The evils of slang in an international work force

As I’ve mentioned before, the organization my boss runs has about 100 people in it. What I haven’t mentioned before is that those people are spread across the US, France, UK, India, Mexico, Canada, and Costa Rica. Needless to say, it is a real life example that more than ever before, work forces are becoming globally mixed. This can create some awkward situations when it comes to word choice. For Americans in particular, since we tend to use a lot of slang in our everyday speech, it can lead to sometimes unwanted results.

Even though English is often a de facto standard language in international business situations like the one I work in every day, in many cases you have to be prepared to deal with variations on language and catch-phrases. For example, in reference to a particular aspect of a project someone in some parts of India may say, “I have a doubt about the Ataru focusing crystal lens assembly you sent me.” To an American, that may sound like the person in India thinks that it is a bad idea because of the way the word “doubt” is used. To the contrary, what that phrase means in India is that the person is having trouble getting the equipment to work in their local environment correctly.

Similarly, use of slang terms can easily confuse others with different cultural backgrounds. When in a long meeting, an American might suggest a “seventh inning stretch”, which would mean absolutely nothing to someone in a country where baseball is not played. Most of these interactions are innocent and can lead to a good laugh, but be careful. What is humorous in one culture may be offensive in another.

Famous slang gaffes from my career:

  • When a colleague who was raised outside the US was describing to me a case where a coworker was trying to get him into trouble with upper management, I said, “That guy is such a tattler.” It took me nearly 30 minutes to come up with a better explanation than, “A tattle tale is someone who tells tattles.”
  • During a design review teleconference for a new website, I was struggling to comprehend a key point that one of the engineers who works under me was trying to make. After a third explanation, I realized that I had missed a very simple point he had made at the beginning of his argument that was the basis for everything else. I apologized for “being a Bozo”. He acted like he knew what I meant by the comment, but was secretly looking it up on Wikipedia as we continued our discussion.
  • While discussing a technical point with someone once, I dismissed a particular programming choice by saying, “I know some people like it, but I think it’s BS.” The guy I was talking to understandably thought that BS was an acronym for a web site technology.

This one didn’t happen to me, but was told to me by the gentleman who was the victim of my Bozo comment above. He had just moved to Texas and coworkers in the general vicinity of his cube at midday often say, “I’m fixin’ to go to lunch.” Needless to say, it took him months to figure out that there was nothing broken about lunch to begin with.

All these examples are harmless, but the point is that it isn’t difficult to make a culturally ambiguous mistake and really annoy somebody by accident. Be sure to define terms clearly, avoid slang where possible (something I have trouble holding myself to), and try to put things in a couple different ways to make sure your intent is being received the way you think it is. If you work with people from all over the globe, those same people will likely have input on that all-important performance evaluation and, as such, communication points outside the country you live in deserve careful attention.


5 Responses to “The evils of slang in an international work force”

  1. Avoid trouble with the generic personal commitment | Nerd Guru Says:

    […] do things for work at hours you don’t want to do them. Especially if you are working with an international work force, time zones occasionally necessitate that you be available when you’d usually have family […]

  2. Classic Nerd Guru: The evils of slang in an international work force | Nerd Guru Says:

    […] This article originally ran on February 20, 2007, is slightly edited for reprint in an effort to share previously published ideas with new […]

  3. Classic Nerd Guru: The generic personal commitment | Nerd Guru Says:

    […] to do things for work at hours you don’t want to do them. Especially if you are working with an international work force, time zones occasionally necessitate that you be available when you’d usually have family time. […]

  4. Luis García Says:

    And I guess we latin americans (especially mexican) have to understand that opposite-sex cheek-kissing is not common in the US and the moment of being introduced to some one else.


  5. WWD: The Borderless World | Nerd Guru Says:

    […] I’ve written before, you have to be careful about not using slang in those situations too. We Americans are typically more guilty of this than anyone else. Also, […]

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