Watch Your Language

by Alli Polin on October 22, 2013

Awareness of your language can build connection

When my family and I moved to Australia from the USA we knew that there would be differences in our accents, but I don’t think we realized just how different our lexicon is too.  In fact, we were quite amused when early in the school year our daughter’s teacher sent home a list of “Americanisms” that she was teaching to the class.  She wanted them to have a global awareness of differences in the spoken language.  Some of the words on the list made a lot of sense and others were just plain silly.

Language differences we’re learning to adopt:

Australian Word: Lollies
American Word: Candy

Australian Word: Trashbin
American Word: Trashcan

Australian Word: Petrol
American Word: Gasoline

Australian Phrase:  How are you going?
American Phrase:  How are you doing?

Some of the silly words taught to the class included:

Australian Word:  Chemist
American Word:  Druggist

Australian Word: Pig
American Word: Hog

Australian Word: Car
American Word: Automobile

Australian Word: Brumby
American Word: Mustang

The other night, during dinner, my son asked me to pass him a napkin and my daughter corrected him and said that we call them serviettes here.  What he said next has important lessons not only for my family but also for the world of work:

“It’s OK if we call them napkins in our home as long as we call them serviettes when we’re out.”

How many organizations do you know that have internal shorthand (jargon) and use it with external clients?  … and their clients (and prospects) nod along but most have NO IDEA what any of it really means.

When I first started working, my siblings made fun of me saying they could no longer understand a word I said since I no longer spoke English, but had apparently adopted a new language called “Ander-speak.” (I was working for Andersen Consulting at the time)  I admit, I would talk about bandwidth and decks as if they would know what I’m talking about since it was second nature at the office.

Make  ideas accessible by using words that build connection and understanding. (Click to Tweet)

Home or Away

As my son pointed out, you can use shorthand and words that are specific to your organization’s culture internally as long a you make the shift outside of your organization.

Even solo-preneurs like coaches and consultants fall into this trap, using words that have meaning from their training, or a book that they’ve read, yet wonder why these meaningful concepts and phrases fall flat with their clients.

Coach-speak:  What part of your body do you feel that in?
Coach-speak:  What’s available to you here?
Coach-speak:  Let me hold the space for you.

What does that mean???  Where is the human-speak?  Outside of your training class, most people have no idea what you’re talking about.  Outside of your classes or professional circles its essential to use words that not only you understand but also your client.

We create meaning through shared experiences, not big words. (Click to Tweet)

Talk to People Using Their Words

Throwing around language to look smart or well-trained will lose others in a heartbeat.  It doesn’t matter what words roll of your tongue if the person you’re speaking with isn’t connected to your message.  Part of making a connection is meeting people where they are, understanding their language and needs, and to flexing your style to build the relationship.

Leaders talk to people – not at or above them. (Click to Tweet)

Make the Leap ACTION:

Be aware when you’re using jargon and stop it.  Talk to other people as (gasp) people.  Save the coach-speak, consultant-speak, culture-specific speak for when you’re on your home turf.  Bottom line?  Watch your language.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Mimi Metcalfe October 22, 2013 at 6:01 am

I’m a Dixie Chick Digger. I’ve been in The “Lucky Country” for 18 years. It’s a Beautiful Place. I am Still learning Diggerese. “Oy Mate!”
Best Of Luck To Ya!


Alli Polin October 22, 2013 at 7:02 am

How funny, Mimi! It IS beautiful and we’re so lucky we’re here!

Many thanks!


Carl October 22, 2013 at 6:26 am

Hi Alli, love the post and really hits home for me – I’m living in southwest Finland and learning the language, I volunteer at a local school to assist with a language program where instruction is both in Finnish and English. You truly learn humility when a 6 yr. old rolls their eyes at your pronunciation. 🙂
Building a shared/common language is critical for developing culture within a team, but as your son pointed out – your family has its own shared language and culture.
Fun discussion –

Best regards for your thoughts and work


Alli Polin October 22, 2013 at 7:03 am

Wow, Carl! I’m learning the language in Australia – I can only imagine southwest Finland! Even here, my kids make fun of my pronunciation.

Great to point out that not only do organizations have cultures but so do our teams. Important awareness for all to have.

Big thanks to you for sharing, Carl!


John Thurlbeck October 22, 2013 at 6:36 am

Hi Alli

Loved the post, especially the comment of your son … and your call to action! I’ve always prided myself on my ability to communicate with people, especially face-to-face. All too often I’ve seen people retreat into jargon and leave those they are speaking to utterly blank.

I’m fine with big words too, provided you can explain them when people clearly don’t know, which is often identifiable by non-verbal clues rather than verbal clues.

In any conversation, especially with groups or individuals I am working with, I preface each and every conversation with permission to question and challenge me if they don’t understand or are unsure about what I am saying. I then watch intently and listen actively to make sure I’m not going beyond their understanding.

Great subject and post. Thank you for sharing!

Kind regards



Alli Polin October 22, 2013 at 7:07 am

Love that, John – giving permission to interrupt and get clarification. I do that too when I start with new clients. Still, as you pointed out, we need to listen when there is still hesitancy to ask. You’re right, a great way to know if people are tracking with you is non-verbal cues. With the rise of global virtual relationships, we don’t always have the luxury of seeing each other eyeball to eyeball. Takes listening to a whole new level to hear not only being said but left unspoken as well.

Appreciate how much you care about the connection with others!

Thanks, John


Joy Guthrie October 22, 2013 at 8:57 am

In the telecom industry, we gave out a dictionary of acronyms to newbies. Your post is very important. Thanks for writing.


Alli Polin October 23, 2013 at 7:13 am

Sounds like a smart thing to do! If you know that people are going to hear jargon all day, might as well give them what they need to speak the language! I’ve run into it with recruiters that switch specialty but need to be able to truly get deep with skills to assess true experience. Would have been great to give them dictionaries to make the transition easier.

Thanks, Joy! Always learn from your experience!


LaRae Quy October 22, 2013 at 3:07 pm

Great post, Alli. What an important reminder: speak to people, not at them or above them. We need to be curious about team members so we know how to speak their language…that takes effort.

BTW, I’m married to a Brit so I understand the “divided by a common language” thing….


Alli Polin October 23, 2013 at 7:19 am

It does take effort to learn the ins and outs of other people’s shorthand but over time it can build connection and strengthen relationships. I usually feel like when I’m new to an organization I’ll never figure it out but when it matters, eventually, I do.

Had no idea you were married to Brit! Love that my Australian friends laugh at me and I laugh with them. They also love to learn about Americanisms and American culture. One friend told me she was watching One Tree Hill and texted me to find out what Root Beer is since everyone was drinking it. Ah the things we take for granted.

Thanks, LaRae!


Gilly October 22, 2013 at 8:14 pm

Loved this Alli. I still find myself translating my English into “American” after 12 years in the US. Now at least you and I can understand each other since much of the Australian lingo is very similar to British English. My children tried to correct my pronunciation for a very long time because they so wanted to fit in and their mom to sound like everyone else’s.
When I first arrived here, I asked a bank teller to pay-in my check. She didn’t understand me, despite my great effort to find the American term.I waved it in front of her in desperation and whispered “Please, just take it and put it in my account.” “Oh!” she exclaimed “You mean deposit!” I felt as though I’d arrived from another planet and was distressed that I couldn’t make myself understood in my English.. Her final line to me was “I love your accent. Are you Australian?”-I had to go home and have a very strong cup of English tea! I have to tell you …we changed banks…to one where they were more aware of cultural and language differences and weren’t shocked when we wanted to order foreign currency. This kind of customer service really made a difference when we were so new to everything.
Thanks for raising these issues.


Alli Polin October 23, 2013 at 7:34 am

What a story, Gilly! I’ve actually refused to do repeat business here with some people that despite my efforts seem to have absolutely no idea what I’m saying. In that case, my gut tells me that they did understand but didn’t want to make it easy.

When we meet someday (I truly believe we will since my house is still waiting for me in Fairfax!) we can chat it up and have a good laugh over how challenging language can be even when, in theory, we speak the same language.

I’ve tried a fake Australian accent with my kids at home and they roll their eyes and say “This is Australia, not England!”

Appreciate you and your insights, Gilly!


Jef Menguin October 23, 2013 at 4:39 am

Yes, talk to people using their language. The goal of any communication is connection. Of course, the responsibility of connecting is not ours alone. But since we know this simple principle, we ought to observe this wherever we go.

Thank you for this helpful tips.

Jef Menguin


Alli Polin October 23, 2013 at 5:16 am

Jef – Great point! Communication, connection and engagement are always a two way street. It shows our personal leadership when we’re willing and able to flex our style instead of expecting others to always come to us.

Sincerely appreciate your feedback and comment!


Terri Klass October 23, 2013 at 11:50 am

Language is such a funny thing and can create barriers without us realizing it.

I had to laugh at some of the different ways they say things in Australia and I remember when I studied in London the different sayings- the post, the lift. You and your family are so lucky to be able to immerse yourselves in such a different culture and learn so many different views of the world.

Thank you for reminding us as professionals to be aware of the jargon we use and not assume others know what on earth we are talking about.

Great post, Alli!!


Alli Polin October 24, 2013 at 3:32 am

I can totally remember my time in London and all of the different words and phrases and loving the learning. I also loved my flat and had an amazing time that summer.

It’s so easy to assume that everyone must understand what the heck we’re saying because where we came from, they did!

Thanks for sharing your insights and feedback too!


Samantha October 23, 2013 at 12:19 pm

‘Throwing around language to look smart or well-trained will lose others in a heartbeat. It doesn’t matter what words roll of your tongue if the person you’re speaking with isn’t connected to your message.’

Preach it sister! 🙂

That said, it is SO easy to fall into!

Another great post Alli. Thanks for sharing.


Alli Polin October 24, 2013 at 3:35 am

It’s super-crazy-easy to fall into! It’s up to us to not only have an awareness of our language but even more importantly the language of others – whether we’re talking to our kids, interviewing for a job in a new company, coaching a new client or traveling the globe.

Thanks for your comment and for the waves of support you’re sending my way 🙂


Samantha October 24, 2013 at 1:32 pm

BTW: Your whole ‘coach speak’ section cracked me up. : )

‘Let me hold that space for you.’

That’s the other thing we need to keep in mind when it comes to biz. Once the market is saturated with industry-specific vocabulary, it tends to lose impact. Clients can’t take coaches seriously if they already KNOW the lingo. A good coach doesn’t rely on the check lists and industry vocabulary to do the ‘job’. A good coach isn’t perfect yet is far more creative and intuitive then that. To be ‘in the moment’ with a client is to be attuned to where they are RIGHT NOW. Not what our agenda says or even the order of our pre-conceived checklist of session priorities.

‘Let me hold that space for you.’ (still giggling…. : )


Tracy Shroyer, PhD February 15, 2014 at 12:26 pm

Alli – Great post! In our organization (as I’m sure in many others), there are so many acronyms we need a book to tell others the meaning of each of them. In my role, which is external facing, I have to be aware of what I am saying, to ensure the client understands and does not have to constantly ask to what I am referring.


Alli Polin February 16, 2014 at 11:10 pm

Thanks for your comment, Tracy! I’d imagine that at first it must have been challenging to hold your awareness of the internal language of the organization with your external facing role. I know I’ve used words that I didn’t even realize were org centric until people looked at me like I had two heads!

Thanks again!


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