I work as a salesman in an international electronics company based in China and my name is Li Jie. Working with an international group of clients and colleagues means that English is generally our business language. I must admit that speaking English was a struggle for me at first. I constantly messed up tenses and was hesitant to speak for fear of using the wrong vocabulary.
I remember once talking on the phone with a customer. I couldn't remember the English word for one of our parts, and rather giving some sort of explanation I just froze. After what seemed like an eternity the customer even asked if I was still on the line. It was hard to pull myself out of that panic, and I know I'm not alone in this sort of experience. But we learn from our mistakes and those of others, so I'd like to offer you some tips on business communication based on how I learned English.
With these tips, I hope you can avoid some of the pitfalls and cultural mistakes I have made:
- Don't use double negatives.
English is not fond of using a negative form twice in one sentence because the negatives cancel each other out. Look at a sentence such as "The contract will terminate if no services are not provided for a period exceeding one month". A native speaker will understand the opposite of what you probably mean: "the contract will terminate if services are provided for a period exceeding one month." If you already have some form of "no" in the sentence, don't use another negation.
- Remember where to place the word "also".
This one gave me trouble for a long time, but now that I've mastered it I can hear how it just sounds wrong to a native speaker. The proper place for "also" is between the subject and the verb, not after the verb. For example, "I also left the invoice on your desk" and not "I left also the invoice on your desk".
- Remember your body language.
Too many people are timid when speaking English as a second language, avoiding eye contact or closing off their bodies. This is a business no-no. Confidently look into your customer's eyes and the confidence will follow in your speech.
- Be mindful of cultural differences.
I once confused an American customer because I forgot that in US English the date 4/11/2015 would be read as 11 April rather than as 4 November. The boss wasn't happy.
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