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Business English Syllabus of Errors

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Now let’s move up the ladder to the really juicy bits – false friends, faux pas and Face Threatening Acts.

Whereas translating directly into English by saying things like “I know it” is misusage, Denglish is an actual abusage of English. An event may be a party in Denglish, but in English 9/11 was an event.

Like Newspeak in Orwell’s 1984, Denglish destroys the rich polysemy of English and leaves you with just a single meaning.

But a false friend is even more dangerous than a Denglish term, because the sin is subtle. ‘Actual’ and ‘aktuell’ look the same but aren’t. ‘Cavalier’ in German is a quality, whereas in English the same word signals an absence of respect. So what’s the difference between a false friend and faux pas?

The latter, literally a false step, involves a social element often missing in the false friend. As you may have noticed, we’re not in Kansas anymore. We have left behind those niggling sins actively committed and entered the Land of Omission.

Waving your left hand to an Indian is not an English grammatical mistake, but it is a failure to communicate. Likewise displaying the soles of your feet to an Indonesian. Or forgetting to use a first name. Or forgetting to small talk. Or forgetting to back channel and turn take in conversation.

In order to identify the complex pattern of global communication beyond direct translation, you need those two tools – facework and context. Most German business people – being very rational types – reckon that perfect English is unnecessary among the majority of non-native-speaking contact partners.

Friendly English is necessary

Whereas ‘perfect’ English is never necessary, friendly English always is – because every one of your contact cultures displays a higher context with the exception of the lean and clean Swiss. The French, the Yanks, the Brits, the Italians and all the rest of your intercultural pals prefer their business more personalized – not more professional. So direct translation of low-context German business culture – linear, sequential, anonymous and objective – might lead to possible Rover, Mitsubishi, BenQ or Chrysler-like scenarios which you did not fully intend.

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