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Top Tips Archives - Martin Baker - martinbaker.fr

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In the UK, Debrett’s has long been the recognised authority on etiquette, influence and achievement. It is responsible for listing publishing the The Peerage a listing of hierarchy and titles in the UK. Debrett’s has also long been synonymous with the best of British etiquette and tradition through their range of popular publications, which include the Guide for the Modern GentlemanDebrett’s Wedding Guide and Debrett’s Handbook. This expertise and authority informs their training academy, which offers coaching globally to corporate and private clients in social and interpersonal skills, building confidence and success in both social and professional arenas. So, it is only right that their opinion should be sought when asking the question …

“What is the correct way to write a letter in English?”

The problems in this area are numerous. For one, letter writing is an art form that is slowly being forgotten in favour of e-mail, and the 140-character limit of Twitter. Additionally, which English? There are as many differing forms of English as there are languages in the world. So what is right for British English may not be for American English.Letter So, with the caveat that this is not definitive information, what does the foremost authority of British etiquette have to say about letter writing?

  1. Always use quality stationery for correspondence, whether business or personal. Personal letters should be handwritten on white, ivory or cream paper, with a minimum weight of 100 gsm to avoid show-through. Use a lined under sheet to keep text straight, and use black or blue ink.

  2. A personal letterhead should include postal address, telephone number and email address, but never your name. If budget allows, have letterheads engraved. The envelope should match the writing paper and have a diamond flap. Always date personal correspondence. Don’t frank pieces of personal correspondence – use a stamp

  3. Business letters must be typed, on A4 paper which includes the company logo, postal address, telephone number and email address. If any of this information does not appear on pre-printed business letters, be sure to add the pertinent contact details yourself. Type the recipient’s name and address at the top left-hand side of the letter.

  4. The date goes beneath this, also on the left-hand side. Use ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ if you don’t know the name of the recipient, although every effort should be made to discover their name. If you are familiar with the recipient, use their first name only, e.g. ‘Dear David’. If in doubt, follow how they have styled themselves in previous correspondence. Otherwise, opt for formality.

  5. Add a ‘subject line’ after the salutation – centre and embolden/underline it. This will be useful for sorting, prioritising and filing. Aim not to exceed one sheet of paper – it goes without saying that brevity and precision are vital attributes of business correspondence.

  6. The sign-off depends on the salutation. As a broad rule, if you addressed the letter to ‘Dear Mr Townsend’ the sign off is ‘Yours sincerely’. If addressed to ‘Dear Sir/Madam’, then ‘Yours faithfully’ is correct.

So there you have it! And don’t forget that engraved letterhead 🙂  

References https://www.debretts.com/debretts-a-to-z/l/letter-writing/

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The Battle of Hastings is probably the most famous battle in English History. On Saturday 14th October 1066 the last Anglo Saxon King of England, Harold Godwinson, and his army were beaten by William the Great’s Norman Army. It was 200 years later that his became known as William the Conquerer, at the time of the battle is was William the Great or, to his enemies, it was Norman the Bastard – a reference to his being born out of wedlock to the mistress of Robert I, Duke of Normandy.

About 6,000 Saxon soldiers marched to the site of the battle, a field about 10 km from the town of Hastings and now the site of a town called Battle. They had marched over 400 kilometres from Stamford Bridge near York having just defeated a Viking Army from Norway. They were confronted by 7,000 Norman soldiers, in day long confrontation, resulting in over 10,000 deaths. This tally included the 43 year old Saxon King Harold, who was only 9 months into his short reign. Legend has it that he was killed by a arrow in the eye, a fact depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. His body was never found.

The course of history was changed forever. The victorious Norman became William I of England and promptly replaced the Saxon aristocracy with a French speaking elite who introduced common law and the Domesday Book.

The impact of William’s victory on England was immense. There were changes in the church, language and culture that still exist today. In respect to the language, Norman French became de rigueur, the language of the court. In many respects England was divided, Saxon serfs and Norman masters. the Normans spoke French and the serfs a form of Saxon English.

To read the transcript of this video click here.

Saxon English was influenced by the harsh Germanic and Scandinavian sounds and Norman French with its Latin origins. As time passed the languages began to morph together. Most people know of how Saxon serfs (serf also being a word of French origin) tended their cows, sheep and pigs and then served them to their masters as beef, mutton and pork.

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For example, because of the period of the invasion and the domains where the Normans had a large influence, much English vocabulary in the domains of military, politics, economics, law and cuisine is of French origin.However, tone outcome of this blending of the two languages has resulted in  the actual knowledge of French vocabulary by the English being much greater than one would think.

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English is just badly pronounced French.

I have read this quote many times and I’m unsure who should be credited with this gem, perhaps it was Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) – French Prime Minister. However, there are other suggestions including musketeer d’Artagnan (perhaps more properly Alexandre Dumas) and most recently, language guru Michel Thomas.

In fact Michel Thomas basically builds much of his language teaching method around the very fact that, such are the similarities between French and English vocabulary, you could almost treat it like a code breaking exercise.

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It is important to note however that there are numerous false friends – faux-amies!

I mentioned earlier that Norman French was the language of the ruling classes. It follows therefore, that what remains of the French influence within the English language remains within  that stratum of the language. In other words, social or street English  has continued to evolve at a very fast rate influenced from all corners of the globe but the more formal English remains with its French heritage clearly visible. In today’s world we can see it in the language of law, politics and perhaps most applicable, in business.

For a classic example, look at the French verb proposer. It is a frequent error that natural French speakers translate this verb directly to the English to propose. In fact the majority on the majority of occasions, what they actually mean is to suggest, because the English verb to propose is a very formal suggestion – for example:

I have a business proposition for you

He has proposed marriage to her.

In both cases there is the anticipation of a contract at the end of the process, not evident in the following examples:

Can I suggest that we break for lunch

I don’t know which one to buy, what do you suggest?

I these examples,  the arrangement is far more informal, this being the key deciding word, is the concept being described formal or informal.

Obviously, the French were not the only influence on the English Language. The language has continued to evolve at an incredible pace , further impacted by Shakespeare, science, the British Empire and the internet, to name but a few. However, the fact remains that within the English language is imbedded much French vocabulary, a real bonus for the  francophonie learner. Of course there are the rules of grammar and intonation and  pronunciation    all the other things that your school English teacher kept telling you were so important. Despite all that, and thanks to William the Conquerer, the next time you are stuck for the right word just try using the French word and giving it an English pronunciation – statistically you have a 60% chance of being right!

Bonne Chance! –as they say in English 😉


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The British Press was full this week with stories of a cultural gaffe by a British Minister. 

The Guardian reported “British minister in cultural gaffe after giving Taipei mayor ‘taboo’ watch”

  When it comes to giving gifts in China, there was a lot of scepticism about the whole process under communism, to the point that it became illegal in many states. However, the situation is slowly becoming more relaxed to the point that it is expected, and expect the recipient to refuse your gift a couple of times, you must persist and then they will accept. Since China and Taiwan are very group oriented cultures it is a good tip to present a gift from your group to their group, it is thus less likely to be seen as a bribe. Equally if your company logo is displayed on the gift it can be argued that the ‘gift’ is just a bit of advertising. In addition, don’t spend too much on the gift and if you are giving a gift in Taiwan, make sure that it is not made in Taiwan. The big mistake made in this encounter was the giving of a clock.  The Chinese word for clock is similar to the word for death. This is becoming less and less of an issue with the younger population; however, it is better to err on the side of caution and not to give any timepieces. There are also some other ‘no no’s’ with colours. For example, wrapping paper in white, blue or black should be avoided, as these colours are associated with funerals. Finally, the end of a relationship can be associated with red ink and sharp items for example knives, letter openers, or scissors.

Geert Hofstede is widely regarded as one of the foremost thinkers when it comes to the study of national cultures. Following ground-breaking research in the late 1960’s he published Cultural Consequences in which he introduced us to the 4 Cultural Dimensions (later to be increased to 6). The first of these being Power Distance. Power Distance is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. The study of Power Distance and the comparison of the Power Distance between two or more countries can help us to understand, who is in charge and who will make the decisions. Countries with a Low Power Distance, for example The United Kingdom or Norway will differ greatly from those with a High Power Distance, like, Malaysia or China. But it is not a question of extremes, it is important that culture only exists by comparison. Without comparison it just becomes stereotyping, which at best is unhelpful and at worst racist. In a country with a Low Power Distance you would expect to find a culture that errs towards:
  • Leaders should share power
  • Change by evolution.
  • Skills, wealth, power and status need not go together.
  • Scandals end political careers of those involved.
  • Parent treat children as equals
  • Children pay no role in old age security of parents.
  • The ideal boss is a resourceful democrat.
  • Managers rely on their own experience and subordinates.
  • Decentralisation is popular.
Whereas for countries with a High Power Distance the deviation would be towards the opposite, thus;
  • Leaders should hold power
  • Change by revolution.
  • Skills, wealth, power and status should go together.
  • Scandals involving power holders are usually covered up.
  • Parents teach children obedience
  • Children are a source of old age security to parents.
  • The ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat – ‘ a good father’.
  • Managers rely on superiors and on formal rules.
  • Centralisation is popular.
If you look at the below map you can see how some countries rate on the Power Distance scale. The actual figures on their own are irrelevant since they tempt the reader to classify or pigeonhole, a country. However, where the figures do come into their own is when looking at the difference between two states or cultures. This is where this map comes in handy.   Where the colours are the same, whilst the values may be different the actual difference is less important. So, you can reasonably make the assumption that in respect to this dimension these countries have similar values. However, a difference in colour means a difference in focus and values between the two. Therefore, when you come to do business across this border you can expect some differences that will require solutions to be built into your strategies. The other interesting fact about cultures is that you don’t have to travel thousands of kilometres to notice a big difference. As the map of Europe show, there are big differences right on our doorstep.   Martin Baker 2014 martinbaker.fr

I am often asked by my English language students to spell check and grammar check their CV’s or job application letters.

It’s a task that I enjoy doing. For me, it represents a milestone in their language learning, in that they are now comfortable making a job application in English to a company with English as its working language. Very often there are a few errors, easily corrected and often as a result of the very idiomatic nature of the English language. I would hope that among us who speak English, as their first language, there is a degree of sympathy for these very hard working young men and women. The hardest part of this checking process is to advise and make the necessary corrections whilst being careful not to demotivate them in the process. So, before you say that you are sure that a prospective employer would make allowances for errors in these circumstances, let me tell you a little story. I received a sales pitch, from an English connection, via LinkedIn today. I can’t remember what it was about but I can recall that in the middle of it there was a very obvious spelling mistake. Maybe it was a typo, maybe it wasn’t. Either way, I forgot the message and just involuntarily focused upon the error. Later on, in a moment of inactivity, I Googled the offending word and found 23,000 entries. I also checked to see if it was a genuine word in a foreign language – no it isn’t – and has anyone thought it appropriate to use it as a trade or product name – no they haven’t. It is therefore be definition, a common mistake. This raises a question: If you have invested a lot of time and/or money into developing a message to raise your profile or that of your business, they why would you wish to completely undermine that effort with common spelling mistakes? I am, or rather was, renowned, among my friends, as being pretty hopeless at spelling. I now really make an effort to get it right. Having someone review your efforts, ignoring the content and just picking out the ridiculous spelling errors was, for me, about as demotivating as it could get. Please don’t get me wrong; I am not some dictionary-thumping evangelist, in fact, quite the opposite. Generally, I am quite happy to scrawl away in my own version of shorthand, like some deranged family doctor writing a prescription, writing indecipherable text. I generally don’t worry if it is their or their or even there, inappropriately putting bullet points wherever I want and having sentences of over 200 words in length. You however, will never get to see that from me because, when it comes to writing text that could potentially be seen by millions, I want it to go viral because of the message not because of my spilling mistookkes. If you want everybody to completely ignore your message then please carry on making lackadaisical spelling mistakes and paying no attention to your grammar. Incidentally, the word lackadaisical from the last paragraph necessitated me looking it up on Google, as my first effort at spelling was so far off that the spell checker wouldn’t pick it up. It is however, a very important word, it means without interest, vigour, or determination or someone or thing that is listless or lethargic. Is that how you want to come across to your clients? Would you employ someone, listen to someone or like to be stuck in the lift with someone who is has no interest, vigor, or determination or who is listless or lethargic. I wouldn’t. There is a time and place for abbreviations, text speak and phonetic writing but not on your CV, in a sales pitch or in anything that others will see and associate as an example of your work. The English language is an infuriatingly complex beast with more exceptions than rules. However, if a student learning the language can take the time and effort to get in right then, is it asking too much for your readers, customers or potential employers to expect the same pride in English from those of us lucky enough to have it as our mother tongue. I think it was Oscar Wilde who wrote, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”. I wonder if it would be such a well remembered and often quoted piece of sage advice if he had written, “Yu never gat a secund chanc too make a fust impresion” – Oscar who?  

indian flagI recently had a really interesting conversation with a friend of mine whose company outsources a lot of its function to India. He explained to me a few of the language difficulties that he had had to learn to deal with.  I thought I would share them with you: If you are told, “You can have that in some time.” It actually means that it will be arriving imminently and is not a sort of open ended and no specific comment that the language suggests. If you are told, “I will do the needful.”  Then expect the speaker to do what is necessary. Be careful when offering suggestions and using a phrase like,” I would do this …”, this could easily be interpreted as meaning that you will actually be doing it yourself and all work at the other end will therefore stop. In addition there is the obvious advice to be careful in such situations to avoid all idioms. I am thinking of examples such as ; If I were you … If I was in your shoes … The advice is to spell everything out clearly and to avoid contracting your language. For example say “it is” rather than “it’s”.