Why you should stop apologising for your poor English (and what to do instead).
Have you ever apologised for your ‘bad’ English?
You know, those situations where:
- You’ve written an email to a supplier requesting information and you end the email with “Sorry for my English. I hope you can understand my email.”
- You’re on the telephone to a client and they ask you “what do you mean” and you respond by apologising first “ Sorry, my English is not very good. What I mean is…”
- You’re in a meeting and you’ve just given a brief update on a project your team’s working on. One of your colleagues asks you a question that you don’t understand. You automatically assume it’s because of your ‘bad’ English skills and reply: “I’m sorry, but my English is not very good. Can you repeat that?”
Why did you apologise? Let me guess.
- You were so conscious of making mistakes in English that you thought by blaming your ‘bad’ English for those mistakes, the other person would understand better why you’re making those mistakes and have more sympathy for you.
- You so badly wanted to make a positive impression on your audience that you thought if you apologised for your ‘poor’ English, they would treat you more leniently and give you a chance.
- You thought if you apologised beforehand for your English, any lack of clarity would be blamed on your language mistakes and NOT on your message. This, you think, would be more acceptable.
Why “ritual apologies” don’t bring forgiveness.
We all have a deep need to be approved by our peers, and one way we seek their approval is by apologising for our weaknesses in the hope that they (our weaknesses) and, in turn, we will be accepted.
The problem with, what some people call, “ritual apologies” is that they end up making us look weak, less confident and, worse still, annoy our listener. Let’s face it, no one wants to hear whiny excuses, especially in the corporate world.
Furthermore, by apologising for your English, you’re placing the spotlight on something they may NOT have noticed in the first place.
But now you’ve highlighted your ‘bad’ English, the spotlight will stay there and NOT on your true message. Every grammar, pronunciation or word mistake will be scrutinised and picked out like a shining beacon for the world to see!
The very thing you didn’t want to happen has happened. You’re being judged not for your professional expertise, but for your ‘bad’ English.
In this post, I’m going to share:
- how my business clients define their ‘bad’ English,
- why speaking mistake-free English will not help you achieve your professional goals: negotiate deals, get the promotion you’re seeking, make an impact at presentations.
- what you should focus on instead to make you a valuable and key player in your career.
What’s Bad English, Anyway?
Many of my business clients define their ‘bad’ English as:
- “Using the wrong English tenses when I’m speaking.”
- “Not having enough sophisticated vocabulary to impress my audience.”
- “Not knowing when to use the present perfect tense in my meeting.”
- “Always using the same, simple words.”
- “Getting prepositions confused.”
- “Not being able to pronounce certain words.”
- “Having a heavy accent.”
In essence, the reasons they give as to why they’re not able to get that promotion; negotiate that important deal; impress their audience with their presentation or win over their bosses with that business proposal isbecause of their poor English grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary.
Because, of course, knowing how to use the past perfect tense would clinch that deal for them, wouldn’t it?
Or creating that complex sentence with impressive words and perfect grammar would persuade their client that they’re the one for the job.
They believe it would, so what they do is ‘self-medicate’.
- buy grammar and vocabulary courses;
- memorise long lists of phrasal verbs or new vocabulary;
- watch lots of films in English;
- look for shortcuts
They do all this in the hope it will magically turn them into a confident, mistake-free English speaker when what they should be focusing on is learning how to communicate.
To speak or to communicate: that is the question.
What does it mean, to communicate? Surely if you’re a confident speaker, you’re an effective communicator? The terms are interchangeable, aren’t they?
Well, not exactly.
Etymonline has a wonderful definition of ‘communicate’== to make common.
In other words, to make accessible.
So, when you try and use sophisticated words or jargon and people don’t understand or follow you, you’ve forgotten to ‘make things common’. In other words, you’re not communicating. You need to break things down, simplify your message, help others understand you.
Here’s how you know that you communicate effectively (when your grammar or pronunciation ceases to exist):
- When you clearly identify the outcome you wish to accomplish before doing anything. All business communication is goal oriented. For example, getting that promotion, getting your clients to agree the deal, getting an agreement on a contract, getting your managing director to accept your proposal for more investment.
- When you give your thoughts and ideas a structure that will help you achieve your outcome, including the words you want your listeners to hear, the order in which you want them to hear your ideas (cohesion + clarity).
- When you put yourself in your listener’s shoes. Imagine what information they need/would want to hear from you to take the action you want them to take, and what information to leave out. (content + conciseness)
- When you actively listen to the responses – cutting out the excess noise and allowing silences to fill in the space instead of more talk. (mutual respect)
- When you summarise what the other person has said to demonstrate you were listening and reassure them you have understood.
- When you’re not sure you’ve understood correctly, you formulate (and offer them) a hypothesis allowing them to correct you. (checking understanding)
These are the qualities that demonstrate you’re an effective business communicator in English, not perfect grammar, sophisticated vocabulary or accentless pronunciation.
And in each case, not a whiff of an apology for your ‘bad’ English is required.
By contrast, this is what happens if you focus only on speaking and not on communicating
- You don’t pay attention – you’re so focused on talking that you forget to stop to check if the person is still listening to you. Are they still interested? Are they following what you’re saying or have you lost them?
- Your message is not heard – You’re so intent on speaking ‘fluently’ you forget to check if the other person has heard your message correctly or in the way you want it to be heard.
- You ignore the other person– because you’re already thinking about what (and how) you’re going to say next while the other person is talking. That’s infuriating for the other person and shows a lack of respect, even if that’s not your intention.
- You end up rambling – You’re so focused on getting your grammar right, on finding the perfect word, on speaking ‘fluently’ that you lose sight of what your goal is for talking in the first place and end up rambling (talking with no purpose). No one likes a rambler because they’re time wasters, confusing and a barrier to good communication.
“Talk is cheap. It’s intended to fill time and space with words – nothing else.”
Here’s What I’d Like You To Do Instead
Stop apologising for your ‘bad’ English. Your apologies won’t bring you forgiveness but will make you look weak, less confident and annoy your listener.
Stop blaming your ‘bad’ English for that failed deal or being turned down for that promotion.
Stop thinking that if you learn to speak more, mistake-free and grammar-perfect English, you will make more of an impact as a presenter.
Start focusing on learning how to communicate, not on speaking more. The sooner you start doing this, the more confident and valued you’ll become.
As Plato says: “Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.”