Monday, October 30, 2017


Last time we began a discussion of how to express your knowledge and ideas clearly to an American audience. Two key points were made:
  1. An idea is communicated clearly only if it is presented in the style of the dominant culture.
  2. Various cultures conceptualize ideas in different ways, and the educational systems of those cultures further reinforce that pattern.
Based on Robert B. Kaplan’s work, mentioned last time, we can identify several different patterns around the world to convey an idea. Let’s review the American pattern, illustrating the thinking process for an American speaker with an arrow.

The American pattern is illustrated simply. The “American arrow” has a straight shaft with an arrowhead (representing the conversational “point”) at its end. That’s all, direct and unembellished, like the traditional “straight-talker.”

When writing, Americans are taught to lead with a topic sentence that states the main thesis from the outset. Only later can information be added to further clarify or prove the point. When writing, this is done in the standard American “outline form” with topic, sub-topic, etc. For American students, it is thus very easy to follow a verbal explanation, since we know the subject and the key point about it from the start.

This “American pattern” is what all non-native cultures should employ when speaking to an American audience. They must be careful not to incorporate their own native cultural pattern. For instance, they should not repeat themselves insistently and seem aggressive, like the Semitic pattern would do. Nor should they give detail and other information first, and only much later state their point as a conclusion, the way Europeans would, suggesting a haughty arrogance of stated knowledge. They should not follow a Russian pattern, similar to the European one except skipping grammatical connectors that join one comment with another, leaving the impression this time of arrogance and confusion. And they should definitely avoid the very mystifying, incoherent-seeming pattern of certain cultures of Southeast and East Asia, particularly Japan (the land of few words and suggestive inference), illustrated by an arrow whose shaft winds concentrically inward, with the arrowhead-point hidden at its innermost core!

It is difficult to fully understand the foreign patterns without further examples. We’ll tackle that in succeeding Tips.

Monday, October 23, 2017


We have talked previously about how people new to America should enter conversation groups, conduct themselves in meetings, ask cogent questions, and generally get the attention of native speakers when they want to say something. It can be a formidable challenge to speak up with the right words, confident vocal power, and precise timing.

When you are recognized and it’s your turn to speak, this is a moment of utmost importance for every non-native professional. It is your chance to convey who you are, what you know, and what you offer professionally.

Faced with the challenge of communicating your competence, how do you make your point? It’s a crucial question, and one that native speakers wrestle with, too.

As you search for a solution, there is one underlying point that is absolutely central: An idea is communicated clearly only if it is presented in the style of the dominant culture.

So various cultures conceptualize ideas in different ways, and the educational systems of those cultures further reinforce that pattern.

The same information can be clear or confusing, depending on whether the listener hears it in the way s/he has been taught to understand that information. And what’s more, a point made by someone in one culture can be perceived differently by a listener from another background. It can seem rude or aggressive; pedantic or childish; arrogant and effete; brusque and inconsiderate; or just plain confusing to another culture!

If after you make a point you sense that your listeners just “don’t get it,” you may suffer from what linguists call a clarity deficit. That is, something is missing from your explanation…maybe it’s your pronunciation, confusing grammar or choice of words, or very likely a style of explanation that eludes them.

One theory relating to writing styles has great bearing on our subject here. It was first advanced in the 1960’s by Robert B. Kaplan, and later other linguists. We shall explore this next time as it relates to various culturally-determined patterns of communication. This is a crucial topic that deserves attention in upcoming Tips.

Monday, October 16, 2017


At work and in your personal life, you will want to develop rewarding relationships and meaningful friendships with those around you. Establishing such connections will enhance your life and career in America. To accomplish this, remember that good communication is all about people connecting with one another.

A productive workplace depends on colleagues getting along well. An effective team requires each member to convey cooperation. A successful business needs its end-users to feel they can count on honesty and openness from their product- or service-provider.

You must learn to communicate your value by showing you can build good relationships, that you are capable of inspiring cooperation and trust, and that you can be open with others.

How do you do this? Recent Tips have shown how to share more of yourself by avoiding moments of uncomfortable silence, by employing the “ping pong” technique in conversations to keep talk flowing, and sometimes to reveal relevant personal details. In all these ways you demonstrate a willingness to engage with others. (Still, remember early in a relationship to avoid taboo subjects such as politics, religion and sex. And if you tend to be naturally talkative, be aware that Americans may see you as self-absorbed, even selfish or arrogant if you don’t share the conversation and ask questions of others.)

Why is this emphasis on socializing and connecting so important? Why can’t you just be diligent, say what’s essential, and let your work speak for itself? Because only after you have created a sympathetic personal connection can others really hear your message and see what you have to offer.

This opening-up accounts for the common impression that Americans are “friendly.” With gestures and words of social encouragement, native speakers signal that they are approachable and open to everyone who shows a willingness to reciprocate. This kind of surface engagement serves many useful purposes. But over time, it can also develop into deep friendship, an extra bonus for a richer life in America.

Monday, October 9, 2017


“Small talk” refers to the casual remarks and topics Americans use when they want to enter a conversation, create the impression of being friendly before they know you well, or generally fill conversational space to be polite. Sometimes called “breaking the ice,” small talk allows American friendliness to enter an otherwise “frozen conversation” that would leave you standing in awkward silence, going nowhere.

Small talk is stressful for non-natives to master for several understandable reasons:
  • You may be uncomfortable jumping into a conversation without being “invited.”
  • You are not familiar with many small talk subjects, like sports, local weather, casual political generalizations, or pop culture references.
  • You may fear situations where you have no fluent vocabulary.
First, recognize that small talk is useful because Americans are uncomfortable with silence and this is a shortcut to forging relationships. Join in readily, showing you’re glad to be one of the group.

Then familiarize yourself with some common themes. The easiest is probably weather because we all experience it. Coming indoors and entering a conversation you might say (depending on the situation, obviously) “Whew, what rain out there! Glad I remembered my umbrella!” or “What a gorgeous day; I love this time of year here.” Or as you follow the important practice of responding to every remark (see an older Tip on Ping Pong Conversation), you might reply, “Yes, my windshield wipers could hardly keep up with the rain!” or “Me too; this is unusual weather for my country.”

Among men, sports is a common topic. You may not have knowledge of or enthusiasm for American sports, so that can be challenging. After someone says, “Did you see the Steelers game last night!” you might reply apologetically when you admit no, that you have a lot to learn about American football.

And in general if you have no knowledge of some reference (“What’s Congress trying to do anyway?” or “…as compatible as Beyonce and Jay-Z”), you can mirror the reaction of those around you, nodding or smiling in sympathy with the speaker.

As for vocabulary related to these sometimes unfamiliar subjects, develop some standard responses that apply to many of them. “I wish I knew more about that. Life in America is a constant education for me!”

Monday, October 2, 2017


You may think that choosing your words carefully and then expressing them should be enough to satisfy your colleagues. But conveying how much you know, the value of your ideas and insights, or your intentions as a newcomer to the group requires much more than words alone.

Listeners can hear your words with a basic approach to clear English, but you still need to convince them to believe the words, and more, to believe in you. Helping others to see you, the person behind the voice and gestures, will create the lasting, convincing impression you wish to make.

Engaging with your American colleagues, friends and other listeners is the key to successful communication. So how can you connect with people in a culturally appropriate way?
  1. Pay attention to non-verbal body language –particularly eye contact and facial expressions. Use your eyes to connect with everyone you’re talking or listening to. This invisible connection between you and others shows Americans that you are engaged and interested in the conversation. Nodding, smiling, raising eyebrows, and widening your eyes at times all signal that you are paying attention to them and their role in what’s being said.
  2. Practice “mirroring” –observe and then mimic appropriate non-verbal movements, as discussed in last week’s Tip, to perfect this important cultural skill.
  3. In casual conversations, add enough specific detail to show that you are willing to reveal yourself in the course of the discussion. Review a previous, archived Tip on “conversational ping pong” to see how this is done and how you can create interest in yourself to carry the relationship further.
Everyone –boss, colleagues, clients or any audience—must feel a heartfelt connection with you and your message. When this happens, they will respect your knowledge, believe in your ability to accomplish mutual goals, and want to engage with you.

Why is this emphasis on connecting so important? Why can’t you just be diligent, say what’s essential, and let your work speak for itself? Because only after you have created a sympathetic personal connection can others really hear your message and see what you have to offer.