Taming the steamroller: how to communicate compassionately with non-native English speakers

Dear fellow native English speaker: you’re a very lucky person.

You can work all over the globe. You can present at conferences and events almost anywhere. You don’t have to mess around with language courses in order to engage with an international community. You can hire people from many different backgrounds at your workplace. Of course, if you want to get to any depth in a non-English-speaking culture, you do have to learn another language. Knowing more languages can only help. But for you, learning a second language is a choice you can afford not to make. You can smoothly and expressively reach people all over the world, without leaving the comfort of your mother tongue.

However. If you want to actually work effectively with people who aren’t as fluent in English as you are, you just cannot keep doing your usual thing. If you carry on talking, writing, presenting, and behaving exactly like you would in a group of native English speakers, the results will not be good. You will steamroll others. You will tire them out and alienate them. Worst of all, this will all be totally accidental, and you’ll wonder why your working relationships don’t seem as close or trusting as you’d like. You’ll tell yourself it’s a “language barrier,” and you’ll be right — but in your mind, you’re blaming others’ lack of English fluency, when actually an equal part of the problem lies with you.

What qualifies me to write this? I’m not a translator or an interpreter. I’m not any kind of communications professional. I’m a designer and educator who has spent the past year learning these lessons the hard way.

I am a design program lead at the School of Design Thinking, part of the Hasso-Plattner-Institut in Potsdam, Germany. We work, teach, and present in English, but I am one of only three native English speakers out of well over 50 full- and part-time faculty and staff, most of whom are German, a handful of whom come from other countries. So, every day, I’m working in my mother tongue, while my colleagues are working in a language they learned in school.

Why do we bother to work in English? We teach an international program that attracts some students from outside Germany, as well as international faculty — like me. When I first came to Germany from the US and started working here, I spoke zero German. A year later, I can get by in German in my daily life, and I’m super motivated and excited to learn German, but my German still isn’t good enough for the workplace. So, at work, I speak about 90% English and 10% German (with groundskeepers, delivery people, or visitors from other companies, or just for fun and practice).

This wouldn’t be quite such a big deal if I were mostly doing pure design work. But nope, my job demands constant, unrelenting communication. I have a dual teaching and administrative role, so every day, I write emails, participate in or lead meetings, and do a lot of public speaking. Seriously, I’m in front of an audience of some kind every other day. And, every day, I have one-on-one conversations about theoretical, high-level ideas, about complicated internal topics, and about prioritizing and executing plans in a hurry. My communication behavior is always at the front of my mind because, frankly, it has to be.

It’s been exhausting to dissect and rethink every aspect of how I write and talk, but I owe it to my colleagues, students, and bosses to be considerate about the fact that I have a built-in advantage in every single one of our interactions. Turns out, my communication style needed a massive overhaul. I’m endlessly grateful to my colleagues, who have given me all kinds of patient feedback as I’ve tried, tweaked, and tested different behaviors.

So I’m writing this to share my hard-earned discoveries over the past year. There’s something here for you, the native English speaker, if you work with non-native speakers, if you attend and/or speak at conferences, or if you just want to think more carefully about how you’re wielding your English in a professional setting.

Speaking and Presenting

Here’s the basic principle: you want to be more understandable without making your content less rich or interesting. Nobody wants to feel like they’re being talked down to or getting a second-rate version. But they do want to understand you, and they will notice when you care about their understanding.

  • There’s a trend in presentations, driven by a TED-like style, to put fewer and fewer words on slides. In principle, I’m totally in favor of this. Nobody likes a presentation where people read off their slides. However, a few words on slides are awesome for people whose English isn’t as fluent as yours — especially terms that you are going to use a lot. People like knowing how to spell things correctly. Don’t try to be super cool and go full minimalist with your slides.
  • Phrasal verbs in English can be particularly hard to master. Just think about “cut off” vs. “cut up” vs. “cut over” vs. “cut in” vs. “cut out” vs. “cut down” vs. “cut back” and you’ll see how confusing it can be when you recommend “cutting back” on something, or asking someone to “cut it out”. So, you might try saying “decreasing” or asking someone to “please stop” instead.
  • But, in general, you don’t need to try too hard to avoid slang or figures of speech. This can back you into awkward corners and make you sound like you’re over-modifying your language. Any time you slip something slangy into a conversation, just restate it in other words right afterwards. People have told me they really appreciate this. A couple examples from my last few days: “Sometimes management can lock horns, meaning they can find themselves in a conflict that’s hard to get out of.” “I’m floored by how many applicants we had — I had no idea so many people would apply.” “Argh, just a sec, my phone is blowing up again — people have been calling me all day today.” This also helps people learn new figures of speech, something they might be interested in.

In Meetings

  • Pausing between paragraphs is really important. You need to make sure that people have space to think and react. They may not be quick enough with English to interrupt you. This is going to feel slow and weirdly regal at first, like you’re making a royal proclamation instead of asking about travel reimbursement, but you absolutely must train yourself to do it.
  • After somebody else finishes a sentence, don’t jump right on their last word. As you would in a conference call, leave a space before you talk. If you’re not careful with this, you’ll end up unintentionally dominating the conversation, just because you’re the fastest.
  • Meetings shouldn’t be pure discussions. Using visuals and drawings can be incredibly helpful. Talking about a process? Illustrate it on a whiteboard with arrows. Not sure that you’re on the same page about how a few things relate? Draw a Venn diagram. Also, if you’re discussing a document or presentation, print it out and physically work on it together. Point at it, mark it up, cut it into pieces and rearrange it. Or use remote collaboration tools that allow you to do the same sort of thing.
  • I often have the problem that I listen too closely to a colleague’s words. Their actual English words are likely to be the least accurate and least expressive part of their communication. Give a lot more weight to body language and facial expression — and be aware that they’re going to do the same for you.
  • Take breaks! I’ve started factoring breaks into my meeting plans so that everyone has time to rest their brains. (In Berlin, this happens naturally, because so many people smoke. But breaks are a great idea for non-smokers as well.) This is also a time when people can ask for clarification without embarrassing themselves in front of the group.

In Email, Text, or Chat

  • Be concise. Every word you’re writing is a word that your recipient has to read: this sounds obvious, but sometimes we forget. Keep the word count down.
  • Make your message very clear, especially your request. This is doubly true for me, because I work with Germans, who are famously direct. The American habit of softening and burying a request is just confusing and pointless to them.
  • A long email can look like you expect the same in return, but that might be a big burden on your recipient. Don’t expect others to reply in kind. Have a conversation with them about how they like to communicate with you. One German colleague and I have worked really intensely on our email habits. I now say at the very beginning of any long English email to her, “no reply necessary” or “a yes/no reply is fine” or “let’s talk about this in person tomorrow.” What is particularly awesome here is that I’m not the only one adapting: she and I made up an abbreviation for her to use that means “this short, to-the-point email might seem irritated or grumpy, but don’t worry, we’re cool, everything’s fine.”
  • This one is hard but very important: try not to guess the sender’s emotional state. Tone seems off — too abrupt, too vague, too direct? Salutation or closing is a little weird? Word choice seems funky, or maybe way too strong? (A colleague emailed me that she needed a document “desperately”, which I did my best to interpret as “I really need this document ASAP” instead of “I feel a deep, painful longing that will not be fulfilled until I get this document”.) You absolutely have to ignore this and focus on the content. Above all, do not tell the other person that their communication style is off-putting. Take a deep breath and have some empathy: apart from the subtleties of expressing emotions in a non-native language, different cultures have very different norms about how much of that emotion should even be reflected in business communication at all. A savvy French friend told me, “Happy Americans send really happy emails; annoyed Americans send pleasant emails. Happy French people send happy emails; annoyed French people send neutral emails. Happy Germans send pleasant emails; annoyed Germans send annoyed emails.” If you’re reading an email and trying to tell whether a non-native speaker is happy or annoyed, you are really shooting in the dark. Want to know how they feel? Until you get used to their style, you’ll probably have to do a lot of asking. For example: “Was it a problem for you that I didn’t communicate this deadline earlier?” “Did you think the overall quality of the report was okay?” “Was it all right with you that I started this meeting without you when your train was late?”

Correcting Others’ English

What about correcting people? It’s not as simple as “don’t do it,” because there’s a good chance some people are pretty pumped about improving their English by working with a native speaker. It’s important to talk about this explicitly, because when you point out someone’s English mistakes, the privilege you have over them is really laid bare. I use a consent model: unless someone has said they want to be corrected, I do not correct them. And I never, ever correct people in front of others in a work setting.

If somebody does say that they’d like you to help them with their English, try this very gentle technique: continue the conversation while repeating back a corrected version of the last sentence.

You can work a restatement into your next sentence: “Where’s the stapler? I am always having the stapler right here.” Instead of saying “Do you want to borrow mine?”, say “Yeah, you do always have the stapler right here. Do you want to borrow mine?”

Or ask a question, repeating a little more of the previous sentence than you might otherwise: “I was working by the university Sunday.” Instead of just asking “why?”, try asking “why were you working at the university on Sunday?”

If you master this, people trying to improve their English will love you for it. They get to learn without being called out for being wrong.

Now, you don’t always have to be this subtle, and it’s taken me a full year of practice to make this a natural-sounding part of my conversations. If you are tactful, kind, and selective about it, a more direct approach can be fine. For example, I recently corrected somebody’s word usage in a press release, even though it had already been posted. She was appreciative and took it well, because I a) asked first and b) proposed an alternative, explaining why it was better. And I once corrected somebody’s pronunciation, something I’d never usually do, but it went over well because a) I did it in private, and b) I noticed she had stumbled over the same word several times in the past few days and seemed annoyed about it.

And, don’t forget: don’t fix everything. You could spend days correcting prepositions, because prepositions in English are freaking hard. But this is probably not your job. For the most part, just let others’ small mistakes wash over you, and focus on what you’re trying to get done together.

This may all sound like basic etiquette and politeness. It’s not — it’s much, much more. This really hit me about six months ago, when I was talking with a German colleague at the end of a long day. Or rather, I was running my mouth and making companionable chatter about the events of the day, and she wasn’t saying much back besides the occasional “mmmm, yeah.”

Something was definitely not good. This was a smart, social, extroverted colleague who I valued highly and cared about having an open, friendly relationship with, and she was totally shutting down. “You know what, sorry, I think I might be annoying you right now,” I said. She put a hand on my arm and said, “Molly, I really don’t find you annoying. But often I find you overwhelming.”

The last thing you and I want to do is overwhelm. We work across language barriers, not because it’s glamorous or fun or easy, but because we care about collaborating with people who are different from us, even when it’s a massive pain in the butt. And non-native speakers are committing to this collaboration even more than we are: they’re reaching out to us by working in English. Now it’s on us English speakers to do our part, to examine and really work on our communication behaviors, and to extend our colleagues and professional communities the care and consideration they deserve.

I’d love any further hints from native English speakers, or from non-native speakers who have additional ideas or requests.

Edit 1, July 6, 2016: A few people have pointed out to me that these behaviors are best practices for inclusivity in a wide range of situations. For example, words on slides can help with accessibility, and using visuals in meetings can help engage people who process information in different ways. By all means, use these tips anywhere they’re useful!

Thanks to Noémie Huck & Casey Callendrello for their thoughts and feedback. Originally posted on my blog.