Sunday, June 15, 2008

The predictability of the American language

Before I write this, I would like to put in a disclaimer that this article is not an attempt to make a dig at the US or its citizens or its constituents. I have some seriously wonderful friends all over the US and I have tremendous respect for them and indeed folks in that country. This article should be read in its spirit of joy, humour and indeed sensitivity! Just tongue-in-cheek and no more! Here goes:

Over the many years that I have been interacting with US clients, colleagues, bosses etc, I have learnt of their mannerisms, their way of life, their approach to work, their professionalism and indeed about the immense weight they place on work-life balance. But, this article is not about any of that. It is about their way of speaking and the terms they use in normal, day-to-day conversation.

We've all grown up watching a Santa Barbara or a Bold & the Beautiful or have been keyed in to Oprah Winfrey shows. More recently, the fame and popularity of the Friends' series, or Sex & the City and others, have exposed us to a wide array of things about the American way of life. But, in my experience, a casual conversation with an American can actually be pretty predictable and indeed, test the point of being "templatized". Read on!

Let's take the scenario of people from India dialing into a conference bridge number and addressing an American. First things first - the American will call it out upfront and ask you, 'Is it a good time to talk?” This has kept me nonplussed for years now - I mean, the call is a scheduled call; we sent the American on the other side of the planet as it were; there is an advance notification of the call; we set up the bridge numbers and sent him he conference call details via email; and still, he asks us,” Is it a good time to talk?"!! Huh!:). OK, I know they are confirming any last minute changes, but it beats me no end, that EVERY American asks this question - a handful of them asking this question is still understandable, but not every single one of them!

Or, at the start of the call, the customary statement of, "Let's make this call as interactive as we possibly can. As I run through this presentation, feel free to stop me at any point if you have any questions. I'd be happy to address them and draw the best possible outcome from this call".

Of course, the legendary, "sounds good" is the epitome of the American way of professional conversation. If they like your suggestion, or like a particular agenda, or like the hint of a particular scheme of things that look plausible, they will invariably appreciate it with their standard remark, "sounds good".

Another part of the legendary terms that the average American uses is, "Really appreciate it". And I have heard this term used in a wide variety of settings, some serious, some not so serious. Here are a few such scenarios - if you just set up a call and share the bridge numbers, if you chip in with an idea, if you cover for a bad client situation, if you send in regular updates and interim deliverables and so on.

There are set of other predictable terms that you come across while speaking to Americans -
1. Works well for me
2. Do you have a sense of the time it is likely to take to accomplish this? - The keyword, is the term, "sense", and is used in multiple ways i.e " My sense is...", "Do you have a sense of....?", or a more measured version such as, "I get a sense that the client is trying to test our skills...".
3. Am out on vacation - even if it is just a day's leave of half a day's leave! By the way, they do not necessarily understand the word leave in the context of a holiday!
4. I'm good - rarely have I come across an American who has told me that he/she is fine!
5. Thanks for your time. I really appreciate your taking time out to discuss this
6. Let's think through this situation. What is it that we are really trying to achieve here?

One of the most unique phrases that I have heard Americans use is, "I need to do a better job of...”. This is a pretty serious remark actually i.e. they are conscious that they did not do something well and are quite particular about not repeating whatever caused them to make that statement in the first place. As a related point, if they are not particularly happy with somebody's performance, they are extremely polite about it(usually). You will never hear (at least, I haven’t) an American boss tell you, "What the hell is happening?" etc. They get upset if you don't perform, but let you know in very clear and polite terms, "Is there a way you can fix this?", or , "Can you please take another look at this and get back to me?", etc. This should be indication enough that something in what you did or did not do, is not up to their expectation. Of course, they are masters at recording this in feedback sessions and performance appraisal discussions, when it hits the most!

They are also masters of casual conversation. This is true when they speak to you about your country, your culture, your background etc and is also true in situations where they are speaking to prospective clients. I personally know of 2very senior folks in the US, who actually take turns to do the following i.e. one person joins the call 2 minutes late, in order to facilitate idle talk by the first person with the prospective client & set the tone for the meeting. Amazing practice, if you ask me!

The term "great" is something one would have to get accustomed to really fast, when working with Americans. They use the word great at the drop of a hat, in situations that don't even warrant it. Great job, great work, great team, great manager, great analyst or hell, just great guy or 'this is great, thanks'!!

Net-net, I'd say they are fun-loving people who value their lives beyond an office. While there may be outsourcing et al, some of them are cognizant of the work/life imbalance that exists in many parts of India today. But then again, they are the most approachable and informal set of people that I have ever interacted with. These phrases mentioned above are (I repeat), only meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and is not meant to be derogatory.