Last week a friend told me about a teleconference she had with a Canadian client. They had spent a good deal of time in the weeks prior discussing a plan for an organizational change. My friend felt that their plan was a solid one, so she was surprised and upset when he announced that the following week he’d “table it.”
What had changed? Why was he suddenly so ready to give up on their plan? Turns out, he wasn’t. In the U.S., when we talk about “tabling” something, we mean to stop it or to remove it from consideration. In the rest of the English-speaking world, though, “tabling” has practically the opposite meaning: presenting an idea for discussion. My friend’s colleague wasn’t suggesting they give up on the idea but that they proceed to the next step with it.
Her story was a good reminder to me that different cultures—even those that are quite similar—often use different expressions and idioms. It’s important to be aware of them so that you avoid costly or embarrassing misunderstandings.
However, that kind of miscommunication isn’t limited to people of different cultures. Her story reminded me of a misunderstanding I had with a colleague who is of the same nationality, race, gender and generation as me. Even with all those similarities, we still misunderstood each other. She had sent me an email about a project we were working on, and asked me to send the three parts to another colleague “at once.” Since we were toeing the deadline, I assumed she meant that I should send them ASAP, so I sent the first part immediately and planned to send parts two and three as soon as they were completed.
Within a few minutes I received a follow-up email, asking me if I had received her request that I send the three parts at once. I realized—oops!—she had meant “at one time” not “ASAP.” I explained my confusion. She understood, and there were no hard feelings. In our situation the project wasn’t life or death, but I can imagine a similar misunderstanding having bigger consequences in, say, a legal case or an important meeting with a potential client.
I’ve added “table it” and “at once” to my mental list of easily misunderstood phrases. From now on, when I use them, I’ll be sure to add extra clarification.
What other problematic phrases have you found?