Learn with Lloyd!  As you know, mastering English language isn’t easy.  After all, it’s the world’s biggest language — the result of a collision between two language families (the Latin of Old French, and the Germanic of Old English) nearly a thousand years ago, with countless contributions and influences from other cultures ever since.

Explore Learn with Lloyd! for a few tips on improving your English skills.  Check out my previous posts, and if you’re interested in private coaching/instruction, please contact me directly (see my “About Lloyd” page — link at top right of this page).

Enjoy learning!

~ Lloyd ~

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It seems that writing is becoming more common than speaking!  Digital devices are prompting us to express more and more of our thoughts in written form.

Like speech, our everyday writing is diverse and imperfect.  Even extensively edited written work is never “perfect.”  But if you want to refine your writing style, copy short pieces you consider well written.  As mentioned in my previous post “Building Your Writing Skills,” copying is a natural and relaxing way to immerse yourself in sentence structures and styles you want to emulate.  Start modestly: choose one or two paragraphs from articles or stories you enjoyed reading, or short sample documents related to your work or field, and copy them.  Be sure to review your copy to correct typographical errors, and then SAVE it for future reference.  (Saved copies provide good samples for occasional review, as well as easy-to-find resources for research or writing projects.)

If you’re serious about refining your writing skills, try a double translation (a.k.a., back-translation).  This is more challenging than simply copying, and it’s a highly effective writing improvement activity.  Follow these steps:

-1- Select a short piece of English writing you admire, and translate it into your native language.

-2- IMPORTANT: Wait a few days (or even weeks) so that the original English wording is no longer fresh in your memory.

-3- Without looking at the original English, translate your translation back into English.

-4- Finally, compare your English translation with the English original.  Notice the differences in word choices, sentence structures, and other elements: pay special attention to the features of the original English that you did NOT include or incorporate fully in your back-to-English translation.  You’ll learn a lot from this comparative analysis, and you can manage it yourself, without guidance.  In fact, your “teachers” are a) the writer of the original text, and b) yourself.

Learn effective writing techniques from writers you admire … and from your own comparative-analytic skills.

(photo by Bonnie Yoon Bishop)

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By choosing good example texts and using the techniques described in my posts “Refining Your Writing with Double Translations” and “Building Your Writing Skills,” you can improve your writing independently.  Choose sample documents or texts that you enjoy or admire.

Below are just a few examples of short texts that native and advanced non-native English speakers might study, some with links to the original material online.

REPORTING: Journalistic reports, feature stories

Well-written news reports are widely available: again, I suggest you work with an article you enjoyed reading or admired for some reason.  Here’s a sample article that I admired for its content — a compelling story of Afghan girls persevering in their effort to attend school despite violent antagonism from those who would like to prevent them from getting an education:

“Afghan Girls, Scarred by Acid, Defy Terror, Embracing School”  by Dexter Filkins

Obituaries — brief biographies of people who have recently died — can be interesting.  Here’s one I enjoyed about the unusual life of a performer who had a special relationship with elephants (and one elephant, in particular):

“Ben Williams, Half of an Elephant Act, Dies at 56” by Douglas Martin

Here’s a humorous report on ethnic joke-telling traditions in a remote region of Russia:

“In Dagestan, Laugh Track Echoes Across Mountains” by Ellen Barry

Here’s a well-worded article on the natural world from National Geographic magazine, profiling two neighboring national parks — Glacier (in the U.S.), and Waterton Lakes (in Canada):

“Crown of the Continent” by Douglas H. Chadwick

ESSAYS: Opinion pieces, editorials, reviews

The op-ed (opinion-editorial) pages of a publication can be worth studying.  Many newspapers reserve the last two pages of the front section for editorials (pieces written by the editorial staff of the publication), letters to the editor (readers’ responses to previously published pieces — selected by the editors), columns (opinion pieces by syndicated columnists or regular contributors to the publication), and opinion pieces (essays by various contributors).  And of course, reviews of books, movies, museum exhibitions, and nearly any cultural artifact or event are ubiquitous!

Here’s a short essay that effectively weaves narrative elements into a persuasive commentary on common prejudices about aging and older people:

“Old Age, From Youth’s Narrow Prism” by Marc E. Agronin, M.D.

SHORT FICTION: Short stories

Short stories offer many of the insights and pleasures of novels, with a much-reduced time investment.  Below is a very short list of some stories by American writers that I enjoyed reading or re-reading recently.

Again, I recommend focusing on stories you enjoy or admire.  However, a private student of mine recently committed to studying a story she didn’t like in order to explore certain cultural aspects and understand why it’s so well regarded.  In the end … she still didn’t like it, but she appreciated its cultural content.

Here’s a story with a high-octane narrator (link below to full text at nytimes.com) — it’s from a collection of stories entitled Wild Child by T. Coraghessan Boyle:

“La Conchita” by T. C. Boyle

T. C. Boyle is versatile; the settings and characters in his stories are diverse.  Here’s one more of his pieces available online:

“Modern Love” by T. C. Boyle

I’ll just list a few more authors and stories for your interest.  Visit your local library and read the first few paragraphs of some of these (and other) stories; maybe you’ll find one you particularly like!

Stories by Richard Yates: “A Really Good Jazz Piano”; “The B.A.R. Man”; “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern” (ESL note: Be prepared for a particular New York City accent represented in written dialog in “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern”)

Stories by Alice Munro: “Fiction”; “Face”; “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”; and many others

Stories by Tobias Wolff: “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs”; “The Night in Question”; “The Other Miller”; “Sanity”; “The Missing Person”

Stories by Sam Shepard: “The Remedy Man”; “Living the Sign”; “Dust”; “A Man’s Man”; “Cruising Paradise”; “A Small Circle of Friends”; “Wild to the Wild”

Stories by Ernest Hemingway: “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”; “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”; and many others

(photo by Bonnie Yoon Bishop)

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You’re not going to magically become a better writer just by reading.  After all, would you expect to become a better speaker just by listening?  If you want to build your writing skills, you have to do one thing: write!  Doing assignments for a class is important, and revising after receiving feedback is especially important.  But if you really want to improve your skills, challenge yourself to write regularly … not for class, but for yourself.  Give yourself writing tasks:

Keep a writing journal: Write for 15-30 minutes every day, no matter what.  Write about anything that comes to mind; if nothing comes to mind, write about nothing coming to mind!  It’s good language practice, and writing about “nothing” is still writing; after a few minutes, the very act of writing can stimulate your idea flow.  Journal writing can improve your abilities to organize your thoughts and express yourself precisely, abilities that apply to both writing and speech.

Self-Dictation: Choose an article or story you enjoyed, and record your voice reading it aloud, and then play back the recording as a self-dictation.  Write each sentence, pausing or replaying the recording in the same way a teacher delivers a dictation in class.  Finally, check your spelling and punctuation against the original text.  Regular dictations/self-dictations will improve your writing skills.

Copy good sample paragraphs and entire essays or other documents: Get deeply acquainted with a writer’s word choices and sentence structures.  The text you choose serves as your “tutor” — it demonstrates good writing, and you absorb the lesson well because you’re doing it … not just thinking about it.

As a learning tool, copying is not taboo!  If you consider a particular sentence, paragraph, or essay well written, analyze what makes it well written.  If you want to learn to write like that, copy it!  Copying is a natural way to learn any craft.  Most human skills are acquired largely through imitation: artists copy masters to learn their techniques; musicians practice the works of other musicians and composers; babies learn to speak by imitating adults; second-language learners imitate first-language models.  Unfortunately, the taboo against copying other people’s ideas inhibits many student writers from using copying as a tool for building writing skills.  But this kind of copying is entirely different from plagiarism; private writing practice exercises are not the same as false public presentations of others’ ideas as your own.  Copying is a natural way to boost your writing competence.

Follow Good Examples

Start noticing how writers write.  When you like a piece of writing, examine it closely.  What part did you like the most?  Why?  Did you like certain words/phrases, or the simplicity or complexity of a particular sentence?  What kinds of sentence structures impressed you?

In addition to pieces by professional writers, documents written by your boss, your teachers, your faculty advisor — anyone whose writing you’d like to emulate — are worth considering.  And be sure to examine published articles, brochures, websites, and reports that relate to your field or specialty.  Such documents may serve as excellent models for your own professional writing.  Imitate good models — not just by reading them, but by moving your fingers: respond to them in your writing journal, record and use them for self-dictations, or copy them!

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Small talk does not have to be interesting to be effective.  But you can make it more interesting (or at least less intimidating or unpleasant) if you develop a few good conversational habits.

If you’re not a native English speaker, and you’re trying to build relationships with Americans, strengthening your small talk skills can be extremely helpful in your professional and personal life.  Americans prefer to socialize and do business with people they feel comfortable with; this sense of comfort is often established through light conversation that feels natural and effortless to them — it may take some unnatural effort and strain on your part, but this pain will diminish as you practice the tips presented below!

-1- Focus your attention and imagination on the person you want to talk to.  Imagine what interests or concerns them.  Use your powers of empathy: the ability to put yourself in another person’s place and see the world from their perspective.  Ask yourself what you and your conversation partner may have in common, and start exploring for shared interests.  If this doesn’t work, try commenting positively on something you noticed about your partner — something he or she just did, just said, is wearing, etc.:

“I see you’re wearing a Yankees cap.  Are you a baseball fan?”

“I heard you say you’re from Italy.  What part of Italy are you from?”

-2- Ask questions, especially information questions (those that begin with who, what, where, when, why, and how).  Information questions elicit longer, more interesting responses than simple yes/no questions.  In fact, shy people may answer a yes/no question with a simple “Yes” or “No” and stop there.  Some of the many advantages of questions are:

  • Questions focus on the other person’s attitudes, knowledge, and beliefs, so they are a selfless way to show your interest in others.
  • Once you’ve asked a question, you’ve transferred the job of keeping the conversation going to the other person.  You can relax, listen, and learn something.  What you hear and learn will give you something new to respond to, or to follow up with a more specific question.
  • Questions allow you to steer a conversation where you want it to go.  A good conversation is often guided by good questions, so if you want to avoid “boring” conversations, take the lead by asking thoughtful questions.

-3- IMPORTANT — Ask follow-up questions/comments that seem appropriate in the moment:

“Oh really?  Why?”

“When was that?”

“Where was that?”

“That’s interesting; and then what happened?”

“Wow!  How did you handle that?”

Notice these follow-up questions are open-ended: they seek more than a simple “yes” or “no.”  Since they demonstrate that you are really listening and interested in learning more about the speaker, they encourage meaningful responses and help keep the conversation flowing.

-4- Be sure to respond to any question or comment your partner offers.  He/she has just made the effort to move the conversation forward, so respond generously, with some animation.  If you find yourself stuck, use a basic response such as “That’s interesting” or “So do I” (casual but common equivalent: “Me too”) or “Neither do I” (casual: “Me neither”), and then add a related question or comment to continue the small talk chain:

A: Question or comment

B: Response + question or comment

A: Response + question or comment

B: Response + question or comment

etc.

Continuing the small talk chain takes a little effort, but it’s worth it!  You’ll make a better first impression and strengthen existing relationships if you can keep these light but important conversations going … and make them seem effortless, natural, and comfortable.

-5- Beware of asking too many questions: in small talk situations, people do not want to be interrogated.  If you’ve asked three or four questions, and your partner isn’t moving the conversation forward, consider other ways to get your partner involved:

  • Shift the focus to yourself for a while.  Comment on something that you’ve been actively thinking about, and while you’re talking, try to figure out a question related to your own interests that might engage your partner.
  • Focus on what’s happening around you.  For example, comment on something you noticed or learned about another person in the room.  But avoid gossiping (sharing personal, private, or negative information about people who are not participating in your conversation).
  • Comment on an item in the room, such as a picture on the wall, a book on a shelf, an object on a table, or the scene outside the window.  If the place is bare, picture your location geographically: where are you within the neighborhood, city, region, state, or country?  Think of one interesting aspect of the place where you both are — this is something you and your conversation partner have in common — and share it.
  • If you can’t think of anything interesting, comment on how you arrived there, whether you’ve been in the area before, and ask your partner questions on such “small” topics.

-6- Prepare for situations where you may need to small talk.  Before you arrive in a place where you’ll have to make conversation, imagine what topics might be comfortable for you to mention, and consider what kind of small talk questions people might ask you.  If you’re about to meet someone important for the first time and you want to make a good first impression, rehearse possible responses to typical or expected small talk questions in advance.

For example, if you’re scheduled for a job interview, consider the possibility that the interviewer may ask a question about how you traveled to the interview location.  Now, consider the possibility that your truthful answer at that moment could be negative — but you don’t want to get trapped into making useless negative comments while trying to make a positive first impression, especially in a job interview.  So consider telling a “white lie” (an innocent untruth), and then add a positive follow-up comment.

Let’s say you experienced some difficulties getting to an interview appointment, and right at the beginning of your conversation, the interviewer asks, “How was your trip over here?”  Which of the following responses would be more appropriate?

a) “It was fine.  Your location is quite convenient.”

b) “Oh, the subway was delayed, and the first train that came was full, so I couldn’t get on, and then….”

Since this is a job interview, not a casual chat with a colleague or friend, your best interests are served by response a).  If telling such a white lie is unnatural for you, coach yourself — rehearse such comments before you need them.  Notice the additional positive comment “Your location is quite convenient,” which helps to establish an upbeat tone and keep the small talk flowing (more on this in point 5 below).

Let’s say you had difficulty locating the building where the interview was scheduled to take place, and the interviewer happens to ask, “Did you have any trouble finding our building?”  Which of these responses would be more appropriate?

a) “No, it was pretty easy.  I really like the style of this building.”

b) “Actually, I asked two people for directions and both of them pointed me in the wrong direction, so I was lost until….”

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For adults studying a second language, improving pronunciation accuracy and speaking effectiveness is a long-term process.  This is also true for most native speakers of English who want to fine-tune their diction, neutralize regional accents, and develop greater public speaking confidence.  Whether you’re a native or non-native speaker, whether you’re in a speech class or studying independently, you can improve your oral communication skills on your own by imitating good models.

If you’re serious about refining your speech and accent, you’ll need to practice extensively.  To be most effective, your activities must include the use of audio materials.  Active listening and repeating after a speaker is best, but passive listening — even low-attention listening while doing other things — will also help train your “ear.”

This post suggests resources that may help you refine your accent and boost your speaking confidence:

a) Online resources

b) Public speaking clubs

c) Video

d) Audiobooks

e) Radio

f) Songs and poems

g) Your own audio materials

h) Textbooks with audio components

Choose resources that seem right for you, try more than one type of material, and be ready to stop using a particular tool when you lose interest in it (you may or may not pick it up later, but it’s important to be interested in whatever materials you’re working with).  By choosing your own independent practice materials, your motivation, enthusiasm, and commitment to making progress will be stronger, and you’ll get better results.

a) Online resources for public speaking, presentation skills, and pronunciation are proliferating!  Locate the latest websites by searching with key words such as American English pronunciation, American English accent, accent reduction, ESL listening exercises, public speaking improvement, improving presentation skills, or other phrases that apply to your specific interests.  Your own customized search of relevant sites is the best approach here.  Just to get you started, here’s a site that features an animated audiovisual guide to the vowel and consonant sounds of American English, developed by the University of Iowa: http://www.uiowa.edu/~acadtech/phonetics.

You’ve probably noticed that many online dictionaries have a pronunciation feature.  One well-known example is http://www.dictionary.com.

Also consider using the Internet for high-quality video content, which you can use in many ways to improve your listening and speaking skillssee section c) Video (below).

b) Public speaking clubs may be useful to you.  Contact a club near you, such as a local chapter of Toastmasters International, a network of public speaking clubs that ordinary people attend to boost their skills and confidence.  Toastmasters clubs exist around the world; you can even start your own club (see link to website below).  Some clubs in the New York area may have been formed by non-native English speakers, and the spirit of cooperation and support at any public speaking club means non-natives should be welcome.  For more information, visit http://www.toastmasters.org.

A local club is likely to welcome potential new members, allowing you a chance to get acquainted with the process before joining.  When you’re comfortable and ready, you can plan to make your own practice presentation.

c) Video materials are fun for entertainment, but they can be wonderful learning tools too.  Your independent study task is simple: study selected scenes or dialog lines again and again!

The advantage of video is that it provides visual context for the speech you’re studying: the who, what, where, when, and why of the speaking situation are relatively clear and quickly assimilated.  The disadvantage is that video can distract you from the audio component, which is the real target material for speech/pronunciation study.

Browse the Internet for high-quality video recordings of lectures on topics that interest you.  A good place to start is TED.com.  You can turn on subtitles to ensure you catch every word; then, after you’ve listened 2-3 times, you can turn them off to test your listening comprehension.  For speech fluency and pronunciation practice, pause the playback and repeat phrases (parts of sentences) and even entire sentences after the speakers.

Or borrow from your library (or rent) DVDs of American movies and television shows of interest.  Live TV isn’t nearly as helpful as recorded programs and movies, which allow you to stop, pause, and repeat: you need to have control over your materials to get the most out of them.  Select a scene with a lot of dialog that you’d like to study.  Get familiar with it by watching a couple of times, and then watch it several more times while pausing the playback to repeat after each speaker.  I recommend activating subtitles or closed captions to catch every word.  You may enjoy challenging yourself by listening without captions, but you can do this when watching the entire movie or show, or as a review or self-test.  For selected scene study, at least during your first few repetitions, you are likely to benefit from seeing the words you’re practicing (however, be ready for discrepancies: some captions do not precisely match the actual words spoken).

An additional exercise that is especially useful for English language learners is playing and pausing the scene slowly enough to write down all the words spoken by the actors.  This will allow you to:

-1- Process the English thoroughly, studying idioms, vocabulary, and grammar used in natural conversation

-2- Create your own written script for pronunciation practice.

Movie scripts are often available free on the Internet, but they have some disadvantages: They may be inaccurate or early versions of the script that lack changes made as the film was actually shot and edited, and they encourage you to skip the writing exercise described above — creating your own copy of the script by listening to the actors and reading the subtitles — which is a valuable language learning activity.

d) Audiobooks on CD or in other downloadable media are useful.  If you’re focused on American English, look for audiobooks of recent fiction or non-fiction by American authors.  You might choose books on topics related to your professional or personal interests, or try a novel with extensive dialog, even if it may not be considered “great literature.”  Dialog is particularly useful for speech study, since it represents the way people speak (as opposed to write).  Classic novels written many years ago may be worthwhile if you have a particular interest in them, but be aware that some of the language will be outdated.

As you get started using audiobooks, I highly recommend borrowing material from your school or local public library instead of buying audio products, because you’ll probably need to experiment to see what works for you.  New audiobooks can be expensive, so experiment first with free material.

Your audiobook-study experience will depend partly on your reaction to the voice actors who read the text aloud.  For example, some of these readers speak fast to minimize the length of the audio, which could be irritating.  (Of course, you may be able to compensate for this problem by slowing or pausing the playback.)  Some voice actors will speak in British accents or even imitate non-English accents for dramatic effect, which may not be ideal for someone focusing on U.S. English.  On the back cover of the audiobook package, notice who the reader is — you may prefer to listen to a certain type of voice (male/female, young/old, book author/professional actor).

Be sure to get the print version of the book and use it sometimes with the audiobook, and sometimes without it.  Be aware that many audiobooks, especially business books, are “condensed” or “abridged,” which means some sentences in the print version are not included in the audio version.  If possible, choose an “unabridged” version so that the recording corresponds exactly to the text.

A paid audiobook service worth considering is audible.com, which offers a monthly subscription and access to thousands of audio files, including newspapers.  A paid subscription sites may offer a free trial, allowing you to download a recording to see how you like the service.  You can search such sites for particular authors or types of material; for example, if you particularly like short stories, you might search for “stories” to see some recent works.

e) Radio talk shows can be useful for listening/speaking practice.  For excellent public radio talk programs with few commercial interruptions, try National Public Radio: NPR.org.  NPR programs offer a wide variety of content, and many come with written transcripts that are useful to study along with the audio recordings.  (On the NPR home page, you can search for “Transcripts” to find programs with ready-to-read text versions.)

New York City’s NPR stations WNYC FM 93.9 and WNYC AM 820 provide excellent live-radio programming for NYC-area residents.  Listeners anywhere in the world can access past programs online at WNYC.org (many programs are of national and international interest).

Remember: your active control over audio materials is essential to maximize their effectiveness — use the pause button on the audio player to stop the playback and repeat after the speakers!

f) Songs and poems have a magic quality that goes beyond everyday speech.  Melody and rhythm can help you learn and remember the sounds of words.

Study songs that you like, sung by singers with clear enunciation: the clear articulation of sounds.  Folk songs can be especially useful — the words are often considered as important as the music, so folk singers deliver lyrics relatively clearly.

Practice singing songs with — and without — the written lyrics.  Many lyrics to popular songs are available online at sites like lyricsfreak.com.

If you like poetry, consider memorizing and reciting a short poem that is meaningful to you.  Search the Internet or your library for recorded readings and texts of recent or modern American poetry to ensure that the language is contemporary, not old-fashioned.

g) Your own audio materials can give you insights into your own strengths and weaknesses.  Consider recording yourself reading aloud at home, then listen closely to identify issues that may need adjustment, and practice making those adjustments as you pause the playback.  Choose any materials that interest you for such practice readings, especially materials designed to be spoken aloud, such as dialogs, presentation scripts, and speech transcripts.

A “self-dictation” can help you build your self-correcting abilities, not just for pronunciation but for grammar and word choice as well.  First, audio-record yourself reading a text or speaking spontaneously about a topic that interests you.  Then play back the recording and make notes on pronunciation errors and needed corrections.  (If you spoke spontaneously, without a text, make notes on grammar and word choice edits, in addition to accent issues.)  Next, read and record again with the adjustments you made, and make more changes if needed.  Repeat this process a third time, and you’ll know you’ve improved your speech!

Audio recording software may already exist in your computer, which you can use by installing a microphone.  You may also find a digital voice recorder practical since it’s small, portable, and relatively affordable (Olympus offers a good one for about $90).  Such devices can be useful to record lectures, business meetings, and other events in your life that may require your close attention, but be sure to ask for permission before recording other people speaking.

h) Textbooks with audio components can be excellent tools.  Academic textbooks on pronunciation are usually more thorough and consistent than commercially packaged accent improvement products that are widely available in bookstores and online.  Before buying a textbook, look through several to find one that seems right for you.  Browse — in person — the current items on the shelf at a bookstore that has a textbook department or ESL section.  Here are two examples of recently published academic textbooks packaged with audio CDs; they are designed for intermediate speakers, but their exercises offer useful review for advanced speakers too:

CLEAR SPEECH: Pronunciation and Listening Comprehension in North American English — Student’s Book, 3rd Edition [Student Edition] by Judy B. Gilbert, © 2005 Cambridge University Press.

Focus on Pronunciation 1, Beginning (2nd Edition) by Linda Lane(higher levels available: Focus on Pronunciation 2 and 3), © 2004 Pearson ESL.

My favorite textbook for pronunciation has not been updated with an audio CD, but just for your interest, here it is:  ACCURATE ENGLISH: A Complete Course in Pronunciation, ©1993 by Rebecca M. Dauer, published by Prentice Hall Regents.

Learn with Lloyd! Small talk plays an important role in American business culture.  However, too much of a good thing can be bad!  I got a call recently from an acquaintance who wanted to let me know that he was looking for work and wanted to know if I had any suggestions.  However, instead of getting to the point, he engaged in 10 minutes of small talk.  This would have been OK if he were a close friend, but we aren’t close, so I didn’t understand why he was asking about things like my family’s health!   

Here’s what he said: “Hi!  Long time no talk!  Wow, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!  How have you been?  Did you go anywhere for the holidays?  So how is everything?  Are you still teaching at the university?  How’s your wife doing?  Is she still….?  Oh wow, that’s…!  And your parents — how are they doing?…  As for me, I’ve been….    And then X happened, and….   So I’m looking for a job and….  Can you give me some ideas on…?”

 I was getting impatient with the conversation, and when I finally understood that he was simply networking for useful ideas, I was eager to offer a few quick thoughts and bring the call to an end! 

Different cultures have different assumptions about making a request: the person who called me is from a culture in which 10 minutes of small talk is probably considered good manners.  If you’re from outside the USA, be aware that in requesting information, help, or favors, you’ll probably receive a warmer response from Americans if you make your request early, quickly, and directly

The conversation described above could have been more effective — and my response would have been more thoughtful and substantive — if the caller had been aware of American cultural expectations.  To start, he should have kept small talk to a minimum.  When speaking to acquaintances, associates, and colleagues — in person or on the phone — consider whether two or more of the following are true:

  1. You have a practical purpose or concrete goal for the conversation
  2. Your conversation partner is not a close friend
  3. You haven’t spoken to this person in a long time

 

If two or more of these are true, then limit your small talk to one minute or less (unless your partner initiates more small talk by asking questions).  In the case of my acquaintance, he could have made 2-3 brief small talk comments/questions — “Happy New Year!  How are you doing?  How’s your wife?” — and then moved on to the purpose of his call:

Purpose statement, part 1 — CONTEXT: “Well, the reason I’m calling you today is that I’m looking for a job and….”

Purpose statement, part 2 — REQUEST: “…I was wondering if I could ask you for any suggestions you might have about….”

When making requests or asking for favors from people whose relationship to you is cool or distant, or who may be busy or unreceptive to requests for help, get to the point early, clearly, and concisely, but also politely.  The request above features a few indirect words to soften its directness:

  • I was wondering: indirect introductory phrase
  • if I could ask you: indirect conditional, with the burden of action on the speaker “asking,” not the listener “giving”
  • any: meaning “any possible” — indicates the speaker does not assume the listener has suggestions to offer
  • might: conditional, with an implied “if” — “if you happen to have ideas, or if you can think of anything spontaneously, and if you would be willing to share your thoughts with me”

 

As this imaginary conversation continues, let’s assume YOU are the requester.  If you think the person you’ve contacted may be busy or preoccupied, or if you need the person’s full attention for more than 3 minutes, you should confirm whether this particular time is convenient for such a conversation.

Ask: “Is this a good time to talk?” 

Don’t say: “You sound/seem/look busy.  Are you busy?”  This is confusing because most people are likely to feel somewhat “busy” — and they’re not sure what “Are you busy?” really means.

* * *

If the other person indicates the time is NOT ideal or convenient, ask when a good time to talk would be.  Try to get the other person to propose a time or range of times that would suit his/her schedule.

Ask: “Would there be a better time when I could call you back?”

or: “Is there a particular time that might be more convenient for you?”

Don’t ask: “Can I call you back another time?” 

or: “Can we talk another time?”  This is slightly unpleasant because your partner can imagine the conversation resuming at some future inconvenient time.  It fails to express a desire to find a specific alternate time that would suit that person, and it invites a vague reply of “Yes” or “Sure,” which is not helpful to either of you.

* * *

If the person seems particularly busy, indicate the conversation will be short.

Say: “I just wanted to ask you a couple of specific questions.” 

or: “I just wanted to talk to you for 3 or 4 minutes.”

Don’t say: “I have so many questions I want to ask you!”   Your listener is likely to think, “Oh no!”

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Email can be an excellent way to continue such a conversation.  Unlike a phone call or face-to-face conversation, email gives the recipient time to consider your message and compose a response.  In the case of my acquaintance, an email would have been more effective for both of us than a phone call.  However, the context for every conversation is unique, so use your judgment in choosing (or combining) phone, face-to-face, or email communication. 

For example, during a phone conversation you might realize that email would be efficient for sharing some particular information.  If you propose to send your partner an unsolicited (uninvited) email, refer to it in light, reader-friendly terms such as “short” or “a couple of questions.”

Ask: “Could I email you a short description of what I have in mind?”

or: “Could I email you a couple of  questions I wanted to ask you?”

Don’t say: “Let me email you more information.”  This is somewhat unwelcome because it sounds like an unwanted burden — after all, this person did not ask to be contacted and is unlikely to be eager to receive a load of unsolicited “information.”

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If your conversation ends with an understanding that your partner will contact you if he/she has something of interest for you, be sure to confirm your latest phone number and email address.  

Ask: “Could I give you my email address?  It’s…, and my telephone number is…..”

or: “Let me make sure you have my latest email address.  It’s…, and my phone number is….”

Don’t ask: “Do you have my email address?”  This is slightly uncomfortable because people may not be sure they have it, or they may wonder whether you’re still using the address they may have in their contact list, and they may not be able to check their records right now.  Also, this question invites a vague reply of “I’m sure I do” or “I think so” with no real confirmation, which could result in no email following this conversation!

Even better, offer to send them a follow-up email so they have your address readily available, even if the current conversation doesn’t require a follow-up.  Then they can relax, knowing your contact information will be forthcoming, and your email message may help stimulate a thoughtful, substantive reply, which is the result you’re looking for!

Say: “I can send you a quick email so you have my latest address and telephone number.”

Don’t say: “I’ll send you a follow-up email so you can add me to your contacts.”  This is presumptuous; the term “follow-up” is fine in the workplace, but in a case requiring no follow-up, or when you and the other person are not colleagues, “follow-up” sounds too official.  Also, “so you can…” presumes that people will react in specific, prescribed ways.  Let them decide what to do with your incoming email — don’t dictate what they should do, and don’t assume they’ll do what exactly what you want or need them to do.

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