Learning English all over again in Asia


When I first moved to London in 2004, that initial shock of everyone speaking English (the Queen’s!), and not the one you’re used to from back in the states, took me a little off guard.  I did have to ask the occasional Scot to slow down and speak again, or for someone to rephrase the terms used so that I could figure out who the heck Joe Bloggs is (hint: it’s John Doe in American English).  It took about two or three months, but in no time I was humming along and adjusting to both business and social environments without much of a fuss.

Upon rapidly closing in on a year from my newly adopted Hong Kong home, the transition on the language front has been a bit more challenging.  Being part of a UK firm, just about every BT person (whether based in China, Japan, or HK) across the region has good business English competency, as is the case for most global firms.  The challenge comes from ensuring on a daily basis that what you communicate to your very diverse set of peers, direct reports, and even senior managers is the same understanding that they took away from you.   In the US or UK, if a person was not sure what I just said, they would almost always ask me to clarify, just like I would to them when I’m not sure of what they’re saying.  In Asia, I quickly picked up that not everyone asks for clarification, which can cause a lot of pain when it includes either 1.) a resolution of an issue or 2.) a directive issued, and instead you find out that either nothing was actioned or the exact opposite of my assumed/anticipated result has occurred.

My initial poor assumption that no clarification during verbal exchanges meant agreement, reared its head two or three times before I forced myself to a quiet corner and figured out what was going wrong.  The key here is once you do recognize and accept the issue is completely within your (or rather my) control, the resolution path is fairly straightforward.  As in all communication gaps, the key in my case was to once again focus on ensuring that my specific message is understood before leaving a face-2-face (least difficult), video conference (med difficult) or phone call (most difficult).  A bit more care and attention and much of the communication gaps from earlier in the year are mostly avoided.  That’s not to say I’ve absolved all my comms errors, or even close to all, but at least I am no longer kicking myself for the silly ones.

Image courtesy of Dolighan Cartoons


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