Have you thought about improving your business language? What is business language? Here’s a great example to illustrate the concept:

Sarah, from Texas, wanted to look competent, cool and collected in a meeting that included her new boss, Juan. So she chose words that she thought projected confidence:

Let’s hold our horses everyone. It’s possible you’re putting the cart before the horse. Just give me a ballpark figure, and I’ll get started. I can be the go-to person. I just think we’re really getting ahead of ourselves, and I don’t mind being point.

She smiled to let the group know she cared about the project and didn’t mind the extra hours they all knew it would take to put the numbers together.

Juan listened intently to Sarah. But he was baffled:

Why is she talking about horses? And what’s a “cart”? Is it like “carta” in Spanish? And now she’s on to something about baseball? What the heck is a “go-to person”? Why are we “ahead of ourselves”? Are we standing in front of someone?

The source of his confusion? Juan had just arrived two weeks ago with his wife and child, all the way from Barcelona. He had accepted the CFO position in Texas for the $50 million toll way his company was starting to build. Sarah’s effort to impress him had just fallen flat.

Sarah and Juan ran up against some common communications barriers in global workforces: idioms, phrasal verbs and cultural references. Here’s how you can improve your business language.


The Language You Can’t Learn From a Textbook

Idioms are words used together that have a different meaning than the individual words alone. For example:

  • It’s raining cats and dogs.
  • I’ve finally seen the light.
  • She broke up with him at the drop of a hat.

Phrasal verbs are verbs with an added element are two:

  • She broke down in the meeting.
  • He looked down on her.
  • I’ll ask around.

You know what cultural references are. But you probably don’t realize how many things you say each day require knowledge of your culture to understand:

  • A buck:  a dollar bill (because as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary points out:  “archaic : a deerskin regarded as a unit of exchange in early dealings with American Indians;” And so, a “buck” is used metaphorically to mean a dollar bill, the unit of exchange for Americans)
  • Scrooge:  Scrooge was/is a fictitious character in a Charles Dicken’s book who was a miser.  Hence the word scrooge has come to mean miser.

A good resource for these is urbandictionary.com.

For native speakers, idioms, phrasal verbs and cultural references make a language fun and alive. You use them effortlessly because you’ve been practicing a lifetime.

But when you’re speaking with someone for whom your native tongue is a second language, idioms, phrasal verbs and cultural references impede understanding. That’s because they rarely get covered in traditional language training. And they’re especially hard to interpret when a second-language speaker is trying to keep up with the rapid-fire pace of native speakers. This is true no matter what language we’re talking about. If the roles were reversed, Sarah — who’s studied Spanish — would have just as hard of a time keeping up with Juan’s old colleagues in Barcelona.


How to Build Understanding

So how do we rein in the miscommunications caused by idioms, phrasal verbs and cultural references?

Try to implement a business language. If you work in an environment where your native language is dominant, choose simpler, more straightforward phrasing to facilitate understanding. Or you can share a mini language lesson:

She’s putting the cart before the horse. That means she’s doing Step 2 before Step 1.

If you’re working in your non-dominant language, make sure your language training includes plenty of real-world speaking experience with native speakers. This will bring the language to life in a way that textbooks or worksheets just can’t.

Implementing business language can be crucial. If you’re in charge of selecting language training for your company, it’s vital that whatever program you choose teaches the language as it’s really spoken at your workplace. This will help your language learners be more productive and feel more connected.

At Fluency Corp, we’ve created a distinctive approach to language learning that emphasizes fresh and relevant materials. We teach your employees what they need to know in their unique work environments. Intrigued? Contact us for a free consultation call.