Hi readers! Today is the first ever guest post on English for My Dream!
Cara from Leo-Listening was kind enough to put some tips together to help you understand your colleagues (and friends!) outside of work, such as in the pub or bar! Cara is British so if you see any differences between British and American English, let us know in the comments! And don’t forget to check out Cara’s website (links are all at the bottom of this post). Here’s Cara:
Has it happened to you before? You spend all day at work, understanding most of what’s going on. Then, your colleagues invite you out for a drink at 6pm. You think great – beer and a chat at a British pub or American bar.
Then you get there, and after a while, you can’t follow the conversation. It’s not just the beer you’re drinking. Your colleagues don’t sound like the same people any more. What’s going on? You understood them fine a couple of hours ago. But now they seem to be speaking another language.
In this post, I’ll look at 3 reasons why you don’t understand your colleagues at the pub and what to do about it. You’ll understand what your colleagues are talking about over a Friday night drink no time.
1. Routines, roles and responsibilities
At the office, you interact with others in structured environments with predictable routines like:
- Performance reviews
- Phone calls to clients or suppliers
- Small talk with colleagues on your break
You’re familiar with the topics. You use the same words. You know your role in the situation and the work hierarchy (colleague, client, supplier, superior). And all these situations have a predictable structure.
In my old job, we used to have works committee meetings. In French companies bigger than 50 staff, the employer has to keep employees informed of company performance through these meetings.
Every time we had a works committee meeting, I knew we’d start off with some kind of joke or comment about there not being enough chairs. The whole department came together so space was limited.
Then we would go through some financial information that I didn’t always understand – EBITDA anyone? Only accountants know what that is. And then onto the number of accidents.
What routines are there in your workplace? How predictable are they?
Meanwhile at the pub…
All of a sudden, there are no rules and no structure. At least not one you can figure out. You can talk about anything and everything. You don’t know where the conversation might go.
Your colleagues might start talking about topics that are very culture specific. Like kids TV shows from the 80s. How are you supposed to know about that?
When they’re all talking and laughing together about a topic you don’t know, it’s almost impossible:
- To understand them
- To interrupt them to get them to clarify or explain things
Plus when the alcohol starts flowing, you don’t know what topics people might launch into. Alcohol relaxes people and their brains. They say things they shouldn’t.
Pro tip – don’t drink too much during after work events/drinks. You never know what you might accidentally say about a colleague you dislike.
2. Pump up the volume
Nowadays, offices can be pretty noisy. I mean, when I see pictures of call centres with huge rooms full of dozens of people on the phone, I just want to run and hide.
I used to work in an office with 4 other people. Now I work from home on my own. I know which one I prefer. Especially when my Ukrainian colleague was on the phone with one of his clients in Russian for 45 minutes.
But the office background noise of tapping keys, whirring computers and phone conversations is nothing compared to the wall of sound that is the average pub or bar.
I used to live above a bar. Our apartment was across the street, on the 3rd floor. But when people used to leave the bar to have a smoke, the wall of sound that emerged was a deafening rumble.
On Thursday nights (student party night), I struggled to get to sleep before 3am. And I was pretty far from the bar itself. I can only imagine what it was like inside.
In a typical pub or bar you have to deal with:
- Clattering or chinking of glasses
- Cutlery and plates clattering
- People shouting or speaking loud (especially the more alcohol they drink!)
- Background music
- Games/arcade machines making noise
- People playing table football
When you’re chatting with a group of colleagues at the pub all this noise makes it hard to focus on what’s coming out of their mouths.
3. Formal vs informal
Compared to French workplaces where you have to shake hands with everyone, every day, British workplaces are pretty informal.
But that doesn’t mean you can go up to your boss and say:
“Alright mate? How’s tricks? How was your weekend – mine was well good, innit!”
Native speakers in a work situation will probably use standard expressions. The ones you know from your school textbooks:
“Good morning. How are you?”
Yes, in the workplace, people do say good morning. Even though nowadays, you can go into a shop in the UK, and hear an informal “hi” from the assistant.
More standard or formal speech and more careful pronunciation go together. At work, people make an effort when they speak. They articulate more carefully, without reducing every single sound to the point where it disappears.
Pubs are informal. People won’t hesitate to use informal language, slang, phrasal verbs. All the words no-one told you about at school.
Plus, they’ll pronounce these words with the least amount of effort.
When we speak we almost always do these things:
- Make sounds disappear
- Blend sounds together
- Reduce some words that aren’t important
- Link sounds together
- Use contractions
Now, these things can happen in any kind of speech. But, in informal situations, like in the pub, the situation is worse.
Not only will your colleagues use more phrasal verbs or slang, they’ll pronounce them fast without articulating properly. That means you won’t even have the time to repeat the word back to them to ask what it means.
Your colleague might ask:
What are you up to this weekend? meaning what are your plans for the weekend.
Looks easy to understand on paper right? Except that in the pub it’ll sound like:
Wotcha u’ tuh dis weeken?
- ‘What are you’ blends together into wotcha
- The ‘p’ sound at the end of ‘up’ becomes a glottal stop, so it sound more like ‘uh’
- We lose the ‘d’ at the end of ‘weekend’.
- ‘To’ is reduced to ‘tuh’
- The ‘th’ sound on ‘this’ becomes ‘d’
Trickier to catch isn’t it?
How can you get ready for pub talk?
Choose resources that sound like pub talk
Forget TED talks. You need to start listening to:
- Stand-up comedians
My boyfriend claims he learned English by listening to podcasts by stand-up comics like the Adam Carolla Show, Chris Hardwick’s the Nerdist podcast or the Joe Rogan Experience. These podcasts are a group of people having a chat together, using informal or even offensive language.
- YouTubers who are spontaneous
I don’t watch much on YouTube but I’m a big fan of Kyde and Eric, an American couple living in Japan. Their travel videos are unscripted – they just talk like normal people.
- Reality TV shows
You could watch Geordie Shore in the UK or Jersey Shore if you’re in the US. These are tricky to understand because the show is pretty much just people in nightclubs shouting and swearing.
Educate your colleagues
It’s okay to admit you don’t understand. Your colleagues are being uncool if all they talk about are TV shows they watched growing up.
Some native speakers of English, especially ones who only speak English and who’ve never lived abroad don’t realise that:
- they’re speaking too fast
- they’re not articulating properly
- they’re using words you don’t know.
If you understand most things at the office, they’ll assume you catch everything.
You could say something like:
“Listen guys, last Friday, I found it really hard to follow what you were talking about. Could you slow down this week or change the topic?”
It’s scary to go into situations where you might not understand. But that’s how we improve and grow. Remember, most people are nice and want to help you. You can also make a joke of the situation.
“Be nice to the foreigner, guys – after a few drinks, I have no idea what you’re talking about!”
And follow it up with: “Drinks are on me!” (in a playful tone, unless you really want to buy everyone’s drink!) then no-one will mind.
Have you had any experiences with colleagues at a pub? Was the experience good, bad, or awkward? Let us know in the comments below.
Hi, I’m Cara Leopold, the online English listening teacher at Leo Listening. I help bookworms and vocab nerds break free from subtitles so they can stop “reading” their favourite shows and films and start watching them.
Understand what you watch in English with Cara’s free video and worksheet
Check out Cara’s website here: Leo Listening