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It's not just us. Bad corporate clichés are used in every language.

Scenes straight out of Office Space happen around the globe. Here's why to brush up on your 'corporate speak' before heading overseas on business.
Image: Smiling businesswoman in meeting conference room
What you say and how you say it is of utmost significance, but body language and gestures also have a great impact. Hero Images / Getty Images

It’s one thing to travel to a foreign country for vacation; it’s quite another to travel for business. There may still be plenty of fun to be had, but work is work. Whether you're doing attending meetings or a conference, the goal is to form or foster professional relationships, and this can be challenging when you don’t know the language.

Language-learning apps and books can be extremely beneficial when looking to nail down the basics of a new language, but it could be a while before you get to the level of weaving in a foreign country’s corporate jargon. We have no shortage of such idioms in America (e.g. “ahead of the curve”, “back to the drawing board”, “cut one’s losses” and “get the ball rolling”) that we use without even thinking about it. Germany, Brazil, Indonesia and every other country are no different, but their sayings may sound, well, totally foreign to someone who isn’t embedded in the place's work culture.

Bringing nations together, one corporate phrase at a time

The global language-learning app Babbel assembled a list of business jargon and phrases used in 10 countries: Belgium, Brazil, France, Germany, Indonesia, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and Sweden, respectively.

“Co ma piernik do wiatraka?” in Polish translates as “What does gingerbread have to do with a windmill?”

“We already knew from discussions among our in-house team of more than 150 linguists that there are some delightful and colorful business expressions unique to certain countries," says Julie Hansen, CEO of Babbel US. "We decided to explore the theme further by tapping into the international business communities of multiple Chambers of Commerce, who helped us to collate some of the most remarkable business clichés from around the world.”

The phrases are unique; but the meanings evoke a universal wisdom

The phrases Babble highlighted may strike you as strange, particularly if you’re not at all familiar with the language, and reference imagery or history that doesn’t immediately ring a bell. Consider Poland’s “Co ma piernik do wiatraka?” which translates as “What does gingerbread have to do with a windmill?”

At first you might be scratching your head at trying to answer this question, but consider the practical rhetoric, which is “what does one task have to do with another?” It’s a point one could make in any meeting where ideas are getting jumbled or an employee isn’t sticking with the point of the project at hand. At heart, it’s a common-sense interjection. Same with Germany’s “Jetzt‘s geht’s um die Wurst!” which translates to “Now it is about the sausage!” This may be said during the final stages of a project, when we might say something like, “time is of the essence.”

Jens Wohltorf, CEO and co-founder of Blacklane, a Berlin-based chauffeur company that equips all its drivers with language cheat-sheets, shares a phrase he hears in business settings in Germany: “‘Wo gehobelt wird, da fallen Späne.’ It literally means, ‘Where you plane wood, the chips fall,’ but the English equivalent is, ‘you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs.’

Peggy Chen, CMO of SDL, who is fluent in Mandarin, offers up a popular business phrase: 九牛一毛, with the phonetic pronunciation, "Jiu Niu Yi Mao". It literally translates to "nine cows one hair", and idiomatically has meaning close to a saying we all know: "a drop in the bucket."

“The phrase plays on the idea that a single hair on nine cows is like nothing, or insignificant,” says Chen. “You can use it in the business context of an idea or contribution that doesn’t matter. For example, if a company has a product that contributes next to no revenue, you would say it’s like 'nine cows one hair'."

Other etiquette tips for the business traveler

Knowing phrases is helpful, but you’ll also want to brush up on a culture’s business etiquette if you’re visiting for work. Caryn Antonini, CEO and founder of Early Lingo offers up the following good-manner musts.

  • Be attentive with business cards. “In some countries, exchanging business cards is very important. For example, in Japan, you must present or accept the card with both hands, almost as if it’s a gift. When presenting your own card, give a self-introduction and then offer your cards. When accepting a card, be sure to acknowledge it properly and treat it with care when putting it in a pocket or bag.”
  • Find out if a gift is appropriate. “It is often customary to bring a gift of some sort. Be sure to research ahead of time what is appropriate.”
  • Find the right 'you'. “Don’t forget to learn how to address others in another language. Many languages are more formal than English, for example, and there are different ways of saying ‘you’ — both formal and informal.” In business settings, opt for the formal.
  • Know the cultural don'ts. “Brush up on the [a country’s cultural] customs, which are important. For instance, in the Middle East, one should never show the bottom of one’s shoes. It’s demeaning and signifies that you put the other person beneath you.”

Ask around before you go

It may be intimidating to think of all the customs and phrases you don’t know (and don’t have the time to learn inside out) when heading out on a business trip. But don’t fret; there are plenty of resources but a click (or Skype call) away.

“If you work at a company with foreign branches, connecting with a co-worker is the easiest way to obtain a cultural guide and learn about both in advance of your arrival,” says Dr. Richard Shuster, host of The Daily Helping Podcast. “Leverage resources on the Internet such as Reddit or social media to begin accumulating data on where you are traveling. Even universities may be helpful as many have overseas study programs and faculty could connect you with ways to learn about a foreign country.”

The power of body language

What you say and how you say it is of utmost significance, but body language and gestures also have a great impact.

“Precluding access to our body with our limbs (legs and arms crossed, for example) is an indicator of discomfort, distrust and/or dislike for our speaking partner,” says Lucio Buffalmano, social skills coach and founder of The Power Moves. “On the other hand open body language or pointing our feet towards our conversation partner is a way to tell everyone, our speaking partner included, that we are engrossed in the conversation and they have our full attention.”

Depending on where you are, bowing may also serve as an important way to show your respect.

“Another great way of doing well with locals no matter their culture, is to match positive behavior with positive behavior,” says Buffalmano. “You can't go wrong matching a smile with a smile.”


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