workplace cultures – considerations for ESL teaching

In a recent ESL class, discussion among students surrounding the nature of relationships between employees and employers has led me to note down my observations and reflections.

For one thing, I am struck by the assumptions we all make about how to communicate in the workplace, which is made up of a series of protocols, of specific language and standards. I am also struck by how most of us take for granted the work values of our own culture, and tend to accept them and adapt ourselves more or less successfully. Also, I was struck by how often our un-examined assumptions about how to interact with bosses and co-workers in the workplace transfers from one workplace to another, from one region or country to another, or from one sector to another.

In Canada, I began to be aware of the implied “ways of working” when I was working in catering as a student manager. I would often observe the ways members of different groups would interact with one another. Priests, Professors and College students all have different cultures, and all have differing ways of using language to confer status, make requests and suggestions, and defer to others, among other things.

From an international perspective, I certainly understood there were stark differences in values and communication protocols in mid-90’s Poland while teaching English in different high schools and technical university and to private clients. The emphasis on protocol and formalized written and spoken communication was often ignored when I communicated in typical North American fashion. Also, it was a time of economic transition, where old traditional workplace communication methods were being displaced by European and North American workplace values.

Some of my ESL students asked about English equivalencies for how to formally communicate in a workplace setting. The use of flowery language, for example, is seldom used in modern Canadian workplace communications such as emails and memos, largely because of the Plain Language communications protocols now in place in most government agencies and non-profit organizations, and increasing adopted by private companies. Plain Language emphasizes clearer, more direct communications.

While discussing phrases to use in voice-mails and emails when communicating with employers and other professionals, some ESL students explained their workplace culture required complete disclosure of private, personal details when giving reasons for absences, lateness, and when asking for time off. Concerns were raised by students about not disclosing details. I explained that it depended on the situation, but that in many cases, employees can use standard reasons such as

1. I am not feeling well.
2. I have a family emergency.
3. I have important personal matters to attend to.

When employers ask if an employee can stay late, or work an extra shift, an employee can decline and say the following:

I am sorry, but I have a prior commitment.

These standard phrases can be used by employees when communicating to employers, without necessarily having to explain and give further details.

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