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Two Countries Divided by a Common Language

When I was a recruiter in London, I realized what an archetypal American I am. As a litigator in San Francisco, I traveled with a pack of like-minded, like-presenting peers. Words were not minced. Messages were delivered without garnish. Clarity was king. You get to the point.

I moved to London and into recruiting and discovered an entirely different style of communication. It’s not just the matter of idioms (though, when you say “let’s table this,” it means exactly the opposite thing in England than it does in the U.S.). It’s about technique, goal and comfort level with incisiveness.

One time, I had to deliver negative feedback to one of my direct reports. My supervisor asked me what I had told this person about the reason for the meeting. I had done what most Americans would do—I had told this person what the meeting was about. My (prototypical English) boss turned pale, “Why would you do that?” He was apoplectic that my direct report would know that the meeting was going to be hard before it started. I thought, why would I not tell him this? It allows him to prepare; it’s both clear and a kindness.

While the difference was extremely jarring for me as I left legal practice and moved to a new country at the same time, you may find that there are some moments when communication styles become muddled if you move firms or even just begin working with a new colleague. Inconsistent communication styles are to blame for a huge percentage of office disputes. If we could truly understand each other, we would be much more likely to grant one another’s requests.

Work is one of the only venues where you have to continue interacting on a daily basis with someone who you find challenging to communicate with. You can avoid social contacts with people you find challenging in this regard and you only have to see “that uncle” once or twice a year. But if it’s a senior associate who feeds you work or a partner you report to, it’s worth honing your communication skills to make the relationship as productive and peaceful as possible. Here are some steps to take:

  • Figure out whether communicating in writing or orally works better with this person and then lean into it. Do this even if the other one is your standard, preferred method.
  • Be succinct. There’s a tendency to over explain when you don’t feel understood by someone. Instead, try to unemotionally convey the point as clearly as possible.
  • Listen and ask clarifying questions. It’s OK to even rely on some therapy-speak every now and then, such as “What I hear you saying is….”
  • Do not reply right away to an infuriating email. Wait, compose yourself and consider that you may be misinterpreting what the sender is trying to say.  I have always regretted firing off a response within seconds of sending that response.
  • Ask someone you trust at work how you’re coming across – it’s possible that you may think you’re being “direct” but others experience it as rude. (See the bullet above; this can be a two-way street.)
  • Loop in HR or ask for a one-on-one to discuss how to improve your interactions if none of these techniques are working for you.

When in England, it truly felt sometimes like I was speaking a different language from my boss and colleagues. Ultimately, your task is to find a way to communicate with everyone you are working with and receive the salient information so that everyone can do their jobs effectively.

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