Language at Work

Modern professional life can do strange things to language. It warps it, twists it and squeezes it to suit the need for efficiency.

For example, do you know what is a Bell Nipple, a Ginzel or a Hitch? If you have never worked on an oil rig, the odds of you knowing what those mean are very low. A Bell Nipple refers to the opening of a specific kind of pipe, a ginzel is slang for rookie and a hitch means “working shift”, because it is measured in days or weeks rather than hours. Academics refer to this as an Occupational dialect, but most people simply call it professional jargon.

Even office work has created its own eye-roll worthy jargon that has produced many memes and more than one “The Office” television show! (“as per usual” we’re sure everyone with “bandwidth” would like to “give 110%” or at least “circle back” to killing off “synergy”!).

Professions and professionals can differ in more than just vocabulary. As in all languages, misunderstandings and miscommunication abound. The most common seem to come from differences in conversational styles. These are ways of describing not only the way people speak, but also how they even approach a conversation. The most noticeable differences at work occurs among managers. For example, when they need something done, they might say: “Do X by tomorrow.”, or “Could you take care of X by tomorrow?”, or “If I were you, I would make sure X was done for tomorrow.”, or even “I´m not sure we can get X done for tomorrow, we might need some help.”

We can see here a spectrum of how direct you want to be when giving instructions. The more indirect, the more the order sounds like a question. Not to say that having an indirect style is a negative, because giving people the option to say “no”, even in a ritual fashion, generates a lot of goodwill among staff and contributes to a healthy and helpful work environment. Communication at work is about striking a fine balance between being direct enough that you can be understood, but not so direct that you come across as too tough, arrogant or authoritarian.

In the last few decades, English has imposed itself as the Lingua Franca of business. This has led many organizations not only to conduct their external relations in English, but to convert their entire infrastructure to operate in English. What is seldom discussed, however, are the pitfalls of the universalization of English in multicultural companies.

A series of studies carried out in Denmark have documented a phenomenon dubbed the “quiet organisation”. The phenomenon gets its name from the ghostly silence, or rather absence of noise, where the only sounds that can be heard around the office are copy machines and employees furiously typing away, present in organisations that have switched their operating language to English. For the vast majority of those working in English, it is their second language. Although there can be very high levels of proficiency, the need to conduct the entirety of reports, meetings, briefings and the like in a language you are not native in can be very taxing on the mind. So, when you take your coffee break and need to relax, you switch back to your native language. This leads to language clusters, where people tend to gravitate to those with whom they possess a common mother tongue. This can give foreign staff the impression that local employees do not want to engage with them, and vice-versa, which greatly threatens the maintenance of a healthy social life within a company. This starts a feedback loop that leads to what is called “thin communication”. The rapport between employees becomes strictly professional and task-oriented, constrained to meetings and presentations.

Ironically, English can be an obstacle to meaningful cross-cultural communication, which is the usually the reason for introducing it in the first place.

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