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Continental Drifter -- One Word In Ten

June 29, 2006
The apparent fluency of many non-native English speakers can lead the unwary into costly communication breakdowns.

Late in the 1920s, the American writer Ring Lardner sailed to Europe on a German steamship. Sitting in a deck chair one day, Lardner was asked by a steward if he cared for something to drink.

"Dry martini," he replied. And the steward promptly brought him three martinis.

Lardner saw only comedy in the steward's confusion between the English "dry" and the German "drei," which, of course, means "three." But his two extra martinis illustrate a potential pitfall faced by native-English speakers who conduct business with individuals around the globe.

It is the nature of the human animal to jabber unthinkingly at high speed when speaking in his own language, largely because everyone, everywhere, is most accustomed to talking to people who are equally agile in the same tongue. All of us tend to forget that we've spent lifetimes absorbing the ins and outs of our particular lingo. Which is why native-English speakers so often assume that the seemingly fluent English speakers we encounter in other countries can follow every word we say.

They can't.

A Chinese acquaintance in Shanghai who for years has done business with Americans, Britons and Australians admitted to me that he has endless problems in this regard. To my ear his English is nearly flawless. Yet when he is in a meeting with three or more English speakers he gets overwhelmed by their use of slang and abbreviations, their allusions to aspects of Western popular culture about which he could not possibly know, and the speed and sheer relentlessness of their fustian.

Read more by Mark Gottlieb."When I am talking to one person or two, it is fine," my friend said. "When I am with more, I understand only one word in ten."

Think what it would be like to understand only a tenth of what was being said to you in a business meeting and you begin to see just how monumental a problem this can be.

A wise native-English speaker can minimize the misery with a little foresight. When dealing with foreign business acquaintances, speak more slowly than normal. (Half-speed is good; three-quarter speed will do.) Consider the point you want to make before you open your mouth and try to choose the simplest words to convey it. Avoid slang and technical terms whenever possible.

Above all, keep in mind that the precise meaning of your words may not be getting through. Ask and ask again if your listener truly understands what you are saying.

One other thing: Lay off the jokes. Humor seldom translates well, as the experience of some German-speaking European acquaintances attests.

On their first trip to San Francisco, my friends wanted to explore a town in nearby Marin County. They found a bus that would ostensibly take them there, but to make sure they asked the driver.

"Does this bus go to Mill Valley?" they said.

"Is the Pope Catholic?" said the driver.

My friends looked at each other blankly.

"Yes, he is," they replied. "But does this bus go to Mill Valley?"

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