Choosing the Right Words

In the hustle-bustle of sending your emails, are you sure you're communicating the right message? Alan takes a look at one case where a nonnative-speaking manager scared his subordinate unnecessarily.  Learn how the right word choice in English makes a huge difference in how we communicate in the workplace.

A while ago, I was reminded about the importance of choosing the right words in our communication.  I was working with a South American client—let’s call him Antonio—on his emailing skills, and I read a note he had sent to an American subordinate.

Antonio started out the email like this:  “Tim, I wanted to give you some feedback.”

In the 3 short paragraphs that followed, Antonio (again, the boss) gave Tim a compliment, shared some information, and then expressed his thanks.

When I got to the bottom of the email, I was puzzled.  It didn’t contain what I expected, so I read it again.  And again.

It finally occurred to me, Antonio had set Tim up for bad news but then only shared positive things.  When a native speaker writes “I have some feedback for you,” the reader is expecting criticism.  If the message is from your boss, like in Tim’s case, you have that heart-sink feeling.  The thought is, “Uh-oh, I did something wrong, and now I’m going to hear about it.”

The situation here was that Tim had only done good things.  However, because the email had started with the word “feedback,” Tim was going to be reading the rest of the note looking for the bad news...which never came.

In this case, the right word choice would have been “update.”  When Americans hear “feedback,” they understand that as a warning.  In short, an update is for news (or something neutral), while feedback concerns quality or accuracy (and usually something bad). 

Below we are posting a transcript of the email, so you can read it for yourself.  In the meantime, pay attention to the words you choose in your communication.  You could be saving someone a small heart attack.


From: Antonio Barrios []

Sent: Friday, May 24, 2014

To: Tim Robertson

Subject: Re: Project team


I wanted to give you some feedback.

First, it was great seeing you earlier in the month. Carlos and I enjoyed the conversation and we appreciated the plant tour.

Gary both called and emailed Melanie, who has not gotten back with him yet, but he is really excited about the possibility of joining the project team.

I just wanted to thank you for making yourself available to Gary.  Independent of his joining the project or not, I thank you for your guidance in his career.



NOTE: The names and identifying features in the client email above have been changed, but the format remains the same. 

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.