Top 10 Tips To be Taken Seriously In your Job In London
By: Muriel JacquesAfter the best part of a decade spent in London, I am still learning to speak proper English. Having a French accent is quite a hindrance in my job, because most of the time my colleagues comment on my accent rather than on what I have to say, which can be frustrating. Over here, you need to convey your points in a certain way. But fear not: I have compiled for you the 10 most common mistakes made by foreigners. Believe me, I had to learn the hard way, and I sincerely hope that you will benefit from my experience.
- Never say no. Except in a life or death situation, of course. 'No' is much too direct. It closes the debate and your British colleagues love to talk. Instead, you need to be able to say something like 'I don't disagree' -don't be fooled by the double negative, it means no-. Or you can always buy time by saying 'this is an interesting point of view, isn't it?'. Ok, let's practice now. Let's suppose that a colleague tells you 'boys and girls need to be educated separately because they learn in different ways'. If, like me, you feel strongly that this is a backwards idea coming straight from the middle age, don't say so. Bite your tongue. Breathe. Instead, say something like 'I don't disagree, but I really enjoyed being educated with boys during my childhood'. Do you spot the difference?
- Use as many words as possible. A simple 'yes' in response to a question will betray the fact that you are not familiar with the way people work over here. You need to say instead 'Well, I sort of said I would'. Or 'yes, I hear what you say'. Keep the conversation going at any cost.
- Don’t be too direct. Learn to use oxymorons. Simply put, they are part of your survival kit over here. It is all about appearing to make sense when you are, in fact, talking non-sense. Again, don’t underestimate such a vital skill. If you want to go with the flow, you will have to learn. For example, don’t say ‘I don’t speak English very well’. Replace it with ‘I am an advanced beginner in English.’ Much better. Likewise, never say ‘the proposal was rejected’, say instead ‘the proposal was rejected in its entirety but it proved to be a successful failure’. Everybody will understand.
- Don't take idioms and expressions literally. It is easier said than done, I agree, and I am ashamed to admit that I had a few bad experiences. For instance, when a (male) colleague of mine told me 'Let's touch base next week!', I was on the verge of slapping him there and then. But I didn't, and I am glad I didn't, because I subsequently understood that touching base had nothing to do with touching anyone's base. Go figure. Likewise, when you are being called 'Darling’, ‘Sweetheart’, ‘Honey’ or even ‘Pumpkin’, don’t worry. They don’t really mean it. One day, a colleague of mine asked me whether I wanted him to keep me company that night (it was on a business trip). I politely declined, thinking that it was another anodyne thing. With hindsight, I am not so sure. I suppose that I still have to learn!
- If you are upset, you are not supposed to show it. The proper attitude is to have a stiff upper lip and pretend that you are fine with whatever has happened, even if you have just been made redundant. Then you go to the pub and get properly sloshed. That’s the correct etiquette, in London, to deal with any sort of work problems.
- Now, repeat after me: what happens at the Christmas party stays at the Christmas party. One day, a former boss of mine ended up being so drunk that he was riding the fire extinguisher and hitting on all female colleagues. Nobody said anything the following day. He was acting perfectly normal and it was business as usual. It was as if there was a pink elephant in the corridor but we were not allowed to talk about it.
- You have to accept that, from time to time, a statement will mean one thing and its very opposite, depending on how you read it. There is nothing you can do about it and some colleagues simply excel at such an art. For instance, when Piers Morgan was asked whether he had been involved in the phone hacking scandal, he said that he wasn’t directly involved. What does it mean exactly? That he wasn’t involved? Or maybe that he was indirectly involved?
- It is an universal truth that, if you want to impress your interlocutors, you need to use French words and expressions when you speak. But if you do, your colleagues will not understand. This is because they pronounce French words the British way. We usually stress the last syllable in French whereas the British seem to love stressing the first one. They will not get it. To make matters even worse, they often write French words with spelling mistakes. Pain Au Chocolat will become Pain Au Chocolate and savoir faire can be savoirfair. Don’t bother correcting them. Actually, don’t use French words at all. Your life will be so much easier.
- Don’t fight against the stereotypes. Embrace them and turn them to your advantage. Go with the flow –you need to choose your battles and this one is not worth fighting for. From time to time, I am asked whether my husband has a mistress. This is because, apparently, according to my British friends, all French men do. I play it cool. I say 'oh yeah, the three of us had lunch on Sunday, it was great. Actually, she is waiting for me in the car right now, she is giving me a lift to the spa. Must go'.
- Understate, understate, understate. Boasting about a major achievement is looked down upon. I will always remember the newly appointed CEO of a major company say that he just ‘got lucky’. He was brilliant and hard-working. Luck had nothing to do with it.
I hope that you will find this list of some use. Don’t get me wrong: I love it here, in London. So much that I have now become British. That said, it took me some time to get more familiar with the rules of the game. And, frankly, I am still learning…You can let me know about your experiences on twitter @FrenchYumMummy
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Contest Comments » There are 18 comments
Always enjoy reading your takes on life in London, Muriel - and this is one of your best. Very perceptive, as ever. I'll give you another useful phrase to use when you don't want to disagree: "You may be right." My husband says this a lot. It's very clever. What it really means is: "There is a faint possibility that you may be right, in a strictly semantic way, but I don't think you are". It took me years to work that one out, and I'm English!!
Wonderful post, Muriel. Amusing and insightful. Enjoyed because to this day I have some of those English habits or quirks. Your post made me realize the stark contrasts between the UK and US. I still run into trouble on this side of the pond when I use a statement that means one thing as well as its opposite. Other things that are different here: 1. In the US they just say "No," often without qualifying it. Why waste time? 2. Be as direct as possible, use as few words as you can - people aren't interested in reasons, excuses, or explanations. 3. If you're upset show it and even cry (Americans are real cry babies). Otherwise, people will think you're unfeeling or don't care. 4. What you did at the Christmas party may affect your career/the rest of your life so show you're sorry and head for AA. 5. Boast about your achievements. Don't be modest or understated. In this country the one who blows his/her trumpet loudest is the one who's heard.
Very entertaining but full of brilliant truths! Crossing over culture-wise CAN be very interesting. I have a British mother but grew up in the US. We spent summers in England. It helps with the culture/language gap sometimes. Fun post.
If I ever find myself looking for work "Across the Pond" I will surely come back and reference this post.
You cracked me up. This explains so much about those British who-done-its I read,language rich, but not saying anything when you think about it. Thanks, MuriEL.
Muriel is a 'plume' as we would say in French. Such amazing writing skills and what makes it so pleasant to read is that everything she writes is so true and as spontaneous as if she was telling us the same story while sharing a drink. Her analyses are so much reflective of the way a lot of French expats in the UK and in other countries feel about their life and about their 'home' country, I just love reading her articles. Thanks a lot, Muriel!
This is so true! I wish I had known these tips before applying for jobs over here!
The idioms are really tricky because much of them are really culture bound. I'm still adjusting to some although I've been here in the States for almost 9yrs. Can you imagine how bad it was on my first year at work? Let's just say it was a learning year for me! Fun ;-)
This is a wonderful list from the point of view of the French you. I like how that implication comes out because it warms me to your French know how and attitude.
Except for "touching base" and "keeping company" I think what you say applies in any city. Unfortunately, my French is still not good enough to know if I'm misunderstanding something. I wish I had that luxury.
Awesome post. Good tips for when/if I move to London! Thanks.
So -- it appears that even when you think you're speaking the same language, it turns out to be a whole different ball of wax (as in context, syntax, etc.) ;-) Delightful, smart post, Muriel.
Hilarious article! It is like an update to the famous 1950s take on London by Hungarian George Mikes, How to Be An Alien. I think you are the missing a subtlety at point 5. For minor disasters (eg you spilled coffee on your white shirt) you buy your friends a drink at the pub, but after major disasters (eg redundancy) you may ask them to buy you one.
Hell, the Brits are an intolerant lo, how the hell do you out up with it! When we meet for our coffee, you will discover that there are one or two of us who DO know how to speak and write your language correctly!
I found what you wrote about 'touching base' hilarious! I am English and have never heard it described that way until I moved to Canada!
Oh! I would be great at speaking nonsense, but not so sure I would appear not to be speaking nonsense! I'll have to brush up on that if I travel over there. This was a very enjoyable post!
Great post, Muriel. So well observed and wittily written. Much like you blog in fact which is also a joy to read. :)
Really funny and entertaining article. I admire expats. I would go crazy trying to figure out all the nuances of living in a totally different culture.