How to avoid misunderstandings and 7 tips to speak International English

When a while ago, Angela Merkels’ “no” was misinterpreted by Theresa May in Brussels – and earlier by David Cameron when he asked Merkel to let the UK have a special deal to opt out of free movement of people while staying in the single market – the cultural difference was pointed out in a bbc podcast and widely shared on social media, causing many surprised reactions (cfr. “Linguistic confusion in politics: in Germany no means no“).

To be honest, I wasn’t surprised about the misunderstanding but wondered why neither Angela Merkel nor Theresa May had been advised about how to communicate with each other in a way to avoid this kind of misinterpretations…!!

Every society has different ways of communicating and Germans and Brits are no exception. Germans highly praise being “konsequent” (consistent), meaning that you do what you say and live by the consequences. Not saying what you mean in a direct way is perceived as dishonest, confused and ineffective – and in this they are very similar to their Dutch neighbours.

The German debate will send most British voters to sleep, whereas to German sensibilities the British debate looks bafflingly inconsistent. (listen to the podcast here cfr. min. 04:01 )

I regularly attend international meetings and often observe that English native speakers rarely make the effort to talk an international English. Although I found out that I use approximately 80% of the sentences in this list “like a Brit” when talking to Anglophones, most non-Brits don’t.

Many non-native English speakers spend years to polish their accents, learning the right sociolect in order not to stand out when working internationally, but what should also be taught are the verbal and nonverbal clues. They should be more familiar with what “this is interesting” and other sentences of the lists mean, when said by an Anglophone. – Please find a list of sentences in my post What the British say and what they mean…

The misunderstanding between Merkel, Cameron and May, and the bbc article “Native English speakers are the worlds worst communicators” clearly show that there is a major shift happening. 

It is no longer us non-Anglophones who have to conform to the British way of talking, but our UK neighbours should be(come) more aware of the different meanings the same English word, pronounced by a non-native speaker can have

In order to make it an easier task, here are my

7 Tips to speak International English

In order to bridge the gap and avoid embarrassing misunderstandings I would recommend Anglophones to tune into language variation and not assume that someone who speaks English (with or without accent) uses all the verbal and nonverbal clues like a native speaker.


1 Explain abbreviations

When you use abbreviations, please explain what it stands for in a clear understandable way – it is very embarrassing if you need to ask twice for explanation in a setting where “everyone else seems to know” what it means. So, make sure your interlocutor understands what you mean.


2 Articulate clearly

… and slow down your speech!

“Unusual words, speed of talking and mumbling won’t help” especially if the phone or video connection is poor quality. People will disengage and not follow your speech. – What native speakers consider a normal pace is fast for non native speakers.

Also, avoid to rush and fill gaps in the conversation. Wait a heartbeat and give non-native speakers the chance to formulate the sentence in their own pace.


3 Simpler is better

Be aware that many non-Anglophones are very concerned about not “losing face” and nod approvingly even if they would rather disapprove…

“If you can communicate efficiently with limited, simple language you save time, avoid misinterpretation and you don’t have errors in communication”

Rob Stellges, senior marketing director for Europe at telecommunications giant NTT Communications suggests: “you need to be short, clear and direct and you need to simplify.”

But there’s a fine line between doing that and being patronizing and I’d suggest to be more sensible about the “tone”, the intonation. Like Germans say: “der Ton macht die Musik“. 

Be aware that the intonation is perceived in different ways when talking to people from different cultural backgrounds: is it clear for your interlocutor that you are asking a question? Or did it more sound like a statement?


4 Tune in…

When trying to communicate in English with a group of people with diverse cultural and linguistic background, and varying levels of fluency, “it is important to be receptive and adaptable, tuning your ears into a whole range of different ways of using English” (cfr. Jennifer Jenkins, professor of global Englishes at the UK’s University of Southampton.).


5 Explain your point from different angles

Illustrate your point from different angles and ask for acknowledgement and reaction. Asking probing questions will help you to make sure your statement has been understood.


6 Is this from you or…

If you are sincere when stating or saying something, and it is your opinion or a quote, make sure to clearly mention it! Many people tend to hide behind quotes that they assume others would recognize as such, only to find out that other peoples’ words are taken as their statement. This can lead to major misunderstandings and lost of trust!


7 Summarize

An easy way to make sure your message is understood is to summarize it. Don’t feel offended if someone asks for clarification. It is not meant personally. Offer others the opportunity to ask more specific questions and please, avoid sarcastic comments if they do.

– Remember that the only option you have is to learn the language – including verbal and non-verbal clues – of your interlocutors…

If you would like to find out more about how to effectively communicate with people from different cultural and linguistic background, contact me at

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  1. Interesting read, Ute. Definitely something I will pay attention to since improving my intercultural communication skills is one of my goals on my New Year’s Resolution 2019 list. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: English as Lingua Franca – Intercultural Communication (part 1) - Ute's International Lounge & Academy

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