Recently one of my employees, a naturalized citizen with English as a well–mastered second language commented on the different idioms I use to ensure he correctly understood their meaning. Growing up in New England in the ‘70s and ‘80s, idioms were utilized often in my family, so it is no wonder they slip off my tongue at times.
Until he brought it to my attention, it did not even occur to me that using idioms with someone who has not been exposed to them and learned English from textbooks might be problematic, as he would most probably think the idiom user is speaking a whole new language that is more than a bit ridiculous. I can imagine idioms such as “It’s in the bag” may be confusing if there is not a physical bag around. In the course of the conversation, he shared with me a couple of idioms in Spanish that do not translate the same into English for me.
An idiom is a natural way of speaking to a native speaker, and the term is defined as “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words. Idioms are words, phrases, or expressions that do not literally mean what they express”. In other words, if you were to translate an idiom verbatim from one language into another, it may not make any sense at all. You can find over one hundred examples of this at http://www.idiomsite.com/.
Idioms may be classified as slang, though slang terms are often not utilized by most of the general population.
An example of a slang term is ”frenemy” (a person who is at different times one’s friend and enemy.) Examples of idioms are “wolf in sheep’s clothing” or “back–stabber”.
Idioms that may be utilized by employers include the following:
“Make it happen”, “Know the ropes”, “Off the record”, “Over the top”, “Pass the buck”, “To make a long story short”, “Under the weather”, “When it rains, it pours”, “Without a doubt”, “Back to the drawing board”, “Back to square one”, “Beating around the bush”, “Bite your tongue”, “Done-done“, “Head in the clouds”, etc.
My awareness of others’ reactions to the use of idioms has been heightened with my employee bringing them to my attention. Just yesterday I noticed that a client of mine who has worked in the United States for over a decade asked me to clarify an idiom I used. Another client of mine recently responded to a question I had asked with the one-word reply, “meh”. This is a slang word that denotes a lack of interest or enthusiasm. Though this reply can be taken as rude, knowing the person who wrote it, I did not take it that way at all.
Oftentimes in the United States, particularly in business, we would not even know that someone is an immigrant unless he told us. America is a melting pot, and the construction industry in particular works with people from all over the world. Some have been here a short time and some a long time. Some have accents and some do not. Yet none of these combinations are in themselves determinant of whether one is familiar with certain idioms.
I remember that my Florida-born sister-in-law commented often about the linguistic differences between her and my brother, and that when they first met, they had many good laughs over bureau vs dresser, tennis shoes vs sneakers, and grinders, hoagies and subs.
Alta Lang says there are ten principal dialects of Spanish. According to Business Insider, there are 24 different dialects of English in the United States alone. Each dialect and region has its own idioms and slang terms.
So how do you make sure you understand people correctly?
- Don’t be afraid to ask a person to repeat or rephrase what they say.
- If repeating or rephasing is not an option write the phrase down and determine the meaning before acting on the instruction.
- Never guess the meaning when it relates to business.
The idiom may be something like, “Better late than never”, and you could interpret that it is okay to continue coming to work late as long as you come to work sometime during the day, only to find out your supervisor was being sarcastic and you end up being terminated.
Idioms can be fun outside of business, but in business it is wise to refrain from using slang or idioms.
Next time you may be inclined to tell someone at work that he is “pulling your leg” or someone “got carried away”, keep in mind the vision of how someone who does not know idioms might interpret that, or worse yet – repeat it. It could be the idiom of a “far cry” from what you meant to say.