Le chat amongst les pigeons: plain English in meetings

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‘Well that put the cat among the pigeons,’ a lawyer colleague of mine once opined whilst on a conference call to French clients.

‘Quoi?’ screamed the awkward and protracted silence down the ‘phone.

‘Chats?’

‘Pigeons?’

‘Un chat parmi les pigeons?’

By this point, the conversation had moved on and, sadly, the French clients had missed the point entirely on liquidated damages: the fact that damages must be a genuine pre-estimate of the loss; and that penalties are not permitted in English law.

They were still trying to work out why the charming English lawyer suddenly interjected with a discussion about his cat unexpectedly being inserted into a flock of pigeons.

Now, I speak French. My Gallic shrug is among the best. It took years of hard and determined practice.

However, I know from bitter experience that cute little turns of phrase in French, whilst adding much colour and character to the language, make it so much more difficult to understand—in business and legal contexts in particular.

So imagine what it must be like for any speaker of a foreign language when they are trying to understand the complexities of English law through the medium of English idioms?

Many British (including me) work in such a unilingual environment that we simply forget to speak clearly. We forget that for many people English is a second or even third language. It is remarkably common to forget this. It remains one of the greatest complaints I receive when speaking to my overseas friends and business contacts:

Sometimes I only get about half of the conversation!

So here, in no particular order are a few tips on how to make yourself understood when working with people who do not have English as a first language in client meetings:

  • Shout at them and speak to them v e r y    s   l   o   w   l   y   in an incredibly patronising tone. Or perhaps don't. Speak slowly, certainly, but being the stereotypical ‘Brit abroad’ won’t help
  • Don’t use slang, acronyms and jargon that non-native speakers don’t understand
  • Don’t use sarcasm. Really, don’t. Whilst I personally find it intensely amusing, it is possibly one of the worst ways to communicate
  • Avoid using cultural or religious references. Not everybody in the world grew up watching Grange Hill or knows who Vera Duckworth is (Grange Hill is a Tube station and Vera Duckworth is a famous World War 2 singer, or soap actress, or something)
  • Remember that speaking in a non-native language can be an emotional experience. I’m not talking tears here, but it may make speakers more nervous, brusque or quiet than they would normally be
  • Check understanding by paraphrasing key points
  • Send follow-up notes where appropriate: reading in a foreign language is so much easier than speaking it
  • Bear in mind that non-native speakers may less forthcoming or even feel resentful when speaking in a foreign language. I certainly used to find this when I used to negotiate in French. Whereas my French-speaking colleagues had oodles of ways of saying the same thing—it is amazing how much repetition there is in a typical conversation—I usually did not. A lack of nuanced language from me would sometimes make negotiations more difficult than they ought to be (although a well-placed shrug could often cut through the ice very well indeed)

So there. Not too tricky really.

Or so it would seem. Frankly, it is all too easy to slip back into 'default language mode'. So perhaps make a note on your notepad during meetings to do the above? Or at the very least make a note to speak more slowly and clearly.

After all, there seems very little point in calling an important meeting and have the attendees arrive at great cost, in terms of both time and money, only for them to leave dazed thinking:

‘quoi?’

PS Talking about languages, have a look at this post from one of my colleagues, Rachel Buchanan: Are you speaking the right language? 'Being able to understand the client’s language can assist the conduct of business, breaks down barriers and enables lawyers to take into account the cultural background of the client and solution.' Indeed.

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