On a recent trip to Vietnam I found myself sitting in a hotel lobby for a few minutes. With nothing else to do, I eavesdropped on the communication taking place between staff and guests at reception. (Beware the bored writer.) As I listened, small misunderstandings seemed to creep into nearly every conversation I heard across the reception desk. Check out times, payment terms, tour arrangements, laundry queries … you name it. The most straightforward query would bounce out of control like a fumbled catch in the outfield.
What was interesting, I realised after a while, was that the communication breakdowns were rarely caused by the (quite understandable) limitations of the local staff’s English. Rather, fault tended to lie with the native English speaker’s failure to adjust their language to the circumstances.
The flaws were many. Amongst them were excessively verbose sentences, speaking too quickly, the use of colloquialisms and the use of difficult words. To use a tennis analogy: the English speakers were playing like seasoned players, hitting the ball to every corner of the court. Then they wondered why their less practiced opponents seemed so inept at returning their shots.
I was reminded of just how much we take for granted the ability to communicate easily in our own tongue. And how important it is to modify our language to suit our audience. This is all the more important in business.
When we are at work, most of us speak a customised version of our language. Some – computer people and economists, for instance – use a different dialect altogether. Whatever our game, we bandy around industry terms, abbreviations and acronyms, partly for efficiency and partly because they give the impression that we know what we’re talking about.
This is fine in the privacy of our own cubicle, but it is dangerous elsewhere – especially when we need to be understood by newer colleagues, customers and potential customers.
The bottom line: if you want to be understood, whether your communication is across a reception desk or via your website, make the effort to adapt your vernacular to suit the situation.