Working globally: The language barrier

Kerry Ritz, managing director of Vonage UK, on avoiding confusion while taking advantage of the global market technology has created

Globalisation means we’re all now working with people from all over the world. Even as a small business coordinating suppliers and clients from the Far East, US, South America, anywhere really, is not unusual. We have therefore had to adapt how we do business – different time zones can provide their challenges as do language barriers. 

Clearly, we have little choice on the time zone front, calling a client in the middle of the night it simply not acceptable (although some American companies may want to remember this!).  However it’s on the language front that we can be a little slack.  Lucky for most Brits, English is the language of business worldwide so the biggest difficulty we face is usually deciphering an odd pronunciation or perhaps hearing through a thick accent. However, problems do arise and it’s not just when dealing with people for who English is a second language that we sometimes come a cropper.  Case in point….

Would an American for example understand the phrase ‘Come a cropper’? Believed to have originally referred to someone falling from a horse, in John C. Hotten’s A dictionary of modern slang, cant, and vulgar words published in 1859, it was described as meaning any failure rather than just the specific inability to stay on your mount. Naturally you don’t have to know the origin to understand the meaning but the problem is that many non British ‘English’ speakers won’t understand the meaning either.

Brits have a predilection for peppering conversations with metaphors.  As a Canadian who’s lived in the UK for 19 years, not only have I become used to it but actually find it rather attractive and regularly enjoy spicing up conversations by using them myself.  However, in business I firmly believe in ‘Plain English’ for the simple reason that it’s more efficient.

We’re all under pressure, particularly time-wise, so why use unnecessary words or long and ambiguous sentences which are only going to cause confusion and make it take longer to be understood? Simple, straightforward communication is a safer and stronger way to get your point across, whether in meetings or in written communication.  

Avoiding jargon, technical terms, abbreviations and acronyms is clearly something to aspire to but on occasions this can be hard to do, particularly in the world of technology.   Innovation breeds new words by necessity and many abbreviations, acronyms etc have successfully pushed their way into the public consciousness e.g. DVDs and MP3 players.

However, it’s usually one hell of a lot easier to adapt existing words, draw analogies with other familiar terms or even resort to basic description. It seems obvious that text messaging or ‘texting’ caught on as a term rather than SMS (Short Message Service) and we happily ‘upload’ and ‘download’ files to and from the internet.

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Using the right words is a challenge I face everyday working at Vonage. Even describing what we do can cause problems. Some might say it depends on the audience, for example Vonage is a ‘VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) company’ when talking to a technology-minded audience and that ‘internet telephony’ works for business audiences.  Personally, I prefer to keep it simple and always say we ‘make calls over the internet’ – at the end of the day it’s what we do and I hope it’s understandable by all.

Kerry Ritz is the managing director of VoIP company  Vonage UK


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