The November/December issue of Global Trade Magazine featured an article by international trade consultant John Freivalds entitled “Guerilla Linguistics: How a Small Set of Foreign Phrases Can Make a Large Impression.” In it, Freivalds takes issue with the idea that you have to know a language well to use it effectively in international business.
This isn’t a new topic for Freivalds. He has been pushing the usefulness of “guerilla linguistics” for at least the past 20 years through his consulting business JFA Associates. According to Freivalds, even if you only have a couple of days before you travel to a totally new country you can learn enough language to “make a favorable impression or improve your negotiating position.”
The key is to know the right words. Common words and phrases of the type that tourists learn are not going to impress anyone. The trick is to find one or two phrases that are commonly used in business conversations in that country, learn their pronunciation, and become familiar with the contexts in which they can be used. Then look for the right moment to slip them into the conversation.
Examples of guerrilla linguistics
He gives the example of an American business man suddenly commenting “C’est pas evident” in reaction to a proposal. “This phrase, which is acceptable spoken only in French, cast doubt on the effectiveness of a strategy or the feasibility of a project.” His correct use of it favorably impressed his French counterparts.
Another example is of some Japanese businessmen who were trained to throw in the phrase “That’s in the ballpark” at an appropriate time in price negotiations. Imagine the Americans’ reaction when this came from someone who, as far as they knew, spoke only Japanese.
Freivalds says that such phrases not only give a favorable impression but also leave your counterparts guessing how much of their language you actually understand, and wondering if you had overheard something you shouldn’t have, keeping them off balance.
Objections to the guerrilla method
Not everyone may find this as easy to carry out in practice as Freivalds. He was born in Latvia where they really need to know some other European languages in order to do business. He speaks German, English, Spanish, Portuguese and passable Russian. Such an intercultural and multilingual background is certainly going to be helpful in dealing with new languages and cultures.
One also has to wonder how well this tactic would work in an ongoing business relationship as opposed to a one-shot meeting or negotiation. The other team certainly couldn’t remained fooled about your level of understanding over a prolonged period of interaction.
As one article put it, “Although guerrilla linguistics may bring momentary success, the tactic is only temporary and probably works best for someone who has much global experience and speaks several languages.”
Knowing a couple of phrases is also not a substitute for getting a good background briefing on the culture and business customs of the country you plan to transact business in—or for developing your overall “cultural intelligence” through training and experience.
Nevertheless, learning some useful business phrases can be a means of demonstrating your cultural savvy and real interest in forming cross-cultural bonds.
How to do it
If you want to give his ideas a try, Freivalds says that you should ask a native speaker in the country to give you a list of suggested phrases and then check the list with a second source. Next, pick a couple of phrases that are likely to be relevant to the type of meeting you expect and practice the pronunciation (with appropriate hand gestures) until you can say them smoothly. You can also get some on the spot coaching from your interpreter.
Then just listen carefully for a chance to surprise everyone with your local knowledge.
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