Regardless of the language, even very fluent non-native speakers may not know the idioms and colloquialisms that native speakers grow up with and have heard throughout their lives. When you think about it, we are unconsciously hearing, using, and enjoying all kinds of slang on radio, TV, and social media without even thinking about it. It’s been said that the slang, idioms, and colloquialisms in every language are what give it its vibrant colors.

Recently, I received a $20K claim from a client against a customer they had not been doing business with for very long. The owner of the company was originally from overseas in which English was not his native language. Between a thick accent and some pronunciation difficulties, the customer still spoke English well. However, at times some things needed to be repeated to confirm his understanding.

Afterward agreeing to a payment installment schedule, the client and his customer were making some small talk on the phone when the customer mentioned something interesting about himself. My client responded by saying to him, “You are a very cool person.”

Upon hearing that compliment, the customer became irate and asked my client, “What do you mean I am a very cool person?!” I am insulted by your description of me, and I believe I have been very friendly to you during our conversation.

My client was totally taken aback by the customer’s response and tried to explain what he meant by the intended meaning of “You are a very cool person.” My client tried to tell him that it was a compliment and not that he was “cold hearted.” Unfortunately, the more he tried to explain this expression, the more confusing it became. After five minutes of frustrating communication, the customer hung up the phone.

Immediately thereafter, the client wrote an email to the customer in which he again tried to explain the meaning of “You are a very cool person!” but the customer was unmoved, and the result is that the past due account eventually came to our office.

We probably all have had an experience in which we unknowingly used a slang expression with a non-native speaker and the result ranged from being mildly confusing to a disastrous meltdown.

To minimize misunderstandings, large and small, a reasonable effort should be made to accommodate the language level of the customer/debtor with whom you are communicating. In addition, following below is a short list of English terms that one should avoid during a collection call as they are not only difficult to understand by a non-native speaker, but they also lower the professionalism of the discourse.

  • Cough up
  • Fork over
  • Deadbeat
  • Owe big time
  • Pay through the nose
  • Rob Peter to pay Paul
  • Settle the score

The upshot (pardon the expression) is that in business communication, especially for a collection call, it’s best to use clear, simple language and avoid figurative expressions or slang.

If you are unsure whether a phrase or term might be confusing, it’s safer to opt for straightforward language to ensure effective communication, particularly with individuals who do not speak English well.

Your questions and comments are most welcome (

Nancy Seiverd, President, CMI Credit Mediators, Inc.

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