English in the international office: Are you communicating effectively?

English in the international office: Are you communicating effectively?

The vast majority of people working in the field of international education in Europe and beyond are non-native speakers of English, yet many are called upon to use English in a variety of professional settings on a daily basis. Many skilled professionals feel less than comfortable when asked to make a professional presentation in English or participate in an international meeting or set of talks with other colleagues. Writing effective emails in English can also be an issue. How can we overcome these challenges?

Making your voice heard

For many of us, fear of speaking in public can be paralysing and the idea of doing it in English is unthinkable. Overcoming these worries might not be easy but there are a number of ways to lessen your fears:

  • Convince yourself that you are as good as anyone else.
  • Connect with your audience rather than worry about yourself.
  • Remember that the majority of your audience are non-native speakers like yourself.
  • Nobody cares about the mistakes you make, they care about what you have to say.
  • Use visual aids to help both your audience and yourself.
  • See question time as being fun and exhilarating.
  • Consider audience expectations in an international context.

Getting your point across

How many times have you sat in an international meeting dying to say something with all sorts of thoughts running through your mind but everyone else speaks so much better than you do so you don’t dare? Does that sound familiar? And then five minutes later someone else comes out with your idea and everybody loves it! And you wish so much that you had dared to speak up. Or you do speak up and it comes out all wrong sounding much too direct or far too unclear? Intercultural communication in English when it is not your native language can be a minefield but here are some tips:

  • Keep your expression positive.
  • Listen to the views of others: remember that the intended message and the received message are often not the same.
  • Remember that different cultures use speech in different ways.
  • Develop an understanding of patterns of communication in different cultures.
  • Brush up on intercultural negotiation skills.
  • Always end on a positive note.
  • The ultimate goal is a win-win situation where everyone feels they have gained something: this is what will ensure a fruitful future relationship with international colleagues.

E-mail: focus on the message rather than the facts

For the vast majority of us working in international relations in universities, e-mail is the communication tool we most frequently use to consult and exchange with colleagues all over the world. And while writing such e-mails is not much of a problem to most of us from a language point of view, there are many challenges involved in getting a clear message across in an intercultural setting. By way of example, I have seen e-mails written in the most perfect English but that have caused tensions to rise between partners because they have adopted a style of writing that works in the national language/culture but that sounds far too harsh in English, falsely conveying the notion that the writer is angry. And I have seen e-mails written in (much) less than perfect English where the message is perfectly conveyed in spite of this and the relationship between partners is preserved. It is this difference between conveying the message and the facts that is so important in the jobs we do, given that our main means of communication is in written form.

The following points may be helpful when writing e-mail in an international context:

  • Your email does not have to be written in perfect English but it must get the message across.
  • We all bring our own culture into our use of English: depending on your language of origin, this may make your e-mails seem over or under direct and seemingly aggressive or vague even though this was not your intention.
  • Short sentences are good in English, they are not a sign of poor writing.
  • Beware of using technical jargon and acronyms.
  • Never write an email in anger.
  • Write a powerful subject line: the recipient will be inundated with email, make sure they can identify the issue in your email immediately.

Communicating in English forms an important part of our work within international offices, and being able to communicate effectively will have a positive impact for all involved in the process. Just by making yourself aware of some of the tips and ideas suggested above will already set you off on the right path to smoother working relationships and getting your voice heard in the way you intend.

By Chantal Barry, Sciences Po Paris, France