16 idioms you should stop using when working internationally

In the post-pandemic world, companies are going distance and actively hiring international talent. That means your team members come from different backgrounds and not all have the same credentials. You will likely work with non-native English speakers who can translate idioms literally. Plus, more of your communication is written through messages like Slack, removing cues that promote understanding, such as tone of voice and facial expression.

Business jargon and idioms can be interesting, but they don’t belong in a business context. They reduce clarity. They make things difficult to understand. They make you sound pretentious. So save the metaphors for your novel. Plain language is also an opportunity for your organization to become people and user-centric.

By cutting out business jargon, you need to think carefully about what you’re trying to communicate. You need to be more precise in your writing. To make things easier, I’ll run through some common business phrases and show you what to say instead.

Get the ball rolling

This idiom comes from Croquet, a popular sport in the 1900s, where the moving ball signals the start of the game. Today it is unrelated. Starting a project is an important moment, so you want to be clear when it happens.

Confusing: Let’s get the ball rolling in our website redesign.

Clear: Let’s start with the redesign of our website.

Put a pin here

This expression comes from pinning something on a drawing board or from ‘putting a pin in a grenade’, meaning to save it for later use. It is also sometimes used as a euphemism to mean “that’s not a good idea.” Anyway, this expression can confuse people.

Confusing: Let’s stick a pin in it for now and circle back later.

Clear: Thanks for the suggestion, let’s talk more about it in next week’s meeting.

Move the needle

Imagine that you weigh some flour. You add a little bit to the scale. Nothing happens. You add a large amount. The needle on the gauge moves to register the new weight. To a non-native speaker of English, ‘needle’ in this expression could be misinterpreted as a sewing needle or a medical needle for injection.

Confusing: We really need to move the needle this month – we need to take things to the next level.

Clear: We need to increase sales by 2 percent before the end of the month.

Lots of moving parts

This expression comes from mechanical engineering for when parts of a system are in motion. A car engine has many moving parts. Unless you’re talking about a machine, it’s confusing. In business, variables and factors change, they don’t move.

Confusing: Everything is in the air and there are many moving parts.

Clear: This is a difficult situation, so let’s make an appointment to discuss it further.

Go back to the drawing board

A drawing board is a large flat board used to create large technical illustrations, such as an architect’s designs for a building. Unless you work in construction, there probably isn’t a literal drawing board to go back to. You would use this expression when something went wrong and needs to be rescheduled. It is important to communicate that the plan needs to be re-run.

Confusing: The startup wasn’t happy with our proposal, so it’s back to the drawing board.

Clear: The startup was not happy with our proposal, so we have to look at their feedback and come up with a new proposal.

stop doing something

This idiom is derived from a phrase used in the 1800s for when an employee left before his shift was done: “Call it half a day.” “Call it a day” was eventually used to mean finishing work. You want clarity about the termination of a project. “Calling” can be interpreted as calling something (“Call me Piet”) or calling someone on the phone.

Confusing: We’re getting nowhere. Let’s call it a day.

Clear: We are not making any progress. Let’s put a stop to this and get started tomorrow.

Buy in

“Buy-in” suggests that a financial transaction is taking place. In investing, it is used when someone buys stock in a company to gain control over it. In business, it means getting support for an idea or strategy. This is confusing when you’re actually talking about getting team members’ consent.

Confusing: That’s a good idea, but we need to get support from the leadership team before we can move forward.

Clear: That’s a good idea, but we need to get approval from the leadership team before we can move forward.

Agree with each other

This phrase occurs in the Bible – Isaiah 52:8. “Thy watchmen shall lift up their voices; with one voice shall they sing: for they shall see face to face, when the LORD shall bring again Zion.” The guards can sing in unison and work together because they see “eye to eye”. A similar expression, “to be on the same page,” comes from choirs – you want your singers to refer to the same sheet of music. These expressions suggest that something is physically happening; “agree” is much simpler and clearer.

Confusing: The meeting ran overdue because we did not agree on the results.

Clear: The meeting ended because we had different opinions about the outcome.

according to the book

Historically, “by the book” meant following the Bible. Over time, this expression came to mean that we had to follow rules more generally. This can cause a lot of confusion, as ‘the book’ is no longer widely used to refer to the Bible. It is not clear which book you are talking about.

Confusing: This is a mission critical project, so we have to do everything by the book.

Clear: This is a very important project, so we have to follow the procedure carefully.

Do not cut corners

‘Cutting the bends’ is when you take the most direct route rather than carefully going around the bends. A version of this phrase can be found in Mark Twain’s travel book Innocents Abroad (1869); “Every now and then he cuts so close to a corner, or misses another gondola so imperceptible by a hair’s breadth.” This expression is not clear unless you are a native speaker. It is also better to use positive instructions rather than telling someone what not to do.

Confusing: We pride ourselves on never cutting back.

Clear: We pride ourselves on our attention to detail.

Go the extra mile

This is another expression related to the Bible: Jesus’ “speech on the mountain” in Matthew 5:41. “Whoever compels you to go one mile, go two miles with him.” Unless you are physically traveling a distance, this expression is confusing. Most countries now use mileage so an international audience may not understand.

This expression is often used to praise someone for a job well done. However, it’s much better to be specific and mention the things they’ve done well. The purpose of appreciation is to make someone feel truly seen.

Confusing: Well done! You really think out-of-the-box and go to extremes.

Clear: Well done! You used your creativity to find a solution, even though the deadline was tight.

Low hanging fruit

This is a metaphor referring to how fruit on lower branches is easier to pick than fruit higher up. Choose a better expression unless you are actually harvesting fruit.

Confusing: We can reuse the same content strategy as last December, so that’s low hanging fruit.

Clear: To make things easier for you, we can reuse the same content strategy as we did last December.

Also avoid sports metaphors in the workplace. Sport idioms are common and many come from baseball. That means they can be confusing to anyone outside of the US as they don’t have the same credentials. Here are some common sports-related expressions and what to say instead:

Be on the ball

This means being focused.

Confusing: This client is a game-changer, so we all need to be on our toes this week.

Clear: This is an important client, so we all need to be focused this week.

Be on top of your game

What you’re really asking is for someone to be at their best.

Confusing: You’re really on top of your game now!

Clear: You are doing really well!

It’s a shot in the rose

If you’re trying to say it’s not easy to get to, be more direct with your message.

Confusing: I’ll ask if he can deliver it on Tuesday, but it’s a chance.

Clear: I will ask if he can deliver it on Tuesday, but that may not be possible.

Touch base

This means connecting with someone quickly.

Confusing: Are you free this afternoon? I would like to contact you about the upcoming review.

Clear: Are you free this afternoon? I would like to call you to discuss the upcoming review.

Step to the board.

If you need someone to take action when something needs to be done, that’s better. to say what you really mean.

Confusing: When the project fell behind, he really came on the record

Clear: When the project fell behind, he identified the issues and made a plan to address the issues.

Many of us are guilty of using corporate jargon as a crutch. After all, it makes it easier to keep talking or writing when we’re not sure what to say. Removing these phrases and buzzwords from your vocabulary will make your communication clearer and more meaningful. It gives you the power to think before you type.

The next time you’re about to “reach out” (send a message) or congratulate someone for “being at the top of their game” (doing a great job), why not take a moment the time to think? Then you can send a thoughtful message, explaining exactly what they did and why it was so good. Use your vote to increase the contributions of your colleagues.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not Inc.com’s.

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