Business Idioms: How To Communicate or Mis-Communicate in English – 10 Idioms.

by | May 31, 2018 | 0 comments

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This post is an updated version of an earlier post.

Did you know that 2 billion people in the world speak English as a foreign language or second language (non-native speakers)? Compare that to a mere 400 million for whom English is their first language (native speakers).

That’s a significant difference. And yet such is the importance of English as the lingua franca of business that those 2 billion people aspire to communicate like the 400 million. It feels like going back to colonial times when a minority ruled over the masses.

You’re probably going to tell me that the same applies to economic wealth when we see how 80% of global wealth is in the hands of 20% of the world’s population. (Ahhh, the 80-20 rule, I wrote a post about this).

Before I get carried away and start ruminating about the unequal distribution of wealth, let me explain how what I’ve just stated applies to a post on business idioms.

Practically every English Language learner loves learning English idioms and how to use them. The principal reason they give is that they want to sound like a ‘native speaker’ of English.

But, why would learning idioms and how to use them make you sound like a ‘native speaker’? What do idioms offer that other expressions don’t?

  • Idioms give colour and richness to a language.
  • They reflect the history and culture of the language.
  • They bring different cultures together because, more often than not, different cultures share an idiomatic expression.

For example, there’s an expression in the Korean language that broadly says: “someone else’s rice cake always looks bigger than yours.” We have a similar expression in English to convey the same meaning: “the grass is always greener on the other side (of the fence)”.

Both expressions vividly express the same meaning – someone else always seems to be in a better situation than you. But where they differ is in the cultural context used, ‘rice cake’ for Korea, ‘grass = garden’ for the English.

Sharing idiomatic expressions create a deeper understanding and appreciation of other cultures.

And when it comes to Business English, you cannot escape idioms! They’re everywhere – in business articles, in business news, in business boardrooms.

You don’t have to learn and use business idioms if you don’t feel comfortable doing so, but understanding business idioms will help you understand native speakers of English who naturally use them.

More importantly, it will help you understand written English found in business articles and  business news.

In this post and the next three posts, I will be sharing with you common business idioms. I have categorised them in 4 themes: communication, food, uncertainty and sports.

In this post, I tackle the theme of communication. Here are 10 commonly used business idioms. You may have heard of them and indeed, they may already form a regular part of your everyday business communication.

Here goes.

#1:  In a nutshell

Summarise briefly

“ It’s a complicated system, but in a nutshell it works like a kettle.”

#2: To get straight to the point

Talk about the most important thing

Ok, I’ll get straight to the point. I’m afraid we’re going to have to make some budget cuts.”

#3: To put you in the picture

Give the latest information

“Some very important decisions were taken at yesterday’s meeting. Let me put you in the picture.”

#4: To get the wrong end of the stick


“If you think that our biggest problem is our distribution channels, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick.”

#5: To be on the same wavelength

Share similar opinions and ideas.

We agree on most things. We’re very lucky that we are on the same wavelength.

#6: To hear it on the grapevine

Hear about something passed from one person to another

I heard on the grapevine that the CEO is planning to resign. Is that true? ”      

#7: Can’t make head or tail of it

Fail to understand something

“This report makes no sense. I can’t make head or tail of it.”

#8: To talk at cross purposes


I think we’re talking at cross purposes. I meant the figures for June not July.”

#9: To beat about the bush

Delay talking about something

Politicians never give you a straight answer. They always beat about the bush.”

#10: To get our wires crossed


“Everyone arrived at different times for the meeting. We must have got our wires crossed.”

Tell me

Are there other Business English idioms you’ve heard or seen that relate to the theme of communication that fascinate you?

Do you have similar idioms as the ones above in your language? What are they? Please share them with us in the comments box.

If you want more idioms, check out my Business Idioms and Coffee To Go series.


Food for Thought

Next week, I’ll share 10 food idioms that are commonly used in business. Stay tuned.

Ciao for now.


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