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5 Tough Situations Faced By Non-Native Employees (And How To Handle Them)

Living and working in an English-speaking country isn’t as simple as mastering the grammar. There are so many customs and nuances to pick up on that hardly a week goes by when even the most competent non-native English speakers aren’t faced with one of the following situations in the workplace.

Struggling to Keep Up With Slang in Casual Conversation

Many new English speakers report that they have more trouble understanding native English speakers than they do non-native English speakers. In fact, they find it easier to communicate with other people who’ve just learned English, even if their first languages aren’t the same.

This is because “classroom English” - the kind you learn in school that is heavily based on grammar and vocabulary - is a big equalizer. People who grew up with English pepper their speech with regional words, slang, and colloquialisms making it very difficult for someone who learned textbook English to keep up.

Also: Native English speakers tend to speak rather quickly.

Tip: If you regularly find yourself in this situation, it’s a sign that your English language practice has evolved past textbooks and needs to move into the real world.

  • Say yes to invitations to go out for lunch or drinks. The thought of keeping up with the conversation may be intimidating, but it is much easier to pick up expressions when you’re forced to listen.

Keeping Up With Organizational Terms and Industry-Specific Lingo

Every industry is awash with buzzwords and expressions. Even people who have worked in an industry for years have trouble keeping up with the latest terms. The difference is that those people have the experience to know when a buzzword is an unnecessary fad. For a non-native English speaker who has just entered an organization, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed and insecure about using these terms.

And sometimes, it isn’t about specific lingo. There are some industries where there is an entirely different manner and tone for addressing people. The hospitality industry is a great example. Even if you treat your friends with love and respect, you don’t speak to a hotel guest the same way you speak to a friend.

Tip: Avoiding awkward interactions with customers or silences with colleagues requires practice.

  • Search for lists of buzzwords in your industry. Believe us when we tell you that it’s not just you who’s lost. There are several lists online with clear definitions of organizational terms, workplace lingo, and industry specific expressions.
  • Watch movies tied to your industry. Maid in Manhattan is a fun movie that demonstrates the difference between speaking with guests and colleagues, whether you’re a maid or a manager at a hotel.
  • Sign up for a business communications training. Learning the terms from a professional instructor will speed up the process.

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Misunderstandings That Arise From Cultural Differences

In the workplace and in social settings, there are several opportunities for awkward moments. Ever notice a colleague suddenly become cold to you after a meeting you thought went well? Chances are, you committed to a small social infraction you hadn’t even noticed.

Things like not engaging in chit chat or not starting a request the “right” way can cause tensions between co-workers. Here are a few things to remember for your next meeting or interaction to avoid any awkward workplace situations:

  • Start requests with “I would appreciate it if…” or “If you have a moment, would you…?” It may seem like a waste of time when you’d rather be direct, but in U.S., Canadian, and British workplace environments, perceived politeness is important.
  • Don’t avoid chit chat. While it may seem more efficient to jump straight into things at a meeting, this is often viewed as abrupt. Spend a minute or two asking people how their day was or how their trip was if they’re coming from out of town.

Missing Important Details in Meetings

Meetings are a mix of everything that is exasperating for non-native English speakers. There’s a lot of chit chat, indirect requests, industry jargon, and slang.

Tip: Look for ways to get the gist of the meeting. Try:

  • Suggesting an agenda be sent beforehand and minutes be sent afterwards. Phrase this request politely, so it doesn’t sound like you’re judging the disorganization of previous meetings.
  • Reviewing the agenda. Come prepared with specific ideas and notes so that you have something concrete to contribute.
  • Speak up if you miss something. If necessary, don’t be afraid to ask people to repeat themselves. This actually makes the speaker feel like they’ve said something you consider worthy of writing down.

Navigating Networking Events

Networking events are a fantastic way to make new contacts and advance professionally. But they are such a mix of the social and the professional that the thought of attending one fills a lot of people with anxiety, especially if English is not their first language.

Tip: Don’t avoid these. Not only are they a great way to meet other people in your industry, they are also a fantastic opportunity to practice your conversation skills.

  • Set a goal in advance. Commit to introducing yourself to at least one person and raise that number every few events. This way, you go in with a specific goal and leave after you’ve hit that number without feeling like you’ve wasted an evening.
  • Don’t be afraid to initiate conversation. Simply walk up to people and introduce yourself and don’t be discouraged if nothing comes of it right after. It takes time to build relationships, so exchange names, add them on LinkedIn afterwards, and if you see them at a future event, be sure to say hello so you can solidify your name and face in their memory.
  • Pay attention to the pre-networking talk or conference. Networking events are usually prefaced by a presentation or a workshop. Make mental notes of interesting points so you can have something to talk about with new acquaintances.

Navigating social norms and smoothing ruffled feathers is exhausting, but it is entirely possible with some confidence, practice, and perseverance.

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