Management Speak

I had an amazing insight into the differences between management philosophies in different countries today. The group contained a Russian lawyer, a French tax consultant and a Danish oil engineer, all managing at a senior level. The target language was modals, specifically you must, you have to, we must, we have to and we need to. We did a listening exercise focussing on different managers using the various modals to give directions and then discussed which phrases were most likely to result in:

1. Task achievement and strengthened relationships

2. Task achievement and weakened relationships

3. Task failure or subversion

Both the Russian and the Frenchwoman agreed you have to was the best phrase to get results. Must was viewed as too strong and need to too weak. Both could not see the point of saying we stating “but we are not going to do it, you’ are” However much I argued, they wouldn’t buy it, we was a pointless thing to say.They also seemed confused when I tried to explain that saying you have to might upset people.

Fortunately the Dane was on my side, agreeing the we need to  was the most appropriate, stressing the co-operative nature of any business situation and strengthening personal relationships. The other two scoffed, maintaining that the relationship, when giving direction, was less important than the task and it didn’t matter how people felt.


The Russian and French learners were also sceptical of my comment that must and have to are pretty much the same, they both maintained that must was stronger. Then the Dane asked “aren’t all the phrases ok if you use we? I gave up and we moved onto a simulation; delegating a task. Unsurprisingly the above opinions were reflected in the language used.

Reflecting on this led me to think of Hofstedde’s ‘power distance’ relationships. Is it a coincidence that the high power distance cultures thought it fine to be extremely directive and the low power distance cultures felt a need to show solidarity in their direction?

And a final point, does this explain why the Frenchwoman’s most difficult team member is Australian (a very low power distance culture). I’ll keep digging!

  1. M Kenis
    May 26, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    Interesting! It can’t be a coincidence….

    It made me think of a conversation we had the other day with the only native speaker in our department.
    On the subject of modals our American colleague said that he tells the students not to use “must” as it is far too strong, especially when combined with “you”.

    We need to explore this further ….


    • May 27, 2011 at 7:02 am

      Thanks for the comment Mieke. I really don’t think it’s a coincidence.

      I agree with your US colleague and teach that must shouldn’t be used when directing. Until this conversation though, I would’ve said the same about have to.

      Thinking about this more, many Anglo Saxons would avoid ‘I must’ as well, as it could be viewed as avoiding responsibility for your actions.

      As I know, Belgium would sit in the middle if these 4 cultures on power distance.

      Where do you stand and do you think French and Flemish speaking Belgians would be different?

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