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You are in: Learning English > Virtual English Masterclass
Learning English -
Expert: David Evans, a writer, broadcaster and trainer who specialises in business English

And now the first question. It's from Andreas from Colombia. What is the difference between workmates and colleagues?

DE: They have basically the same meaning - but you might be more likely to hear colleagues used in an office and workmates used in a factory. Also, colleagues is more likely to be used when writing.

Zhang Xiao Ming: How do I refuse or disagree with someone else's idea in a meeting without being impolite?

DE: Begin what you say with an apology, for example, I'm sorry to disagree with you but.... Or - I'm afraid I can't agree with that. I think this is quite an international English thing to do. You can practise this by doing role plays with a friend or colleague.

Geraldine from Germany writes: What expressions can I use to sound persuasive and convincing?

DE: Ooh - that's a tricky one! I don't think it's a question of what you say. Being persuasive is a matter of the way that you say it. It could mean intonation, it could mean selecting a phrase that is appropriate to the context, or to the person within it. You can improve your skills of persuasion. Actually the study of rhetoric - the art of persuasion - was part of the school curriculum in Europe until about a hundred years ago.

Sonia from Mexico asks: How do I know how to call someone by their first name or surname in a meeting?

DE: Sonia, in most American and British companies it is perfectly acceptable to call people by their first name in the majority of cases. However, there are other National cultures, for example German, where it is more likely to use their title, perhaps Doctor, or Herr followed by their surname. If you're not sure, it's probably best to go for a title and surname. If someone asks you to be more informal with them, then you can go to first name terms.

Shoaib writes from Bangladesh: What is the difference between general and business language?

DE: Is it not possible to use the same language everywhere? Yes, of course it's possible to use the same language everywhere. The reason we distinguish between general English and business English is to accomodate the reasons why people are learning it.

When people study general English, they often do it for reasons like wanting to travel, or to make friends, or to understand books or radio programmes. However when people study business English, they do so normally for one single reason: the opportunity to make money. So we can characterise business English as the study of the English that is effective in a working or commercial arena.

Tash from Sengal writes: How can I make a complaint?

DE: Both in writing and when complaining face to face, the key question to ask is 'What do I hope to achieve from this complaint?' There is no point instantly venting your anger if it doesn't produce a result. Very often, it helps to get the person you are dealing with on your side. For this reason, people are often taught to begin any complaint in writing or face-to-face with some sort of mild apology.

For example, 'I'm sorry to say this but...', 'I'm afraid I must tell you that...'

In a written letter you can say 'I'm writing to complain about...' and if you want to complain very strongly you write 'I'm writing to complain in the strongest possible terms...' Also when writing, it is important to ask for a reply or for the other person to take some action. So you could say 'Please provide me with an explanation...' or to be more formal in a letter 'I'd be grateful if you would...'

Rafaella from Italy writes: Do I need to use 'yours faithfully' and 'yours sincerely' when I write an email?

DE: The answer is no, these are only used as ways of ending letters. At the end of an email, it is far more common to write 'best wishes' or 'regards'. As for greetings in an email you can use 'Dear', 'Hi' or even launch straight into the message.

Once you've started sending emails to and fro, you don't need to keep writing 'Dear' or 'Hi'. If you are writing an email that will be sent to a large number of people, you can begin 'Dear colleagues' or 'Dear friends' in a social environment.

Kaz from Poland writes: What should I say when I pick up the telephone in an office?

DE: If you are answering the phone on behalf of the company, e.g. as a receptionist would, it is normal to say 'Hello' and give the name of the company. If you are answering your own phone, you would normally say 'Hello' and give your full name. For example 'Hello, David Evans'. If you don't do that the caller can easily become confused.

It's a good idea to write down someone's name at the beginning of a call. If you miss their name, do ask again. Say 'I'm sorry I didn't catch your name'. If you want somebody to spell their name, do ask too - say 'Would you mind spelling your name please?'

Li Xia from China asks: What is 'corporate culture'?

DE: Hello Li Xia. When we talk about a National culture, we can point to shared traditions, values and behaviours as examples of what we mean.

Many business thinkers believe that we can do the same for corporations. Most corporations actively encourage the notion of a corporate culture through branding, using logos and even in some cases corporate songs - in much the same way as a Nation would use a flag or National anthem. They will often try to instill a sense of shared values in employees through documents, like mission statements, and bonding experiences to bring employees together.

A corporation means a body, and I believe it is a legal term because a corporation has the same legal rights and obligations as a person. Company I believe derives from the Latin 'cum pane' meaning 'with bread', because the earliest companies were groups of workers who would sit down and share bread together.

Guilherme from Brazil asks: How can I introduce a topic in a presentation?

DE: This is about signalling language which is extremely important in presentations, as it provides a mental map for the listener of a presentation. It's good practice to give a plan to your talk at the beginning by saying 'Firstly I'd like to speak about... secondly, I'd like to speak about... and finally I'll talk about...

Within the presentation you can signal the first point by using this phrase: 'Let me start by saying...' To move to a new point, say 'Let's now move on and look at ...' And when you come to the end of the presentation, 'I'd like to conclude by saying...'

If you don't want to take questions, you can say 'Thank you very much for your attention Ladies and Gentleman'. If you are happy to take questions, simply say 'Do you have any questions?' 'Are there any questions?'

Alex from Spain asks: What is the best way to establish rapport in the English culture (for meetings, etc)?

DE: I would suggest - use humour. Certainly, in most English speaking situations humour is a good way of breaking the ice. It shows that you are a warm human being. I don't think you need to make jokes, it's a matter of being humorous or smiling.

Roberta from Chile asks: If I don't understand something in a meeting, what is the best way to ask for a clarification?

DE: I'd use the phrase 'I'm sorry, can you say that again please?'. You could say 'I wonder if you could rephrase that for me?' I don't think there are any rules - it's good to make sure that you speak out if you don't understand something.

Elena D.: My question is about MS Project Management. I would like to know if there is any sense in giving students the software so that they learn business English through learning the programme?

DE: I think it's quite a common and effective way of becoming familiar with specialist business terms. It's certainly quite common for learners to be familiar with written computer language that they might never have heard in a real conversation.

Sheng Chai, Malaysia: I've heard it takes longer in certain countries, like maybe China or countries in the Middle East, to establish working relationships based on mutual trust. Is this true? If so, why?

DE: Yes indeed it is true: in certain cultures and countries business appears to be done slower than in other places. Business thinkers talk about 'high-context' and 'low-context' cultures.

In a 'high-context' culture you need to get to know someone before you can do business with them. This would mean that your social conversation would come before you started talking about the business deal. So you might discuss somebody's life - their journey, family, background - so that you had an idea about what kind of person they are. Typical 'high-context' countries are countries in the Arab world and many Far-Eastern countries.

In a 'low-context' culture business comes first. It's expected that business will be discussed as soon as the meeting begins. The classic low context culture is the American culture - straight down to business.

Sheng Chai - I think most business thinkers think that there are advantages to both systems. Because it's easier to form a strong relationship in the 'high-context' culture, it means that you establish trust, and this might be long-lasting. Because 'low-context' cultures are less good at establishing trust, they rely far more on legal contracts. These add cost to the business deal. I think that British business is increasingly following the American model.

Koby from Ghana asks: In a multicultural environment, how do I know what is right regarding eye contact and proximity?

DE: It's difficult to define what a multicultural business environment is. If we are talking about the environment you might find in a multinational company, then the rules for eye contact and proximity will be similar to the ones followed in the USA. To look someone in the eye at the beginning of a meeting is considered good practice as it is supposed to display sincerity and trust. A firm handshake is also often valued, but no other form of bodily contact should take place. How do you begin meetings in your country? Do you shake hands and look people in the eyes?

Luis R.: Yes, here in Chile we greet with a handshake and look in the eyes too.

Elena D.: In Russia former political leaders used to kiss each other. Thanks God it is gone in history.

DE: What do they do now?

Elena D.: I don't have the information. Our president is fond of martial arts so you can come to the conclusion yourself:)

Eva from Poland asks: What is the formal way to call, cancel and postpone a meeting?

DE: If you want to call a meeting, you can say 'We would like to hold a meeting at ..... time at ..... location on ..... We hope you will be able to attend'.

If you want to cancel that you can say 'Due to unforeseen circumstances we will have to cancel the meeting planned for........... We apologise for any inconvenience this might cause you'.

If you want to postpone a meeting, you can say 'Unfortunately we have to postpone the meeting scheduled for ..... to ..... We will notify you of the new date'.

The use of formal language to arrange meetings will normally sound quite blunt. It is usually quite common to use less formal language to call, postpone and cancel meetings.

It's been great talking to you - and I'm sorry that I have to go now. It's been wonderful to see all your messages from all over the world.

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