“That sounds great, but I hate it.” The case for diplomatic English

“That sounds great, but I hate it.” The case for diplomatic English.

The increasing need for diplomatic English language skills in the European Union and across Europe. Guest post by Eric Frison

“It’s not only important to know *what* to say, but also *how* to say it”

With the Brexit in full swing, the United Kingdom is soon to lose its influence on a small, unexpected domain: the de-facto use of English at the European Union. Ireland will be the only anglophone country left, and the other 26 member countries will have to move forward in a language that isn’t their own.

But the E.U. is only one example of a broader issue across Europe. Management teams are increasingly more international and their linguistic expectations are becoming more demanding. Governments and national agencies, who once concentrated primarily on domestic issues, are working together – in English – in order to define norms and regulations that are applied at a European level.

But these professionals aren’t your typical, lower-intermediate English students; many of them are well-educated and have a more than working knowledge of English, especially by French standards. But as they move up the professional echelons, it starts to become clear something is missing: how to speak diplomatically. It’s not only important to know what to say, but also how to say it. A message must be worded or “packaged” a certain way in English, due to cultural and psychological reasons. In fact, the real issue is less about linguistics, and has more to do with psychology and identity; what does a language communicate beyond the literal meanings of its words? How do I use a language to convey aspects about myself and my personality?

A case in point is what psychologists call negativity bias. In short, human beings don’t react the same way to positive statements as negative ones, even if they describe the same situation (e.g. “we are keeping half the staff” vs. “we are laying-off half the staff”). Research has shown that our brain will hold more importance to negative statements in creating a judgment of a person’s character and personality. This is especially true in a situation like a meeting or working group where the expectations are rather positive, such as cooperation and reaching a consensus.

An effective solution to this is “the sandwich”, one of the most common tips for speaking diplomatically. The idea is simple: if you have something negative to say, you always “sandwich” it between two positive statements. For example, “That’s an interesting idea, but it’s not exactly what we’re looking for. Do you have any other suggestions?” The refusal is clearly stated, but to counter balance its inherent negativity – which may cause your counterpart to feel insulted or doubtful about their contribution – the positive statements indicate a recognition of quality and an interest in their work.

Anglophones will even apply this technique in affirmative statements, where they wish to add additional positive innuendo. A good example is the abundant use of positive adverbs: we don’t just answer “yes”, but rather, “yes, definitely“, just to give it that extra positive “oomph” at the end – even when it’s by no means definite at all.

Certain adverbs can also be used for “signposting” at the beginning of sentences to indicate what kind (often negative) of answer is coming. A linking adverb such as “actually” or “unfortunately” warns your counterpart there is an issue with their request or their expectations won’t be met. It’s also a way to take a step back from the declarative quality of your answer, making it less aggressive: “it’s not possible” versus “unfortunately, it’s not possible”.

Once a student starts to adopt these techniques of diplomatic English, they tend to confront another overlooked element of language: identity. For example, how comfortable, or “true to yourself”, do you feel when you incorporate a bateau-load of positive statements as recommended above? It can be a bit of a hard sell in a country like France, where a smile is often granted on a near once-in-a-lifetime basis. Furthermore, a serious, sophisticated intellectual could perceive being too friendly or positive as an unwanted trait, associated with a jolly, dare I say, provincial simpleton.

Current research provides a way forward: each new language requires a new identity, even if it might need to be different from one’s “own”. Certain personalities, such as “whimsical intellectual” or “friendly jock”, don’t always translate or exist in other cultures, and can be read as “goofy French guy”, or “overstuffed blockhead”. The definition of our own identity requires not only an assessment of ourselves, but how and where to fit within a certain culture.

“Each new language requires a new identity, even if it might need to be different from one’s ‘own’.”

Understandably, (that’s me signposting) this is all a heavy task, but the best approach is to take a more optimistic, “glass half full” perspective. Like a Michelin-star serveur passing from the kitchen to the dining room, a person can adapt the way they speak to their environment, providing the image or personality they see fit. This is because an identity is not necessarily imposed but rather created, and can be guided in the particular direction. It’s not always an easy thing to do, but being conscious of ones public persona can have a big impact on the motivation and investment in a language, especially at higher levels of proficiency.

It’s clear that as globalization expands its influence, so will the need to communicate correctly in English, whether it be in a board meeting or a coffee-break with a European colleague. Even with the British jumping ship, English has proven to be the lingua franca of today, and the key to communicating effectively with other professionals across Europe.

The London School of English offers these additional diplomatic English pointers.

diplomatic EnglishThe author is a professional business English teacher for some of the world’s biggest multinational companies. He also offers workshops dedicated to his research on “diplomatic English” as well as the language difficulties encountered at the E.U. level. He hopes his articles provide an insight into the language challenges that many professionals face today as they work increasingly in a European or international context.
Contact: eric.frison@mail.com