By Dan Bullock and Raúl Sánchez, March 22, 2021.
Language is complex and ever-evolving. It comes with slang, idioms, and jargon — all of which are culturally-specific and may be interpreted in various ways by various people. Accurately representing our thoughts, feelings, and ideas through words is a challenge that every one of us, in every industry, faces.
But for those just entering the workforce, this challenge is even greater. As remote “work from anywhere” opportunities grow, more and more people will be interacting on global teams. Forging relationships and clearly communicating with people from diverse backgrounds, located in diverse areas of the world, is going to require a more intentional effort.
Though English is often referred to as the lingua franca (or common language) of the international workforce — spoken by nearly 1.75 billion people — it’s not always straightforward. Like most languages, it has several variants, depending on geography, community, and culture.
In the United States, for instance, people use idioms (“off the cuff”) and sports references (“homerun”) when chatting on the job. In India, you’ll often hear English phrases that are literal translations from Hindi (“do one thing”), and in Australia, slang and abbreviations are commonplace (“Did you watch footy on the telly?”).
These expressions, which are easily understood domestically, are too exclusive to resonate across cultures, and can lead to breakdowns in communication on multinational teams. But there may be a solution: a variant of the English language called “Global English,” which has actually been linked to a company’s ability to innovate globally.
What is Global English?
It’s a type of English focused on clarity (with a limited number of idioms and cultural references). Simply put, it’s a style of written and spoken English that’s been optimized for clearer and accurate communication on global teams.
A Global English approach is similar to using what is termed “plain language,” or jargon-free language. For example, instead of saying “we need their buy in,” you could say “we need their support.” However, Global English goes one step further than plain language by including cultural nuances, such as etiquette.
As faculty at New York University and language and communications specialists at the United Nations Headquarters, we train students and professionals to communicate more effectively across intercultural environments, which includes using Global English to successfully manage a project, send an important email, or negotiate inter-culturally. We have learned that, through Global English, we can arrive at both greater human understanding and innovation.
Based on our experience, here are some linguistic strategies to optimize your English and connect more clearly with your global teammates, colleagues, or clients once you enter the workforce. This will not only help you accomplish your goals, but importantly, it will create more inclusive environments by allowing you to connect with others no matter where you, or they, are located.
Choose clarity over “business speak”
When you’re new to a work environment, it’s tempting to recycle business-isms you might hear from your manager or teammates, such as “this has lots of moving parts” or “let’s put out some feelers.” You may feel you need to adopt this language to connect with others via “chit chat,” and that may be true in a domestic work environment, but in a multinational office, those phrases just sound like industry jargon. In fact, recent research indicates that recent grads and early-career professionals tend to use “business speak” to build rapport with colleagues at work, while Global English is more often used to forge international connections.
If you are entering the global workforce, you must be mindful of business-speak and idioms — phrases with a cultural meaning separate from the literal definition of the individual words, such as “off the top of my head,” “cut and dry,” and “go the extra mile.” Instead, the next time you craft a message to one of your teammates, replace business-isms and idioms with literal words, or add background details when jargon references are inevitable. For example, simplify the phrase “key takeaways” by saying “important points,” forgo the expression “pain points” by saying “challenges,” and adjust “paradigm shift” to “significant change.”
If you end up working on a global team — especially in a governmental organization — you will likely find that people use multiple abbreviations. These are meant to be shortcuts to effective communication, but more often, they resemble an insider’s code. In any industry, even though our busy work lives encourage us to favor brevity over clarity, you should pay attention to how many abbreviations you use. When communicating in global teams, abbreviations can seem like a nonsensical string of letters to anyone outside of your domestic organization. In fact, global heads of training have pointed out that shortcuts such as “OOO and ETA” are often baffling and can be misinterpreted. Additional confusion may result from some abbreviations in British English being different from American English.
Watch out for two kinds of abbreviations: initialisms and acronyms. In any field, you will be sure to encounter initialisms, such as B2B and KPIs (“business to business” and “key performance indicators”) where every character is pronounced separately. Conversely, acronyms such as NATO (“North American Treaty Organization”) are pronounced as words and tend to reference initiatives, agencies, or policies. Acronyms are also common in social media (think YOLO, “You Only Live Once”). Generally, when writing to global team members, the best practice is to state the full name of the first reference of an abbreviation (with the abbreviation itself in parentheses) prior to using the combination of letters for all references thereafter. When speaking in global teams, state the abbreviation first, followed by a quick explanation of the full name. No matter the industry, keep both initialisms and acronyms consistent but use them sparingly.
Use familiar language domestically and literal language globally
Colorful phrases and witty cultural references can make content more relatable to domestic audiences — and you may use it because you see your seniors use them — but know that literal language is preferred when communicating in a multinational office or with team members located globally. One typical pitfall is the phrasal verb. These two-to-three-word idiomatic expressions (“get ahead,” “zero in on,” “barrack for”) are tricky when speaking to global teams because these verbs have a different meaning than their parts.
Our advice? Use a single verb instead of a phrasal verb. For example, ditch the verb phrase “firm up” and use “finalize” or replace the verb phrase “draw up” for a document with “draft,” “write,” or “formulate.” If you’re using pronouns (he, she, they, etc.), make sure to use them with clear antecedents (e.g., Marco, Suzuki), as some languages don’t use pronouns to replace phrases. Finally, moderately use culturally-centered expressions or references when speaking with colleagues on your team. The American culture, for example, is littered with phrases referencing baseball, such as “out of left field,” and “you’re on deck.” Many business expressions around the world also have their origins in Greek mythology, such as “Herculean task” and “the Midas touch” — references not everyone would understand. A culturally-centered expression may help you build rapport in a particular situation, however, only use pop culture examples from advertising, film, and other media (such as “follow the yellow brick road”) when you’re sure these references have a shared understanding with all of your team members.
Connect with empathy instead of humor
Similar to catchy idioms, we often use humor as an easy way to connect with co-workers, yet when we tell jokes in a global team, we may risk appearing insensitive. In regard to Global English, one example is to avoid sarcastic humor, as it involves saying the exact opposite of what we mean. Playful expressions such as “beautiful day, isn’t it?” when it’s pouring rain and “Well, that’s just what we need” when the situation clearly isn’t positive may not connect with global team members, regardless of the good-natured intent.
Instead, use the positive language of empathy, such as personal pronouns “we” and “us” to connect with your work colleagues globally and to create inclusion. Also, instead of using playful sarcasm to poke fun at a situation, use optimism to express rational hopes about the future. Highlighting shared commonalities and goals will produce more collaborative and meaningful interactions — and are bound to leave an inspiring and lasting impression.
So, the next time you present to your international co-workers, email a partner in another part of the world, or negotiate with friends across cultures, look up at the International Space Station orbiting in the night sky and remember that it’s there because the greatest minds from around the world were able to communicate and execute their ideas. Effective global communication can lead the world to innovation. Global English has the potential to unite continents in creativity and human understanding as business continues to rapidly progress toward a more diverse and global workforce. As part of the next generation of workers, you can lead that change.