Speaking English Can Leave You Positively Knackered

In his lovely, British voice, the client said to me, “Let’s table the RPO discussion.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! More than 10 hours on an airplane across the Atlantic Ocean, a hurried outfit change in the Heathrow restroom and an hour on the tube only to be rebuffed within 10 minutes of taking a seat — and I wasn’t even there to discuss RPO.

Then he said, “I’m knackered from the last RPO meeting and it would be lovely if your solution for my temporary workers has the answers I’m looking for.” Feeling as if I was in the Twilight Zone, I reflected on the discussions and preparation that had led up to this meeting. How could I be so far off the mark? I was invited to share my thoughts on managing the contingent workforce for his company, so why is he referring to RPO? And, why would he want to table the discussion before we’d even begun?

As it turns out, even though we both spoke English, we were not speaking the same language at all. I learned a valuable lesson that day about communicating across cultural boundaries. From his point of view, “RPO” referred to anything related to the outsourcing of a workforce. On our side of the pond, the management of contingents is handled by an MSP, while RPO is all about the process management of the traditional workers. As that awkward meeting moved forward, I learned that the term “MSP” meant something completely different to him. On his side of the pond, an “MSP” referred to a master supplier program and was not in fact, the managed services program I was so keen to discuss.

In the big bowl of alphabet soup that make up the abbreviations so prevalent in the staffing industry, it is critical suppliers and customers take time to ensure they are talking about the same thing. Beyond the many acronyms and program definitions, there are also cultural terms that could potentially hijack your efforts to communicate your value. To top it off, “tabling” the discussion was actually an invitation to get the business out on the table and begin the conversation, not to defer the meeting for a later time as I understood it. (As a point of reference, for those of you taking notes, “knackered” is akin to being “exhausted” and the British use the word “lovely” as if it interchanged with “great” or “productive” or “helpful.” “Lovely” covers a lot of ground in England. I’d always just thought it was a nice way to describe perfume.)

There are a few things to keep in mind when branching out globally that can make your life easier and, perhaps, less embarrassing than my first meeting with my British client. First, make a conscious effort to over-explain your meanings and spell out your intentions. It is easy to slip into “industry speak” when conversations start to move quickly. The goal is to keep the potential pitfalls of your cross-cultural conversation top of mind at all times. Second, ask enough questions to avoid misunderstandings. You might hesitate to ask questions or clarify a statement because you want to been seen as knowledgeable. Believe me, a few well-placed questions can make a world of difference in your communication and can avoid potentially deal-killing misunderstandings. Third, I would advise leaning on a “lovely” tool provided by Staffing Industry Analysts called the Lexicon of Contingent Workforce Terms. I rely heavily on this information when deciphering correspondence and conversations with my counter parts and partners in other parts of the world.

When I reflect back on that meeting four years ago in England, I wince a little at my own ignorance. And while the client and I were able to turn it around and make it a productive trip, it could have ended badly for no other reason that because of a mix-up of meanings. I am grateful for the lesson learned and happy to share what I have learned with you. Hopefully it will help you avoid getting your “knickers in a twist” as you navigate working in our increasing global marketplace.



Kim Bell

Kim Bell
Kim Bell is vice president of global sales at AgileOne.

Kim Bell

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2 Responses to “Speaking English Can Leave You Positively Knackered”

  1. Chris Bowd says:

    Wasn’t it George Bernard Shaw who described the UK and the US as two nations divided by a common language?

  2. andrewkarpie says:

    Great post!

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