Perspectives: Colloquial and formal communication choices

For almost two decades in the international translation business, I’ve encountered language professionals ranging from monolingual editors to multilingual translators, from directors of one-person translation companies to executives of large, multinational translation agencies. The communication tone that these remote business partners use with me varies greatly.

The reasons behind a person’s decision concerning a friendly attitude versus an official one can be manifold. First of all, the culture language professionals live and work in will determine their business attitude in a major way. In some cultures, such as that of the United States, informal communication between professionals working for different companies is much more common than in some other cultures, such as in most Eastern European and Asian countries where business communication is typically more formal and impersonal.

Second, it could reflect the point you have reached in your professional career in terms of revenues and stable and predictable finances. After a certain juncture in your career, when you feel your savings will last for many years and you are no longer worried about your retirement
finances, you tend to allow a personal touch to creep into your previously more formal business communications.

Third, it might just be reflective of the relationship between the two language professionals doing business with each other — the number of years they have been cooperating, whether they have met in person or if their working relationship
is restricted to virtual communication.

It could also be a conscious personal strategy regarding the extent you allow friendships to develop with your remote business partners. There are several arguments supporting the adoption of an informal or outright friendly style of business communication, but the counterarguments are just as numerous and solid. Striking an informal tone with a relatively new and unknown remote client or freelancer might arouse negative feelings and result in alienation or the termination of the business relationship in question. The lack of physical presence means that nonverbal communication is missing either completely (emailing) or partially (in the case of telephone conversations). When communicating by email, which is still the most common form of remote business interaction, the person you’re communicating with is confined to the verbal messages you send them, and this can easily result in unilateral or bilateral offense being taken. In the case of email communication with a lesser-known person, special emphasis needs to be taken on avoiding an informal style, especially at the beginning of the working relationship when miscommunication can happen more easily. Later on, as the parties engaged in business get to know each other better, a careful shift toward a more laid-back conversational style can take place, but preferably in a controlled manner, constantly checking reactions from the other side.

Your personal habits and personality traits govern your human relationships. These can be suppressed to some extent if and when it’s required, but when you deem a business partner more receptive of your friendship as a fellow language professional, there is no need to remain on a strictly formal level.

Lastly, some clients have no intention to pay for your services whatsoever and think that being nice, responsive, helpful and friendly might allay your doubts about their possible intention not to pay for your services.

Whatever the reason, the problems start when one person adopts an unfoundedly informal parlance that borders on arrogance, and doesn’t switch to a formal style despite obvious signs that the other person does not reciprocate the informal attitude. I had a regular agency client based in Los Angeles who was like that. We started cooperating in 2002, and right from the beginning, he kept asking me questions like “are you getting laid?” when trying to assign a project to me and my translation company. I wasn’t even familiar with the meaning of this English phrase at the time, but I immediately suspected bad language. Once I looked it up, I felt insulted, like my work was degraded. I did not dare to ask him to refrain from using phrases like this when inquiring about our availability for their projects because I did not want to lose the client, so I endured this verbal treatment for about three or four years on a very regular basis, often several times a day. Sometimes even on weekends, as this project manager had no respect for weekends or holidays. He kept asking me about my love life, and kept reporting on his latest advances with females. He even went so far as to send me a picture of one of his “regulars”: an attractive lady wearing close to nothing. Eventually, I decided to quit working for the client because I was no longer able to tolerate the humiliating style of this company executive. In hindsight, I should not have agreed to work for them in the first place, but at the time, my company was still young, I had to seize every opportunity to get decent assignments, and they paid relatively good rates.

I have also had some memorable experiences in the course of my career that could be regarded as “positive.” Most notably with a Maltese translation company whose project managers went overboard to express their gratitude each time we accepted and carried out a translation or editing job for them. They used long sentences filled with appreciation and were grateful for our work, which initially felt good. However, after I saw that this was their monotonous routine, and that they probably used the same words with each of the suppliers who delivered translations to them, I started being bored and reciprocated their eulogy less and less frequently. Although this kind of appreciation is much less of a nuisance than being asked on a daily basis if I was “getting laid,” it can become cumbersome after a while to read the very same lines of apotheosis over and over again. It takes away precious time from managing your translation projects and as those active in our business know, time is of the essence.

A positive experience that left no bad taste in my mouth was in relation to a cooperation I engaged in with a small but highly professional American translation company around 2006. This was a one-person company whose director outsourced all her projects to freelancers. My company worked for her on a regular basis for a couple of years but then she became insolvent (her translation business was probably affected by the global economic recession in 2009) and was unable to settle our last invoice. I accepted the situation and decided to let the matter rest. However, in 2014 I thought I’d ask her if her business was back on the right track and if there was a way for her to settle our outstanding invoice. To my surprise, the answer was yes, and an immediate payment was made based on our old invoice. When we had previously cooperated on their translation projects, she appeared to be a friendly but very professional person. But when we resumed our contact, true friendship evolved between us. Our working relationship has benefited from our friendship and it is now me who offers her occasional freelance work from French and German into American English.

In the world (or should I say quagmire) of today’s international translation business, there are all sorts of people offering some sort of language-related service. Many of these language service providers are genuine professionals who offer and provide high-quality language services to their clients but some participants of the international market are of questionable background, competence and intentions, and their informal, misleadingly friendly attitude and parlance often serves to conceal malevolent intent such as that of scammers, substandard-quality service providers and non-paying or low-paying clients.

Friendship between professionals is a wonderful and desirable thing and should be encouraged in general, but care should be taken in establishing who is worthy of your attention and your time as a friend. My advice to those who like befriending some of their business partners is to first get to know them as thoroughly as possible, let some assignments be carried out and paid for successfully, and then gradually switch to a more informal and laid-back style of communication. This way, major embarrassment can be avoided. Jumping into a friendship in the virtual world is laden with incomparably greater hazards than it is in the real world when you meet someone face-to-face, and experience the nonverbal side of communication with them, too. In this respect, the virtual (remote) working relationships evolving in the realm of the international translation community could be likened to the initial (virtual) phase of relationships established on internet-based dating sites where the identity, personality, habits, objectives and intentions of the person sitting at the other end of the line in front of their monitor are equally unpredictable, precarious and hard to decipher. Caution is advised, especially at the beginning.