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Business English Syllabus of Errors

Germans and their classic error pattern in Business English: A compact lesson in how to be friendly – not perfect.

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Generell gilt für Business Englisch: Forget perfect, be friendly! Quelle: Paul-Friedrich von Bargen

Psst! Got a minute? I’d like to save you a lifetime of mediocre English communication: When is a mistake not a mistake? When you’re not making it.

You see, mistakes are what you commit, but more significant are the things you omit. I’ve heard a lot of odd English in Germany, like “You are not okay by me”. Or “Get into the other room”. Or “Sign the cheque on the backside”. Ahem. Or “There are no spectators on my nose”. Aha. Actually, the guy’s nose was fairly big.

But my point is this: these mistakes are just perfectly literal translations in the main. They’re not mistakes so much as good German disguised as English. So Munich Airport displays German adverbial blindness when it tells you to “Fly colourful”. Or Deutsche Bahn does a tasty literal translation when you are informed “In a few minutes we shall arrive Munich”.

Linguists call this L1 (or first language) interference. This is the source of practically all your sins of commission, but not the root of intercultural failure. Your sins of omission are mostly responsible for that.

In the next five minutes I’d like to tackle both these sources of personal embarrassment and interpersonal disappointment. To do so I am extracting two key concepts from the fields of linguistics and intercultural communication.

Key concepts: facework and context

The first is facework, a concept developed by Erving Goffman in the Sixties and related to the work you do to maintain your contact’s face. Important: I said to maintain the other guy’s face – not your own.

The second key concept is context, as developed by another American by thename of Edward Hall in the Seventies. Context here means relationship, everything that surrounds the text of business communication. Savvy, gentle WirtschaftsWochers?

Face can be positive or negative. Positive facework demonstrates involvement with others. Negative facework signals respect for other people’s freedom. So small talk is an expression of positive facework, just as an indirect subjunctive request is an expression of negative facework.

Context can be high or low. High context cultures, such as Asian or Latin American, are big on personal relationship. Low context cultures, such as Scandinavia and the German language area, are big on professional competence. With a rudimentary grasp of these two communication principles, we can structure and solve your personal syllabus of English errors.

Let’s start with those venial sins of commission – the misusage and abusage from literal mistranslation to downright Denglish. First off the list here are the phonological oddities, the verbal tics that keep you saying ‘sendwich’ for sandwich and ‘willage’ for village. ‘Cesh’ for cash and ‘wideo’ for video, these phonetic phenomena are the acne of English language production – unlikely to completely ruin your chances with the girls but decidedly off-putting nevertheless.

Slightly up the ladder on your syllabus of errors come the solecisms or grammatical mistakes – ‘catched’ for ‘caught’ and ‘splitted’ for ‘split’. Here is your greatest single source of active mistake making – in the tricky, fidgety mechanisms of the English tense system. Saying ‘have gone’ for ‘went’, ‘will call’ for ‘going to call’ and ‘am working’ for ‘work’ are classic error patterns which are hard to eradicate.

Tip: the English Present Perfect is an update tense for news which is important to your listener. The straight ‘will’ future is spontaneous and anything but planned. The English continuous tenses are temporary rather than permanent in nature.

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.

At the top of the syllabus of errors, what began as a simple ‘vow’ for ‘wow’ becomes an intercultural spaghetti whereby directives destroy team-building and advice giving is undermining. This is when argumentation and rhetorical styles clash.

Jürgen Habermas may have been right when he spoke of “der zwanglose Zwang des besseren Arguments” in German. But globally, there’s always something than a better argument and that’s a better relation-ship. This is where all those subtle and irritating habits of global English – like small talking, touching base, active listening and indirect disagreement – come into play.

You see it’s not a translation. It’s a performance. You don’t translate yourself into English. You perform this language like a behaviour. Skipping the small talk is not accelerating your business – it’s an omission of positive facework that is slowing it down.

Direct disagreement is not ‘unmissverständlich klar’. It’s an omission of negative facework that is globally ‘missverständlich klar’. These are your sins of omission and yes, dearies, they are hurting your business performance. China and India – your two most important new customers – are extremely high context. They don’t really care about your mispronunciation and grammatical errors.

They are more responsive to the most dangerous of all errors – the Face Threatening Act. Like open criticism in front of the boss. Like the postponement of personal relations until after the project.

Montaigne once said “Most of the grounds of the world’s troubles are matters of grammar.” They way I see it, world history itself is just one big intercultural misunderstanding.

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