The goal of communication is mutual understanding, yet many people use terms and phrases that aren’t commonly understood.
Business English is cluttered with idioms and clichés that have lost their meaning and are not incredibly clear.
Idioms cannot be taken literally. It takes additional knowledge of the English language and culture to understand them.
When you first hear someone say “take a stab at it”, you might think it means to stab something with a knife.
Only someone more familiar with the language knows that this means “to try an activity” or “take an educated guess”.
Culturally specific idioms
Many idioms have cultural roots that do not always translate across cultures and languages.
In America, a number of idioms stem from the sport, baseball. Phrases like “touch base”, “hit a home run” and “step up to the plate” make sense to most Americans but may not be understood in other cultures.
In a recent Facebook post, I argued that we should eliminate idioms from our international conversations.
I received a backlash of comments.
“Idioms are attractive to non-native learners… (and) give them a sense of mastery,” said one English teacher.
Another friend said she spoke in so many idioms and metaphors that she “shuddered at the thought of trying to eliminate them” from her language.
Yet another friend went so far as to accuse me of proposing “linguistic ethnic cleansing”!
By no means do I think that idioms are bad. They hold much of our culture and linguistic heritage within them. Of course they are fun to learn as well.
It is interesting to question why I might say someone is not the “sharpest tool in the shed” while my husband says (in Danish) that someone is not the “sharpest knife in the drawer” or the “fastest motorbike on the harbour”.
The problem is when we use these types of phrases, we assume that others should know what they mean. Often, they don’t.
One of my most enlightened friends looks at idioms in a different way.
She said: “I use idioms — with explanations — as a way to bring people closer to my culture. I ask them to use their own idioms with me, so I can appreciate their background, their frame of reference.”
If only more people would think this way!
Another friend brought up the abuse of the English language in business: “The worst offenders of ‘idiomisation’ of language are business people — it’s like a sport to see who can come up with the best buzzword or buzzphrase to sound awesome.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Forbes.com published an article on June 19 titled: “89 Business Clichés That Will Get Any MBA Promoted And Make Them Totally Useless”.
They listed common business phrases that have been so overused that they don’t really mean anything anymore.
Some of the clichés that made their list include:
We think outside the box.
Don’t leave money on the table.
We need to manage expectations.
Let’s put our game faces on.
When you hear people say phrases like these, ask them to explain what they mean.
Many will find it difficult to define cult words and phrases like “business-focused” or “managing expectations”.
Challenge the people around you to speak clearly and say what they really mean, instead of hiding behind “business speak”.
If you really want to challenge your colleagues (and have a lot of fun) create a Buzzword Bingo game.
At your next meeting, pass out bingo cards filled with buzzwords and clichés.
Participants in the meeting can see who gets a bingo first by marking off every buzzword they hear people say during the meeting.
Make sure they also write down who said each one so that you can catch the worst offenders.
One friend who uses this game quite often in her meetings points out the added benefit that her staff “are the only ones really paying attention throughout the whole thing”!
The English language is fun and interesting. It is filled with cultural expressiveness.
But, in international settings, it is important that we can understand each other and that real communication takes place.
By reducing the number of meaningless clichés and culturally specific idioms used in international business, we can begin to be better understood.