal problem as it causes misunderstandings between two native speakers of the same language.  When over-relied upon by professionals using a second language, the problem of email miscommunication is significantly compounded.             

These commonly accepted workplace practices hinder our ability to communicate with fluency.  Compromised or ineffective communications often result in fractured business relationships and/or lost commercial opportunities.  The negative communication consequences of social media are also universal as they occur with similar frequency between native speakers of the same mother tongue.  It is not hard to imagine the significant additional challenges that ensue when professionals of different companies attempt to communicate in a language that is the second language of one or both speakers.  Yet that very scenario is now a reality in the international commercial world.  We must challenge our conventional wisdom by accepting that knowledge is at the center of, and inseparable from effective communication.  We must also accept the limits of email and social media as communication methods and modify our behavior accordingly.  Once we have taken these two steps, we have embraced the problem.  Only then, are we ready to navigate the road leading to communication fluency.

In Part 2 of “The Essential Partnership of Knowledge & Communication,” the authors provide specific solutions and new approaches to helping international business leaders become great communicators.


[1] Media multi-tasking, mind and brain; Melinda R. Uncapher, Anthony D. Wagner, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Oct 2018, 115 (40) 9899-9896; DOI: 10.1073/pnas. 1611612115.