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  • Chai Eng Law

Navigating the labyrinth of Business Communication

Has this ever happened to you? You are in a group with other speakers of English language; there is an animated discussion going on; and while everyone is conversing in English, you feel like a fish out of water.

Before we proceed, let me give you some context. I am from an academic background. I used to work, as a language teacher in a foreign language institute and then went on to teach in a school before joining the corporate world. I vividly remember, in the first few months at my organization, I went around completely in a daze. Fortunately, I had a colleague who decoded the corporate jargon for me and who made sure that the culture shock was as minimal as possible. I was also fortunate to be part of a team which empathized with me and gave me the space and time to get a bearing on things around me.

Things which I respond to automatically today, things which I have internalized over time, and have become intuitive to some extent, needed constant reminders and gentle nudges from the entire team. Take for example sending an email. Of course, I knew how to send emails, but until I joined the corporate world, most of the emails I had exchanged were personal ones where I could afford to ignore the subject line and nobody would raise an eyebrow. Needless to say, it was a completely different ballgame in my new world. More often than not, I would send out an email without a subject, only to realise after I clicked on the send button, that I had goofed up! What followed next was a slap on the forehead, followed by a rush of adrenalin, as I quickly went to the sent box and recalled the mails. I must have recalled a zillion emails before I systematically filled in the subject of the emails I sent out. Of course, there would be times when I would not even realise that I had clicked on send sans subject until I would get an email from my boss, with one word in the body of the email followed by a question mark: Subject? In my desperation, I stuck a post-it on my desktop. On it, written in capital letters were the words: WRITE SUBJECT IN EMAIL!

Then of course came the many subtleties of Business Communication, I was hitherto unaware of, not to mention the acronyms and jargons specific to the industry. I discovered that when you were not satisfied with a solution provided or when someone was not being cooperative, you escalated the matter instead of lodging a complaint. I also learnt that when some functionality was not working as it should, you raised a ticket and awaited its resolution. In this brave new world, you filled in your time sheet and not the attendance register and when you went on leave, you set up your OOO. An employee was an associate, the library was the IRC, and your employee ID was your unique identification within the organisation.

When you wanted to find out what skills a person had, you looked up her/his acquired competencies and when you referred to someone’s core competencies you were basically talking about the person’s area of expertise! Then there are the horizontals and the verticals which did not refer to horizontal and vertical lines but rather to things spread across domains or specific to a particular domain. Of course, you could also work in a horizontal or a vertical which basically refers to your function addressing the needs of people across the board, hence a horizontal or catering to a particular group, hence a vertical!

To add to my woes, there seemed to be an unending (inexhaustive) list of 3 letter acronyms which never ceased to flummox me. Barely had I got used to OOO, that I learnt about EOD and EOW. If EOD referred to the End of Day and EOW to the end of week, EOM in emails did not refer to end of month but rather to End of Message! I remember my confusion when, on being unable to attend a meeting I was told that I would be receiving MoM. Of course, I freaked out and wondered what Mom was doing in office, and why she hadn’t told me she would visit! I joined the corporate world as a foreign language expert, gradually I morphed into a subject matter expert (SME). In order to find out the success of a program, we spoke of how KPIs were crucial while calculating the ROI!

Today as I work from home (WFH), I realize that with the passage of time, I use these very terms I once struggled with, rather effortlessly now. When I joined the corporate world, I knew how to communicate in English. I spoke the language fluently, wrote it fairly seamlessly, yet the transition from Communicating in English to Business Communication in English gave me many a nightmares. You would think that after spending more than 6 years in the corporate world, I would know the ins and outs of Business Communication like the back of my hand. Yet, as recent as yesterday I was introduced to LOA (Letter of Appreciation) and NAR (No Action Required)! Even after 6 years of Business Communication every day, I still feel like a newbie. Every once in a while, in discussions between a mixed group of friends and acquaintances, when the conversations glide from English to Business Communication in English, I am out of my depth. My instinctive reaction in such situations is to interrupt the conversation (rather rudely) and ask everyone to please speak English!

As Trainers of Business Communication, how do we help our learners make this transition smoothly?

How do we make them realise that just like there is British English, American English, Australian English and Indian English (among others), there is also Business English which paradoxically is as pervasive as it is exclusive?

How can we introduce them to the wonders of Business English and ensure that they are not fooled by the familiarity or overwhelmed by the differences?

In today’s global, virtual world, can excellence in Business Communication and Articulation be the differentiator?

What’s your take on it?


Chai can be reached on LinkedIn here.

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