Category Archives: Business English

Your Professional Reputation: that tricky ing

The Dutch have both a good rep and and a bad rep when it comes to English.

The good: They all speak it reasonably well.

The bad: They only speak it reasonably well.

This only really matters when it’s your professional reputation on the line: when you need to speak English more than reasonably well in order to get the respect of your international partner, to seal the deal, the impress the client, etc.

When starting a new project, I usually have some email contact with my future clients before I’ve met them. They usually end their emails with “I am looking forward to meet you on Monday.” If you see nothing wrong with this sentence, read on.

“I am looking forward to” is always followed by “something”
I am looking forward to the party on Saturday night.
I am looking forward to Spring.
I am looking forward to the launch of our new product line.

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The party, Spring, and the launch are all nouns. Whenever you want to put a verb (work, think, see) where a noun belongs, you have to use the -ing form of the verb, called a gerund (working, thinking, seeing).

I am looking forward to celebrating Queen’s Day.
I am looking forward to meeting you on Monday.
I am looking forward to travelling this summer.

This is also commonly seen in the expression “I am used to…”

I am used to Dutch weather. (noun)
I am used to having cheese sandwiches every day for lunch. (gerund)

It’s really that easy. If you can put a noun there, use a gerund. When in doubt, do a quick google search of the verb you are using and “gerund or infinitive”–by avoiding these small errors, you project competence.

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Work hard, play hard

In the US, the work hard, play hard motto is ubiquitous, especially in corporations. I think I first encountered it in college around 2002, or at least that’s the first time it stayed with me. Even back then I thought there was something deeply disturbing about this concept, something wrong with the notion that your whole life has to be hard. Organizations claim that this phrase encourages work-life balance, but let’s be honest: what it really communicates is the idea of doing everything at full blast.

What does play hard really mean?English courses Utrecht

I’m sure the form it takes differs, but in my experience it means employees playing (partying) together: binge drinking, all-night parties, crazy behavior that typically would not be accepted at work but is during the party period, and then getting up at 7am on a Saturday morning and working all day. I question: When did you sleep? Plus, if you are partying with your coworkers, is this really time away from work, or work-sponsored partying?

Wikipedia claims: “This work-play balance is similar to the concept of work-life balance.”

However, if all parts of your life are hard, where’s the balance? The concept of “life is hard” is everywhere, but I still strongly associate it with the US. There, it has taken the form of “Life is hard: work all the time,” but no one talks about how your productively plummets when you live such a lifestyle, not to mention what happens to your stress levels.

The more time I spend in Europe, the greater the rift that grows between me and the US culture of working non-stop and then playing hard. Such a lifestyle would never have been my choice, though what interests me is why people still think it’s not only normal, but also the preferred way to live.

We know Americans view Europeans as lazy: shops are closed on Sunday, everyone gets at least 6 weeks of vacation every year,  and you can’t get anything done in August. Compare this to the 24 hour superstores and 2 weeks of vacation and it doesn’t make sense that US productivity per employee per hour is lower than the Netherlands and some other European countries. I am not an economist, but it seems like if you compare productivity per hour worked, a number of European countries come out better than the US:

Europe: More Holidays and More Productive?

List of countries by GDP (PPP)

So why continue to promote this destructive culture? By destructive I mean destructive of your health, both physical and mental, and destructive of your relationships outside of work.

Fortunately, not all companies are continuing to promote it. After analyzing their alcohol-related incidents at work, the U.S. Air Force tried to change their motto from work hard, play hard (which in practice had become work hard, play recklessly) to work hard, play smart.

How about work hard, then relax? Spend some time with your family? Take the weekends off to recharge? Employees should be able to decide for themselves how they spend their free time.

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Your Professional Reputation: the conditional

If you’re trying to come across as professional and capable of speaking English at a high level, even the smallest giveaway can clearly demonstrate that your English is not up to par.

One of the most common pitfalls for non-native English speakers occurs when people want to talk about a conditional. This can be a hard habit to break since it is a direct translation from Dutch.

The big blunder in the Netherlands is putting the will/would in the “if” part of the sentence:

Right: If I get a promotion, we will go on vacation.
Wrong: If I will get a promotion, we will go on vacation.

Right: If you ran a marathon, you would be really tired.
Wrong: If you would run a marathon, you would be really tired.

Sometimes, students are confused because they think that because we use the past tense (if you ran) then we are talking about something that happened in the past. Not true, this is just an idiosyncrasy of English: we use the past simple to talk about a future condition.

Another common problem is when people mix up if and when as if they are interchangeable–they’re not!

As a rule of thumb, conditionals always start with if:

If means that you are not sure something will happen. When means that you know it will happen, you’re just not sure if it will be tomorrow, next week, or next year.

Be careful: If you start a conditional sentence with when, it can change your meaning entirely and you may end up saying something you don’t want to.

If we rob this bank, we’ll be rich. (I haven’t decided yet if we will rob the bank. No need to call the police.)
When we rob this bank, we’ll be rich. (Decision made! We are so robbing the bank. Don’t say this too loudly.)

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Your Professional Reputation: Fired or Laid off?

In our current economic climate, more and more people are losing their jobs. In the Netherlands, we have been hearing about the casualties every week on the news: 3000 from one company, 800 from another. If you find yourself among the ever-increasing number of unemployed, Dutch and foreign alike, you should do all you can to increase your chances of future employment, starting with changing your vocabulary.

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“I got fired” is the go-to expression in the Netherlands. However, this expression implies that you did something wrong and that you left your company on bad terms. When you say “I got fired,” you will usually be asked to explain what happened (you weren’t performing, you cooked the books, you couldn’t get along with your manager). Most companies are going to view the phrase “I got fired” as code for “I was a bad employee and my company had to get rid of me.”

Most likely you will want to use “I got laid off”: because of circumstances outside of your control, the company could no longer afford to employ you (and probably many of your co-workers). This expression implies that you could be a good employee, but your business division or your job was made redundant. It strengthens your argument if you can say something along the lines of “I survived three rounds of layoffs before it was my turn.”

Another neutral option is “I lost my job.” Use this when you don’t want to give information about the circumstances surrounding your dismissal.

Best of luck on the job market!

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