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10+ ways to avoid misunderstandings at work

Miscues happen all the time in business communications, and the results can range from annoying to disastrous. Here are some simple rules to follow that can save you a world of trouble when dealing with colleagues and partners.

Miscues happen all the time in business communications, and the results can range from annoying to disastrous. Here are some simple rules to follow that can save you a world of trouble when communicating with colleagues and partners.


Communicating effectively with co-workers, customers, suppliers, superiors, and subordinates is crucial to success in business. All too often, however, problems arise. Below are some areas in which confusion often occurs. Being aware of them can help reduce the likelihood of such confusion

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

1: Do we have an agreement?

Did you ever think of someone as a boyfriend or girlfriend, only to learn that you were more serious about the relationship than the other person (or vice versa)? I don't want to bring up painful memories, but this same situation exists in business, with vendors and customers. You have one idea, they have another, and problems arise.

Awhile ago, I made arrangements to speak to an organization. We set up the date and agreed on the fee. I received a soft-copy logo from them, and I even spoke via conference call with two executives there. A week later, I learned from my contact that the event had been canceled. When I asked about partial fees, to cover the time for the conference call, the contact said that there had been no purchase order and therefore no payment was possible. Fortunately, I had not yet bought my airplane ticket, so although the cancellation was annoying, it could have been worse had I made the purchase and been stuck with it.

Be careful about your similar dealings with others. Be sure everyone is clear on the exact status of the relationship. You might run into a supplier who will react more aggressively than I did in that same situation (pursuing the matter wasn't worth it for me). For example, that supplier might argue, from a legal standpoint, that despite the lack of a purchase order, your actions in setting up the conference call and in arranging for transmission of a logo led him to reasonably conclude a contract existed. It's even possible he could use "estoppel" (a legal term) against you with regard to the purchase order argument. That is, he might be able to prevent, or "estop," you from using that argument as a defense, because of his reliance on your actions. Regardless, be clear with customers and suppliers on whether they (or you) should be spending time, effort, or money. It will prevent difficulties later.

2: Whose time zone?

If you're arranging a conference call with people in other parts of the United States, be clear on the time zone you have in mind. Tell them, "5:00 Eastern Time" or "2:00 Pacific Time."  Be aware that some states have multiple time zones, so saying, for example, "4:00 Florida time" is meaningless. And if you're dealing with a telephone meeting, be clear on who calls whom. Otherwise, you might have an "Alphonse Gaston" situation, as described below.

3: Daylight Saving Time or not?

Be careful when Daylight Saving Time is in effect. Some states handle it differently. For example, Arizona does not observe it at all. Indiana observes it on a county-by-county basis. Many countries, including China, do not observe it. So if you're in the Eastern Time zone, you would be 12 hours behind Beijing during Daylight Saving Time, but 13 hours behind in Standard Time.

4: Did you receive my request?

Think about the times you made a request of someone using voicemail, e-mail, or text messaging to convey it. You had two separate issues, didn't you? Of course, you were concerned about whether the other person was going to complete the request. At the same time, though, you also were concerned about whether that person even received your request in the first place. Have you ever made such a request, heard nothing about it, and then discovered the other person did in fact complete it? You were probably happy, but wouldn't you have liked to know that they had received the request?

Keep your own thoughts in mind when you receive a similar request. Even if you can't address the request right away, let the other person know you received it. The requester will then have one fewer thing to worry about.

5: Are you listening to me?

We all know that old riddle about a tree that falls in the forest. The principle applies to communicating with others. Yes, you might be able to hear and understand someone perfectly while you are typing on the computer on an unrelated matter or listening to your iPod. However, the other person might not know that and could become offended by what may appear to be rudeness. Therefore, if you can, remove those iPod earphones and stop typing when someone is talking. On the other hand, if your typing is related to the conversation (e.g., you're a help desk analyst and the other person is a customer with a problem), make sure that person knows why you're typing.

6: Draft or final version?

An executive I worked for at IBM always made a big deal about distinguishing between a "work session" and "final presentation" meetings that staff would have with him. It would be fine if we met with him to discuss ideas regarding a presentation and to work on preliminary drafts. However, we needed to be clear that at a later meeting, he would be expecting a final copy of the presentation, because he then would take it to his own superiors. If he was expecting the final copy and a staff person came in expecting a work session, the result would be, in his words, "a tough time for everyone." So if you're going into a meeting with a superior, make sure you know what he or she expects to see.

7: Message or messenger?

The play Antigone, by Sophocles, contains the line "None love the messenger who brings bad news." From this source most likely came the phrase, "shooting the messenger," that is, attacking someone who expresses an upsetting idea. This phenomenon often occurs in chat rooms and forum boards. Member A will post an article or quote. Member B, upset by it, will say something such as, "What a ridiculous idea," or something unprintable. Member A, though, views it as a personal attack rather than a reaction to the quote.

If you're responding, be clear what and whom you're responding to. If you're posting an opinion, quote, or article, and you don't agree with what you're posting, say so.

8: Tongue-in-cheek or for real?

Despite their advantages, e-mail and texting pose dangers regarding misunderstanding. Because we can't see the person we're communicating with, that person can't see that we might be smiling when we talk. Therefore, that tongue-in-cheek statement we send just might be interpreted seriously. At a minimum, send emoticons with your message. To be safe, I envelop my tongue in cheek comments, using "lol" (or, when using Chinese, 呵呵 pinyin "hē hē") at the beginning AND at the end of my statement. Use tongue-in-cheek comments and emoticons only if you know the recipient really well. Avoid this practice with others.

9: Literal translations

While we're on the topic of other languages: Be careful about literal translations. An idiomatic expression in one language could sound completely stupid when translated word for word into another. For example, the German statesman Heinrich Lübke, while hosting Queen Elizabeth II, once said to her while they were sitting in a concert hall, "Equal it goes loose." He was trying to tell her that the performance soon would be begin, but tried to so via a literal translation of the German gleich geht es los. If you try similar word-for-word translations, you too could end up with nonsense.

10: E-mail for information or e-mail to request action?

The batter hits a fly ball to the outfield, right in between the left fielder and the center fielder. While each looks at the other, the ball falls to the ground. The late Yankee broadcaster Phil Rizzuto referred to such a play as an "Alphonse Gaston," in reference to the comic strip characters, two overly polite Frenchmen who always say to the other, "After you."

If you're sending an e-mail to multiple recipients and you're asking for action, make sure a specific person is assigned to that action. Put those people in your To: field, not the cc: field. People in the latter may expect that they are copied only for information purposes. Then, mention a person by name when you request an action. Otherwise, like Alphonse and Gaston, each recipient will think (or will hope) that the other recipient(s) are responsible, and nothing will happen.

11: Reference names or reference letters?

If you're preparing or responding to a request for proposal (RFP), be alert to instructions that ask for submission of "references." Is the request merely for a list of reference names and contact information? Or does the request involve the submission of an actual letter of reference? Regardless of what is requested, be clear about it. If you're the vendor, you don't want to be disqualified because you responded incorrectly. If you're the issuer, you don't want a vendor to file a complaint or grievance because of lack of clarity.

About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

9 comments
btompkins
btompkins

After reading item 4, I stopped reading the article long enough to let someone know by e-mail that I was working on their request, good article and thanks for the heads up that someone may want to know you are taking care of it.

ReddogHH
ReddogHH

Chinese, ? is translated to : "To maintain them" ?

captainrickard
captainrickard

What is with you guys and Twitter? I opened my browser this morning to find Twitterfox saying I had tweets waiting. As I went through them a pattern emerged - this thread had been posted 9 times and was posted at least three times within the space of a few hours. Nothing to indicate that they were retweets or that there was any new info, just a straight up link to this article. Did it cost you a lot of money to have this written? Do you feel it necessary to spam twitter to get your money's worth? Blocking you guys from now on as you have a lot to learn about twittiquette.

Calvin T Sun
Calvin T Sun

That's great lol. Thanks for the kind comments. From time to time I post on Twitter on these topics as well. calvin_t_sun.

Calvin T Sun
Calvin T Sun

Hi, I'm sorry but I don't understand the question. thanks.

speculatrix
speculatrix

a good article, thanks. on the subject of languages, be aware that English English and American English can have subtle differences that trip up the unwary. American Spanish and Spanish Spanish can often be very different.

Calvin T Sun
Calvin T Sun

Hi, FYI. In cases like this, it might be better to contact editorial staff directly, rather than posting a comment on this article. I checked, and in fact TRBlogs is tweeting me as well, but with more than just URLs to this article, they're doing it for others as well. Anyway, thanks for alerting them. I hope, if they fix things, you will unblock TRBlogs. Thanks.

Calvin T Sun
Calvin T Sun

Hi, thanks for this post. I noticed the same thing you did--I am seeing multiple Twitter posts, all referring to this article. Sorry for this inconvenience. Be assured I had nothing to do with it, although I did put my own Twitter ID in my bio blurb (calvin_t_sun). I will talk to my editor to find out what happened, and see why it's being posted to Twitter so many times. Thanks. In the meantime, I hope the article itself was useful.

mr_bandit
mr_bandit

My two favorites are: the Englishman who said to an American gal when setting up a date: "I will knock you up at 7p". The English 7th grade student, just moved to America, when writing something in pencil && needs to erase it, says "Does someone have a rubber?" I have not hears any that are in the opposite direction.