How To Make James Slow Down On That Call Without Apologising For Your ‘Bad’ English.
“I dread calling the London team.”
When I asked my client, Pilar, why she does, these are some of the reasons she gave me:
➜ “They all speak so fast.”
➜ “ James’s accent is so hard to understand. I think he’s from Manchester.”
➜ “Simone uses typical British expressions/idioms I’m not familiar with.”
➜ “I don’t always catch all the words they’re saying.”
➜ “They sometimes use sentences I just don’t understand.”
And the worst bit.
“Every time I apologise and ask them to repeat what they’ve said, they repeat it in EXACTLY the same way!”
So what does she do?
Feeling dejected, she asks them to send her an email to confirm what’s been said.
And she tells herself:
➜ If only she knew more vocabulary, she wouldn’t have this problem every single time.
➜ That if she mastered English grammar, it would be so much easier to follow the conversations.
➜ That she really needs to learn more idiomatic expressions or phrasal verbs.
➜ She has to improve her listening skills to understand British English.
➜ She’s never going to get that promotion if she continues having problems on the phone with the London team.
In other words, she blames her ‘bad’ English for her inability to communicate with her British colleagues.
Breaking news: Better grammar and more vocabulary aren’t going to solve her problems with her London team. Learning how to communicate with them is.
Communication is a two-way street.
First of all, she needs to understand this crucial message.
Both sides have a responsibility to understand the other person and to be understood by the other person.
This means you (the international speaker) AND your British/American colleague (the monolingual English speaker):
➜ Listening carefully.
➜ Speaking clearly.
➜ Adapting your language to your audience.
➜ Speaking at a slower pace.
➜ Speaking International English stripped of cultural influences
This is what Pilar does (and you do) to fulfil your share of the responsibility
➜ You enrol in English conversation classes to improve your fluency.
➜ You regularly practise your listening skills by listening to podcasts.
➜ You faithfully complete those English grammar worksheets.
➜ You sign up to a number of online courses that promise to get you speaking like a native speaker.
➜ You read umpteen books or articles in English to improve your vocabulary.
➜ You try hard to speak slowly and clearly so that your colleague understands you.
And yet, despite all your valiant efforts, you still find it so hard to understand your British or American colleague. And they struggle to understand you too.
Thing is…You’re only one side of the coin. You need to look at the other side of the coin to see what they have done or are doing to fulfil their responsibility to communicate with you.
Here’s what happens when your typical British (or American) speaker communicates with you (the international speaker).
➜ They forget who they’re speaking to.>> In other words, that you’re an international speaker of English with a different level of proficiency.
➜ They don’t adjust their accent to make themselves clear.>> I am not suggesting people eradicate their accent, but if you know that your audience is not familiar with your accent, you need to soften it to ensure they understand you until they get used to it.
➜ They don’t adapt their language to International English. >>They use colloquial, culture-specific expressions that no one outside of the UK (or USA) would understand or be expected to understand.
➜ They sometimes overcomplicate the language they’re using: “ Should you happen to see him, would you mind letting him know that I’m expecting him to call me soon as.” (unnecessarily complex grammar structure)
➜ They speak too fast often leaving no ‘white space’, in other words, pauses to check you’re following the conversation.>> Or worse still, they mumble making it hard for you to understand what they’re saying.
➜ They’re so focused on speaking, they forget to communicate.
They’re not fulfilling their side of the bargain. And yet, they don’t think they’re part of the problem.
In her book*, Chia Suan Chong observes that: “English-speaking monolinguals sometimes get offended by the suggestion that they could be the problem in a situation of international communication.”
This is further demonstrated by a client who, when in a meeting with a British supplier, told me: “ It was hard for me to understand his pronunciation and, which is worse, I am afraid this irritated him.”
It’s YOUR fault. You’re the problem.
➜ It’s so much easier to allow you, the international speaker, to take all the blame for not understanding your British colleague.
➜ It’s so much easier to allow you to feel bad about your English and to put the responsibility solely on you to make yourself understood.
Well…it’s time to set the record straight.
It’s time to:
➜ remind your British/American colleague that speaking fluently doesn’t mean they’re communicating effectively.
➜ face the monolingual English speaker with courage and confidence.
➜ formulate specific strategies you can implement immediately to deal with any communication issues you may have with them.
Strategies that have nothing to do with perfect grammar or sophisticated vocabulary.
12 ingeniously quick strategies to get your British/American colleague to slow down without apologising for your ‘bad’ English.
Before the call
#1: Plan your call: think of what information you need to share and need from them. Try and anticipate what their response is likely to be. If you’ve had previous email correspondence with them, have the text ready in front of you. The chances are they’ll use the same expressions on the phone.
#2: If you already have some idea of what you’re planning to discuss, make a note of the important words and phrases you are likely to hear or say. This will help you identify them more easily during the conversation and give you the reassurance you need should you mishear a word or phrase.
#3: Record the call: if you can, record your call on your smartphone. This will allow you to re-listen to the conversation, re-play any issues and reflect on what to do differently next time.
During the call
#4: If, in the middle of the conversation, your colleague starts reeling off a set of numbers (like telephone numbers or sales figures) or an email address, tell them you’re going to write the information down. “That’s great. I’m just going to write this information down, Please give me a second to get a pen and paper. Ok, I’m ready.” This will automatically make them slow the pace down.
#5:As you write the details down, tell them you’re going to repeat it back to them for confirmation. “Ok, so that I am clear, Simon’s email address is ……”. Once again this makes them slow down and listen to you.
#6: Don’t be afraid to ask them to slow down but don’t apologise. “I’m afraid you’re going too fast. Can you repeat that last sentence and this time I’ll make a note of it?”
#7: Blame it on a bad line. ” I’m afraid I didn’t catch that. It’s a bad line. You said that …… Is that correct? “You’re passing the responsibility to them to listen and confirm.
#8: If they use an expression you’ve not heard before, tell/ask them >> “What do you mean?” or “I’m not familiar with that expression.”>> You’re not apologising, but you’re inviting them to say it another way. >> Remember you’re not expected to understand every colloquialism or cultural reference.
#9: If you’re not sure you heard correctly, check it with them >> Was that forty (four oh) or fourteen (one four)?
#10: If they don’t understand something you’ve said, give them an example or say it another way. Again don’t apologise for your English or your accent. They need to get used to how you speak too.
#11: Some people are naturally fast talkers and often find it hard to slow down and stay slowed down.If that’s the case, keep reminding them to slow down and don’t apologise. You need to help them be aware of this.
After the call,
#12: Take a few minutes to reflect. If you recorded the call, play it back and listen to the conversation.
What were the positives? >> What did you understand? >> Why did you understand? >> Was it because they slowed down, they spoke clearly and so on.
How comfortable were you using one of your strategies? >>How did they respond? >>Did you find them slowing down? >> How did it make you feel? >> Did the dynamics of the conversation change for the better?
The more you’re aware of what’s happening during your conversations, the easier it’ll be to adapt to them. Awareness comes by reflecting and analysing how both of you communicate.
In today’s global business world where English is the common language of commerce, we all have an interest in facilitating good, effective communication between ourselves.
International communication in English goes beyond perfect grammar, complex vocabulary, academically-correct spoken English and accent-free pronunciation.
We, monolingual English speakers AND international speakers of English, both have a responsibility to ensure that we understand each other. We owe it to each other to collaborate effectively and get the job done.
Stop thinking you’re the problem because you’re not.
* Chia Suan Chong (2018) Successful International Communication, Pavilion Publishing and Media Ltd