It was just one word in one email, but it triggered huge financial losses for a multinational company.
The message, written in English, was sent by a native speaker to a colleague for whom English was a second language. Unsure of the word, the recipient found two contradictory meanings in his dictionary. He acted on the wrong one.
Months later, senior management investigated why the project had flopped, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. “It all traced back to this one word,” says Chia Suan Chong, a UK-based communications skills and intercultural trainer, who didn’t reveal the tricky word because it is highly industry-specific and possibly identifiable. “Things spiralled out of control because both parties were thinking the opposite.”
When such misunderstandings happen, it’s usually the native speakers who are to blame. Ironically, they are worse at delivering their message than people who speak English as a second or third language, according to Chong.
“A lot of native speakers are happy that English has become the world’s global language. They feel they don’t have to spend time learning another language,” says Chong. “But… often you have a boardroom full of people from different countries communicating in English and all understanding each other and then suddenly the American or Brit walks into the room and nobody can understand them.”
The non-native speakers, it turns out, speak more purposefully and carefully, typical of someone speaking a second or third language. Anglophones, on the other hand, often talk too fast for others to follow, and use jokes, slang and references specific to their own culture, says Chong. In emails, they use baffling abbreviations such as ‘OOO’, instead of simply saying that they will be out of the office.
结果表明，非母语者说话时更有目的性、更仔细，第二或第三语言者一般都是这样。而另一方面，蔡孙重指出英语母语者经常说得太快以至于别人听不懂，而且还会用一些自己文化背景下的笑话、俚语和名言。在电子邮件中他们会用一些莫名其妙的缩写，例如“OOO”，而不是直截了当地说自己要“out of office”。
“The native English speaker… is the only one who might not feel the need to accommodate or adapt to the others,” she adds.