business English

Business English and likeability

Our final guest post in Business English month comes from English teacher, coursebook writer and blogger Vicki Hollett. It’s not the first time Vicki is contributing to Macmillan Dictionary Blog. This time she discusses the difference between business talk and ordinary conversation, and defines the language of business in a couple of adjectives.


How is business talk different from ordinary conversation? If I had to describe it in just one word, it would be ‘purposeful’. After all, it’s the language folks use to get things done.

To paraphrase John Heritage and Paul Drew*, the nature of the task in hand constrains and shapes the structure of our talk. The cool thing about this is business conversation can be more predictable than we might expect. Unlike mundane conversation which can go any which way depending on people’s whims, business conversation often follows a path that’s dictated by what needs doing. The route might even be a printed meeting agenda. More often though the restraints and limits are less tangible, but the need to accomplish this or that guides business conversations.

But what makes business talk really interesting, I think, is the human element. Things don’t generally happen unless people want them to so influence and relationships are really important as well. Along with the transactional stuff we find people sharing personal experiences that might bond, compliments and signals of appreciation, attention to status and role and avoidance of unwelcome intrusion. Plus jokes, of course, and lots of small talk. As Deborah Tannen* pointed out, talk at work is not confined to talk about work.

A telling study was published in the Harvard Business Review* about five years ago. They looked at who people turned to at work when they needed help and found that, given a choice, we turn to folks we like. Curiously that could mean choosing a lovable fool over a competent jerk. But perhaps it’s not so curious. We’ve always known that people like to do business with people they like.

So here’s another adjective to describe business English: it’s ‘likeable’ language. I think it’s language for making friends and winning respect and influence. But how would you describe it?

John Heritage & Paul Drew, (1992) Talk at Work, Cambridge University Press
Deborah Tannen (1994) Talking from 9 to 5. Women and Men in the Workplace: Language, Sex and Power, Avon, New York
Tiziana Casciaro & Miguel Sousa Lobo (2005) Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools and the Formation of Social Networks, Harvard Business School Publishing

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Vicki Hollett


  • I agree with Ms. Hollet, business talk should take into account the human element. As a teacher I have met different students, mainly executives , who are really worried about learning specific words but once they are in touch with foreign partners, they realize of the importance of sharing ordinary experiences with others. Then it becomes more important to talk about their own interests to make a real and good conversation. Teachers have to work hard to make confident students.
    Claudia Q.
    English teacher

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