The Importance of Small Talk

Communicating in American English in workplace-related subjects, while challenging, can be accomplished with practice and effort by immigrants working in a corporate or medical business environment. Carrying on ‘’small talk’’ is something quite different. Casual and unscripted conversation with native speakers of American English is an essential component of language development and social integration. Social conversation is especially difficult for Chinese immigrants. A new study, by Research on Public Policy in Canada has found that Mandarin speaking immigrants had made little or no significant progress in their clarity of speech, fluency, and intelligibility after seven years in an English-speaking environment. Researchers also found that the Mandarin speakers in their study had significantly fewer conversations of significant duration with native and non-native speakers of English than did their counterparts from other language backgrounds. There are many possible reasons for this gap in communication. Mainland Chinese learn English from textbooks through reading and writing with no opportunity to work on listening and speaking skills. As an American high school student, I learned French in this manner, with 90% of classroom instruction as grammar and translation. To this day, I am unable to comfortably conduct a conversation in French, although I can read it and write it fluently. If people are uncomfortable with being able to speak and comprehend English well, they will feel discouraged or afraid about participating in a conversation because they are afraid that others don’t understand them. Better to keep their dignity….and their silence. Additionally, silence is considered by the Chinese to be a virtue reflecting humility. Unfortunately for them, in the West, people tend to expect and appreciate participation and speaking out, so their silence or discomfort is not received well by colleagues or supervisors. To a greater or lesser extent, the experiences of other immigrant groups can mirror the challenges faced by the Chinese and the American workplace suffers from the lack of small talk and camaraderie between native and foreign-born speakers of English. A focus on listening, speaking, and pronunciation in workplace language training is a good way to break down these fears. Providing a ‘’safe place’’ at work with an instructor who is not a co-worker who might judge them negatively can be a powerful help to immigrants who speak English only during the day for business and resume use of their native language when they return home at the end of the day. To foster the soft skill of engaging in casual conversation, break room or cafeteria tables can be set aside in gathering places as “English Only” tables. This can serve both to encourage the immigrants to speak socially to one another in the common language of English as well as to invite native-English speaking co-workers who wish to interact more with those whose native language is not English. Common gathering rooms can become more ‘’mosaics’’ than “silos” of various language groups. Communication is a two-way street. The burden of communication should not rest solely on the shoulders of the non-native speaker. Native speakers should not “zone out” or shut down when they are communicating with someone who speaks with an accent, but seek more sensitive interaction. Creating a relationship’ with a sensitive, trusted native speaker will go a long way towards helping the skilled foreign-born worker overcome his conversational and listening challenges

Upspeak is Not Speaking Up

Upspeak is NOT Speaking Up Upspeak ( Uptalk) had its beginning in the era of the Valley Girl in California. It has since spread its tentacles across the years to wrap around the speaking habits of both women and men of all ages. Why is this phenomenon significant? Because Upspeakers unknowingly compromise the quality of the competent, knowledgeable leadership image that they want to project.

Columnist Hank Davis writes, in The Uptalk Epidemic,

“It’s a nasty habit. It is the very opposite of confidence or assertiveness. It’s gotten all out of control. These days, even statements about which there should be no question or doubt are presented in this tentative, timid and deferential manner.”

When statements and assertions sound like questions, your credibility and competence can be doubted. When you give advice or offer an educated assessment of a set of facts, the perception of your expertise gets chipped away when you sound like you are asking a question. Would you want to be represented by or rely on the advice someone who sounds unsure and tentative? Tentative is the dark side of Confident. Your voice should reflect everything you want your listener to believe about you. You have substance. You are in control. You are knowledgeable. You have the answer….not that you are unsure of yourself and are seeking validation.

In less than a second, the time it takes to say “hello,” we make a snap judgment about someone’s personality, says Jody Kreiman, a UCLA researcher who studies how we perceive voice. On hearing just a brief utterance, we decide whether to approach the person or to avoid them. I would add that in that same split second, we decide if that person has “gravitas” and has the expertise to solve our problem, address our concerns, represent our interests.

I’ve personally witnessed Upspeak at the highest levels of Fortune 100 companies, and I’ve heard it used as a reason to deny a promotion or discredit an idea. A wise career move is to take the time to analyze your own speaking patterns and snuff out Upspeak. Record yourself in a variety of speaking situations and LISTEN objectively. Become your own audience. Elicit feedback from a trusted friend or colleague. To be perceived as a leader and person of substance, you must not only LOOK like a leader with a polished physical image, you must also SOUND like a leader with a polished Vocal Image.

Reducing accent helps people land jobs

 A very real barrier to securing new employment can be a heavy accent.  A hiring manager is reluctant to bring someone onto the team who is difficult to understand and will generate miscommunication issues and errors on the job.  A job seeker can  improve his or her chances for employment at an appropriate skill level by getting more control of correct pronunciation and fluency in English.  Poor language skills can be perceived as lack of expertise in other things.

An example:  After only five private lessons with a skilled speech and language professional from Language Directions, LLC, D.S, a New Jersey computer programmer was able to move to a higher level position in a prestigious Manhattan company.  He had realized that it was not his skill set, but his accent that was the career obstacle.  Similarly, when we met him,  Z.L. was a skilled internet engineer with advanced degrees and an impressive resume, yet he was unable to advance past a screening telephone interview to be able to meet with a hiring manager.   Many foreign-born university professors face similar challenges when they look over the lectern and see the panicky faces of students who cannot understand the important points of the professor’s lecture and cannot adequately master the material.  The “light goes out” when comprehension is not there and could have possible tenure implications for the professor and course grade of the student.

Individual and group classes are  less of a frill and more of a necessity as a stepping stone to reemployment or career advancement.  A package of private pronunciation  lessons is a reasonable investment.  Even the heaviest accent can be reduced 50-60% at a cost lower than the cost of a 3 credit course in a public university.  

Most people who have had coaching  to improve their speech  wish they had done it sooner.  They have shared with us that improving their pronunciation has given them a competitive edge for a new job opportunity or promotion.   According to S.P., a native of India , “that’s why I took it. I wanted to succeed, to go forward and to get better jobs. And that is necessary. You want people to understand you.”

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Language and Cultural and Its Impact on a Company’s Success

We’ve all experienced difficulty at one time or another speaking a second language or understanding someone speaking English as a second language (ESL). Imagine that difficulty in the workplace and how it impacts a company’s operation. Misunderstandings can cause financial loss through errors or lost time.

Differences in language and culture impact business operations in many ways, on the plant floor, with customer service, on company morale or simply day-to-day operations.
We all use short hand or idioms in our speech.  We take them for granted however for individuals whose native tongue isn’t English they can be confusing.  Even between people whose primary language is English, misunderstandings or misinterpretations occur on a regular basis.  Questions such as “Do you understand” or “Call if you have questions” often don’t help because the person may believe they understand so don’t ask any questions.  Often the lack of questioning is a result of fear—looking less than competent, or because they genuinely believe they understand what is being asked of them.  In that case it is not until the task has been completed that the misunderstanding is realized.

Whether the ESL speaker is a company worker or customer it is important for companies to understand how to operate in a multi language or multicultural business environment.  As employers it is in our best interest to create a work environment that speaks to the challenges of a multi-language and cultural world.

NJMEP resource Sharlene Vichness shared a few of her experiences in how language had impacted her clients operations and the remedy used to improve the situation.  
  • One company was experiencing a low percentage of employees participating in its benefit plans.  Due to difficulty in understanding the open enrollment presentations, ESL workers weren’t enrolling. With the help of a bilingual facilitator, who answered questioned and assisted in completing forms, enrollment went from 20% to 70%.  

  • An upscale supermarket opened in a new location and hired employees that were not proficient in English.  When customers would approach them with questions about where to find product they would run away, creating a less than ideal situation for the shopper and long term, a disaster for the business.  Using the weekly flyer as the impetus for learning English, sessions were built around answering customers’ questions regarding material in the flyer. Employees developed confidence in their language skills and welcomed the opportunity to assist the customers.
Ms. Vichness pointed out that OSHA requires safety training be taught in a language that workers understand.  Image the challenge offered a non-English speaking/reading worker when confronted with “push” and “pull.”  These two words could easily be misinterpreted as they both begin with “pu” and are four letters.  Confusing these two actions could result in misunderstanding what action to take resulting in an incident or accident.

Cultural differences can also lend themselves to misunderstanding, creating difficulty in the work place.  Different cultures have different mores regarding personal space, eye contact and physical contact. Educating workers as to the differences promotes an understanding of behaviors or actions reducing the opportunity for misunderstandings, harassment claims or lost business.

If your workforce and/or customer base is multi-cultural it is well worth your while to think about how much it may be impacting your business. Would it be helpful to provide facilitators when introducing programs or training to your workforce?  Does the customer service department speak clearly and slowly so that your customers have an easy time doing business with your company? Is equipment clearly marked so in an emergency there are no questions as to what action to take?  Have customers been lost because of cultural misunderstanding?  If planning equipment upgrades will the loyal workers who have run the old machines for years get the training in a language that is best suited for them to succeed with the new challenge?

Language and culture impacts everything, both in and out of the workplace. Stay aware and stay current on issues that can impact the success of your company. If you need help with any of the areas discussed in this article please call NJMEP at 973-998-9801 or email us at To learn more about how NJMEP can assist your organization please visit