Succeed in America

Overcome Cultural and Linguistic Barriers. Improve Effectiveness 

Whether we like it or not, we are judged by our voices.If you want to come across positively , you should pay special attention to your voice.When you express yourself at a meeting or make a presentation to a group of people it  is important to have an authoritative and appealing voice. Our voice, its quality and how we create sound when we  speak has a great impact on our ability to influence people, sound credible person and persuade others.

However, if you have these bad voice habits along with a thick accent in addition, you probably often hear “say it again please”, “can you repeat that?” How to fix this? Follow these tips on using your voice effectively.

1. First of all make sure you open your mouth enough when you speak. To do this make sure you do not clench your teeth and also drop your jaw slightly. Imagine that you are chewing a big piece of gum. This will ensure that sound travels freely in the mouth cavity and leave your mouth with a better resonance.

2. Make sure that when you speak that you have at least 2.5 centimeters (one inch) of space between your upper and lower teeth. This will help you to enunciate better, make lips more animated and your voice will sound clear.

3.Before a meeting or presentation, make yourself yawn. This will relax and stretch vocal and throat areas. Do it over and over gain until you feel that your face and mouth muscles are relaxed enough.

3. Drink lots of water. You need enough water in your bloodstream for your vocal cords to be properly hydrated.  We need about 1.5 liter of day.

4. It is very important to evaluate yourself! The best way to do that is to record yourself and play it back. Do it over and over again until you are satisfied with results.

5. Join a Toastmasters Club in your area.  Toastmasters  International is an educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills. It is a perfect place to practice your voice and to get a constructive feedback from other members.

6. To take a step further in improving your voice, download the free Your Speaking Voice manual from the Toastmasters online store.

Remember, your speaking voice is a big part of your image.  Don’t neglect it. Improve and perfect it!

One of the most common questions I get from my seminar participants is “How do I begin a conversation at work?” In other words, “How do I start small talk?”  This is a great question because the importance of small talk is huge in business and you need to use it to your advantage.  And if you are a non-native speaker of English, as added benefit, practicing small talk will increase your English language proficiency.

First, what is small talk? Let’s define it. It is non-business related conversation. It is discussing things unrelated to business and work, such as weather, family, hobbies, or weekend plans.

Why making small talk is important? Here is why. You can be the best specialist in the field but,  progress in your career, is highly dependent on your ability to build good working relationships with people at work. Why? Let’s face it — our success depends on people. Small talk is an effective way to connect with people and to build relationships, including relationships at work.

Can you engage in small talk at a business meeting?  Yes, you can, but you need to know when and how.  Here are a few important tips:

1. When. Always make sure you arrive at the meeting a few minutes before start time. You can and should make small talk while you wait for the meeting to start. Dominant word here —“before.”

2. What topics to discuss? You should discuss things unrelated to the meeting (general-interest subjects)  such as weekend plans, weather, family, hobbies, mentioned above, and movies, theater, sports, books, food, travel.

3. What small talk topics to avoid? Generally, avoid any topic that may concern private or personal matters. There are three major topics you should avoid when socializing in the United States: personal finances, politics, and religion.

  • Personal finances: Personal money management in the US is considered to be a private matter. Asking about personal spending or income is considered very rude. Especially, do not discuss salaries or how much another person makes. Matters of general interest, such as prices of gas or groceries would be acceptable. 
  • Discussing politics: Avoid political discussions. Politics is a very complicated and personal topic and is not an acceptable friendly small talk.  
  • Discussing religion: Religion and religious views  are also considered to be a private  and very personal matter and should not be discussed in business environment.

My best piece of advice for polite  small talk  —  always avoid any subject that may be of  an emotional nature.

Here are some more tips and examples:

  1. Look approachable: smile, have eye contact with others, have an upright posture, and open stance.
  2. Don’t be afraid to initiate a conversation. Say: “Hi, John (Eddie, Laura), how are you?”
  3. Keep a positive, light tone, don’t get too emotional, and listen.
  4. Always finalize a conversation graciously. Don’t simply cut it off. Say something like “It’s been great talking with you.”  “I really enjoyed hearing about…” “I’d love to hear about it when we have another chance to talk.”  “It was nice chatting with  you… (catching up with you…) Or just  say: “Nice talking to you” and smile.

Here are two possible scenarios that suggest techniques for small talk.

1. Gloria arrives a few minutes early for an office meeting. Jayesh, a colleague she knows well is already in the room. 

Gloria:   Hi Jayesh, how are you?

Jayesh: Great thanks, and you?

Gloria:  Well, I’m well. And enjoying the golden fall (autumn) in New England.

Jayesh:  Fall is great.  But I am also looking forward to winter. I love skiing and snowboarding.

Gloria:  The meeting is about to begin. I’d love to hear about it when we have another chance to talk.

2. Jayesh arrives early for a departmental meeting. A colleague from another department that he does not know, is already sitting at the table.

Jayesh:   Hi I am Jayesh. Are you here for the meeting on…?

Peter: My name is Peter, nice to meet you. I am from the Los Angeles office.

Jayesh:  Is it OK if I sit here? 

Peter:  Of course.

Jayesh: How do you find Washington this time of year?

Peter: Very hot, it is hotter than LA (Los Angeles).

Jayesh:  Really? Amazing! Listen, I have a pool party today at my house. If you are free, would like to join us? 

Peter: Sure. Thank you.

Jayesh:  The meeting is about to begin. Let’s talk about it after the meeting.

Listed below are sample conversational  phrases and questions that you can use to start and maintain small talk before a meeting starts.

Can I sit here? Is it OK if I sit next to you?  Is this seat vacant?

Did you get to the presentation on…(related to the meeting)? What did you think?

How are things working out with your new manager? (new boss/new colleague)

Have you been involved in this project before? How is it going so far?

Have you travelled far? How do you find our city? our weather? Is it your first visit?

Which department do you work in?

Did you see/watch football (soccer, basketball) last night?

How was your holiday? 

How did you like Florida (New York)? 

Have you been to this part of the country before?  

Have you been here before?

Want to watch the video on this topic? Click here

 You may also like: Three Vital Tips for Building Confidence in Business Meetings 

tn[2] (2)**Dr. Nara Venditti is the owner of Succeed In America specializing in business communication skills for foreign-born professionals and cross-cultural communication in the workplace. She is passionate about helping non-native speakers of English succeed in the American workplace and educates on Business English and communication across language and cultural divides. She is  the author of numerous articles and books on the topics available on SucceedinAmerica  and  on  Amazon amazon-underground-app-us-black.    

Learning any foreign language is a lifelong process. And learning American English is no exception.

When people first begin learning a language they start with the basic grammar and vocabulary. But ultimately, to be able to function effectively in business and in work related situations, you need to master communication skills.

 One of the great ways to start building communication skills is to work with a mentor and/or a buddy. Let’s define the word “mentor”. (I’ll define the word buddy later in this post).

 A mentor is someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced person. It is a trusted counselor or guide (Merriam-Webster).

 Some companies offer mentoring programs. But if it is not the case, ask for a mentor, be assertive.  Speaking with assertiveness means to speak with confidence, it is respecting yourself while respecting others. Make sure you differentiate between assertiveness and aggressiveness.

 Below are some phrases for helping you to find a mentor:


– I need help in improving my communication skills and to learn my way around the company. Can you refer me to a mentor?

– Does the company offer a mentoring program?

– Would you act as my mentor? Can you be my mentor? Can you refer me to a mentor?


You can also ask for a buddy. A buddy  can be a friend, a more experienced employee, a member of the team.


– Can you introduce me to a buddy who can help me to get oriented in the company and to improve my communication skills?
– Will you be my buddy?

Cultural values often govern how people perform,  react to aspects of their work, and interact in the workplace.

What are cultural values? There are many definitions of cultural values.  Many scholars define values as consciously and subconsciously held set of beliefs and norms – often reflected in the morals, laws, customs, and practices of the society. Simply put, cultural values are the basis for establishing a system of moral principles governing the appropriate conduct within the culture.

Because of increasing diversity in the American workplace, successful mangers and employees need to understand how cultural values play out in the workplace. Consider this example.  An American and Asian employee were assigned to a particular project.  Their manager critiqued their work. The American employee spoke up in defense of his performance while the Asian employee remained silent.  The manager may mistake the Asian’s reaction to signify agreement or incompetence.  Since respectable assertiveness is valued in the American workplace,  the manager would likely think more highly of the American employee. The result could affect promotion opportunities.  The assertive employee is more likely to move up in his career than the Asian employee.
Strong accent can have an enormous impact on how people are perceived. In a University of Chicago study, it was found that people with  non-native accents are perceived as”  less credible” than those with native accents. Many non-native speakers understand this  and believe that it is pronouncing sounds correctly that will help to make themselves understood and  to make their point. This is true but my  advice to you – don’t focus just on difficulties you have with some sounds.  In many  cases, intonation is much more important. Take so called tag questions. Tag Questions, or, questions tags, are short phrases that change a declarative statement into a question .For example, “You are Vanessa Del Monte, aren’t you?”,  “aren’t you?” is the tag question. Just as in many languages, tag questions are more common in everyday spoken conversational English including its business variety. However, in English, different intonation or music in tag questions, carries different meaning. Two examples of the same statement “You are moving to New York, aren’t you?”: 1) with falling intonation, “aren’t you?” implies that you are sure of something and looking for confirmation.  (I am sure that you are moving and I want your confirmation) 2)      with rising intonation, “aren’t you?” expresses uncertainty. (I am not sure you moving and I want an answer) . Although a sentence may be grammatically correct and pronounced correctly, the wrong intonation of a tag question may convey unintended meaning. Consider the following situation involving an ELL and ESL learner.  While on a date at a restaurant you say, “You like this restaurant, don’t you? With rising intonation, “don’t you?” sounds like you are asking if she likes it. However, with falling intonation don’t you? sounds like you are telling her to like it. What do you think her reaction will be?  Right, you guessed.  This could be your last date with this person. Consider another situation. You are planning a one day vacation and you ask your colleague to cover your desk for a day. “You will cover my desk, won’t you?”  With rising intonation, it will sound as if you are politely asking for help.  With falling it will sound as an order or assignment which you are not  authorized for anyway. What will it do to your relationship?  You’re right again.  Nothing good.   To summarize, be careful when using tag questions.  Their intonation may send a wrong message.  
It is a fact of life.  English language usage can be confusing. For your information, I am going to list some of confusing groups of words.  Read them through and then download  a useful tool for communicating in Business English,  Succeed in America Guide to Most Commonly Mispronounced, Misspelled and Confused Words in Business English. Download here. 1. Some words sound alike and spelled alike but have different meanings. These words are called homonyms. course – direction (as in  “the ship took course for the island”) course – series (as in “course of lectures”) course – track (as in “golf course”) bow [bau] –  as  in “to bend over at the waiste” bow [bou] – a decorative looped knot waist [weist] — usually the thinnest part of the body between the ribs and the hips waste [weist] — throw away, misuse vast — very big, huge Others sound alike but have different meaning and spelling.  These are called homophones. piece – peace weight – wait plain – plane And then there is another group of words called heteronyms. They have different pronunciation and meaning but the same spelling. polish [‘poulish],  as in nationality – polish [‘palish], as in polish your car live [liv], as I liv in New York  – live [laiv], as in live lobsters tear [tear], as in tear a paper – tear [tiar], as in she was in tears bow [bou], as in  1.  bend over, 2. loped knot – bow [bau], as in tree branch And then there is a fourth group of words that are spelled differently, mean different things but have somewhat similar pronunciation and esy to confuse. alteration – altercation sedative – sedentary – seductive perceive – persist shovel – shuffle vacation [vei‘keishn] – vocation [vou‘keishn] walk – work And finally, there are words which are may mean almost the same thing, but cannot be used interchangeably assure – ensure – insure fewer – less It is almost impossible to avoid mistakes with English usage, but you can avoid many of these mistakes by using  Succeed in America Guide to Most Commonly Mispronounced, Misspelled and Confused Words in Business English. Download here. Any additions? E-mail us or leave a comment below.
In the English language, there are words and expressions that are used more frequently than others. While the subtleties of how they are used can be confusing for non-native speakers of English, recognizing and using them properly will help improve conversational English – due to their higher frequency of usage in spoken English. Two such words are “can” and “can’t”. These words have opposite meaning and are often confused by non-native speakers (ELL and ESL students and professionals) because they may sound the same to a foreigner’s ear. What is confusing is that native speakers tend to reduce the vowel in “can” and omit the “t” in “can’t”. Misunderstanding and misusing them may create havoc in business. I will illustrate using a few examples: CAN: What a baby can do? A baby can cry. A baby can eat. In these two sentences, CAN is used along with a verb (cry and eat). Here “can” is pronounced as [kÉ™n] or [kn]. In other words the “a” sound [æ] is reduced. However, in some cases [æ] is not reduced, not stressed: 1. When CAN is the last word in a sentence: E.g., Yes I CAN – [kæn], or:I will do it as soon as I CAN. 2. When used as negative, both in full – CANNOT and abbreviated – CAN’T. E.g., You CANNOT or CAN’T use the pool after 9 PM. 3. When it is stressed, or emphasized. E.g., I will prove to you that I CAN run a marathon. CAN’T: What a baby can’t do? A baby “CAN’T” speak or A baby “CAN’T”walk. A non-native speaker may not distinguish this subtle difference and this may sound much like “CAN” [kæn]. So, CAN is not stressed Except for thee three situations listed above). CAN’T is always stressed which means the negative form of can is very strong. One Last tip, to be 100% sure 1) Ask to clarify – Do you mean “CAN” or “CANNOT?; 2) Use the full word – To express negative, say – I “CANNOT”. Practice: read aloud the sample sentences listed in this article a few times until you get it right.
Recruiters need to keep in mind that behavioral interviews may be misleading when dealing with multicultural candidates, especially those who interview for certain categories of jobs in entry level or technical positions. In the US, much emphasis is placed on performance during behavioral interview phase of hiring process. When determining who is the best candidate for the position, sometimes in the US we are getting too carried away with the significance of the results of the behavioral interview. However, behavioral interviews are pretty much prepared answers, and they very often indicate candidates’ ability to self-promote rather than do the  job. Describing past experiences and accomplishments may be very challenging for the candidates from high context cultures (e.g. Asia, Latin America).  Self-promotion is not appreciated in many parts of the world.  When we look for the best candidates regardless of his or hers background we need to keep that in mind. In my opinion, skill tests are much more objective particularly when we are dealing with foreign-born candidates. Note: link to YouTube