Thursday, January 5, 2017

Welcome To The Machine: Teaching Business English When You're Not A Fan Of Business

A few weeks ago, a friend came over. I was helping him out with something, we had a few beers, and at some point I offhandedly mentioned that the reason I never sat for the foreign service exam was because, over the course of my senior year, I came to realize that I didn't want to work for the State Department (perhaps my crippling fear of failure at the time also had something to do with it; fortunately, I handle that better now. In any case I did not include that part).

"US foreign policy - it's awful," I said. "It was awful then and it's awful now. I don't respect many of the foreign policy decisions America has made, and, y'know, I can't work for someone I don't respect."

I like to think that particular ideal has carried over into the later trajectory of my career. Not that I have never worked for anyone I didn't respect - we all have - but once I no longer needed to do so out of economic necessity, I moved on.

Eventually I ended up teaching Business English as one of my many various jobs, gigs and projects. For a time it was my full-time job. For awhile I worked for someone I not only did not respect, but actively disliked (that has changed). Yes, I considered the usual questions of a possibly overly moralistic English teacher: most notably, as someone who has grown progressively more socialist and anti-establishment was it not a bit hypocritical to be teaching, well, Business English? To be taking money from companies whose practices I did not always (or even usually) support, many of whom I had straight-up ethical concerns about - think oil companies, Big Pharma, some banks and finance companies - ostensibly to help them, but also to make money myself?

These questions had crossed my mind before, but I had never lingered on them that long before: I squared my job with my beliefs by repeating what another friend had said once: nobody can be perfectly morally consistent. It's impossible. In any case, as much as I might not want to be, I'm a part of the system and adult enough to own that. There is value in this: if you reject the system, you also give up your voice within it. For a time I didn’t think much about it, especially after I moved toward freelance work and took classes with a far better employer.


The post itself is not particularly well-written, and I feel it delves too much into the academic end of the issue without much real-world meat. Yet, it resurrected some important questions for me, as someone who makes money providing services to companies whose practices I do not always support, who are the main beneficiaries and perpetrators of a system I find deeply troubling and am more likely to want to smash than buy into (but not like "watch the world burn" smash, more like "this is crap, let's fix it at a deep structural level even if it means smacking the rich and powerful until they are less of both, and even if it means fighting and conflict" smash).

Had I, without thinking, dug myself into a field where I'm doing work for companies I don't necessarily respect?

But, having that topic run again through my insomniac brain that will not shut up, I do have some thoughts on the matter.

You may hate an economic system, or be cynical of an industry, but you are in that system – own it

Seriously, it’s important to have a clear idea of yourself and where you fit in to the system. Nobody – no student, no trainee, no normal person – wants to talk about issues of any complexity with the living embodiment of “I Threw It On The Ground”. You are a part of the system. You’ll remain that way as long as you need to make money, and if you already have money, you got that money because either you or someone close to you is or was a part of the system. You might be able to distance yourself from it to some extent – for example, not having a real boss or a single employer frees me from a lot of the less savory parts of being someone’s employee – but it’s always there, and you are not a paragon of ethical purity. Neither am I, I mean, I’m typing this on a Macbook wearing a t-shirt I bought at Target.

Pop that ego balloon – you have to make money somehow, because you live in a society where it is exchanged for goods and services. I too would like to seize the means of production, Comrade, but in the meantime I need Internet and whiskey and things like that (actually, I want to keep those things and am not as interested in a Marxist commune as I may appear to be. I want to keep my Macbook but change the unethical ways in which it is produced and sold.)

So, if you make money by providing a useful service to a company, well, you’d be making that money some other way anyhow, and there aren’t many pure-of-soul ways to make money – and insisting on finding one is another expression of privilege. I don’t know about you but I like food, shelter and security, so...

Your work in corporate offices around the world is, weirdly enough, actually helping to right some wrongs

No, really! Half the damn problem is that the proverbial 1% is screwing it up for the rest of us, and that is not only on a personal or corporate level, but also on a national level. As long as wealthy countries care more about increasing their own wealth than increasing global wealth, anything you do to help citizens of a less wealthy or non-Western country do better is going to help fix the imbalance to some tiny degree.

Every non-native English speaking manager whose English gets better, netting them a promotion that might have otherwise gone to a Western expat, every academic or industry expert whose work you help polish who then goes to international conferences and addresses important issues, every doctor whose presentation and writing skills you help improve who then goes on to publish important research and be a voice in their field, every student you help to better understand IELTS and therefore – hopefully – get a better score who then goes on to get a good education, international experience and perhaps someday become a thought leader, every office worker who does a bit better and brings a bit more of that We Are All In The System money home to her family and country is a grain of sand on the scale, tipping it a little bit more towards a more global idea of fairness.

Every last one of them likely comes from a country less wealthy than a Western native English speaker does, and was born without the systematic advantage of being a native speaker. By living abroad and helping them with that, as much as they may seem like rich folks who don’t need your help, you are doing a net good on a global scale.

And yes, I want to seize the means of production and create a lovely Marxist utopia too, but for right now this is what we have, and it’s unfair to a lot of people. The best thing you can be doing, rather than ragging on about burning down the whole system (not gonna happen, and even if it did would hurt a lot more vulnerable people than privileged ones) is to help those that do not have a privileged place in the system do better.

This is especially important in a Taiwanese context. Taiwan is a developed country, but it is not a particularly well-known one. Even Taiwanese often fall into the trap of thinking Taiwan is insignificant and small (one of the US’s top trading partners with a population similar to that of Australia and people think they are tiny? Come on). It is easy to lump it in with China, if one even remembers it exists at all. Every little thing you do – even if you are teaching the upper class of society – to help raise Taiwan’s image by helping Taiwanese communicate better in English on an international level is a good thing.

You may not be a fan of corporatism, but you can always find something to be interested in regarding your trainees’ specific jobs

I had mentioned to that same friend referenced in the beginning of this article, in a different conversation, that in fact I did not always care very much about, say, some company’s sales increasing or business presentations on increased efficiency, productivity or profit. “Sales went up!” – okay, so what? I’m not a fan of capitalism so I’m not always sure that’s a good thing.

It’s not that I think these things are worthless – clearly, they aren’t – but that I just don’t personally care about them very much. Nobody has time to care about every worthwhile thing, and I choose to expend my energy on social and political issues, trusting that businesses can take care of themselves. I am deeply turned off by Business Speak, care little for team building, and am not that interested in ‘corporate culture’, ‘culture shifts’ or whatever hot new business theory is being circulated.

But, honestly, it is rare that I meet a trainee whose particular job I am not interested in. Even when it comes to “Sales went up!”, often the reason for that rise is worth knowing.  For example, knowing that whiskey sales are stable in Taiwan is not earth-shattering information, but knowing that the reason for that is that the Taiwanese are the second-largest whiskey market in the world – and it’s true, Taiwan loves whiskey and you can always get good stuff here – that interests me.

If you listen, you can learn all sorts of fascinating things about how the world works, including in industry (and if you hate that industry, well, to beat your enemy you must know them). I’m not a fan of Big Pharma, but clinical research is actually quite interesting to me. My issue is not the new drugs – in fact I’m a big fan of drugs and not a homoeopath or hippie type of person at all, if I’m in pain please give me lots of drugs – but price-jacking, papering over side effects, making certain drugs unavailable in different parts of the world, letting people die because they can’t afford the price you decided would make you the most money, that sort of thing. I am not into finance or investment, but I actually am quite interested in learning what goes into someone’s proposals for what funds to invest in and how global economics and international organizations play into that. I’ve learned why it matters that MSCI won’t  - and hasn’t as far as I know, unless my knowledge is out of date – change Taiwan’s classification from an emerging to a developed market. I don’t care much about technical specs, but I do care how they will affect technology in the months and years to come.

So perhaps I can hate the system, but be interested in the minutiae of my trainees’ jobs. It matters to them, it can be quite interesting, and it is important when helping them improve their skills. So, it matters to me. 

Most people are decent, no matter their industry

This has probably been my top life-saver when I start to feel icky about the whole Welcome To The Machine thing. The actual people you are teaching, however unsavory the system you are teaching them in may be, are almost certainly good people. They have families, they have jobs that they need because they too like whiskey and Internet and clothes and food and shelter. They are likely aware of the issues in their industry, but like you and everyone else, are aware it is not possible to be perfectly ethically consistent.

They likely just want a better life for themselves and their families, want to do well in their career and have all the things most of us want. As problematic as the industry and whole system may be, they are not the cause of it. They just want better English so they can do better in life. Perhaps they work for an international bank that's just made the news (and they are probably cringing about it, too, but just not while you're around), an oil company, a pharmaceutical company currently getting bad press, a major manufacturer known for polluting or worker exploitation. Okay - but your actual trainees are not the problem. They're not the reason why these things are happening, and to whatever extent they are aware of these issues (and they probably are), they are likely also aghast.

If you boil it down to working with people, and helping those people do better in life, rather than working for an industry you don’t care for in a system you relentlessly criticize, it’s really not so bad.

It is okay, at times, to talk about these issues


It may not always be appropriate but it may happen that industry issues that cast the sector in a light that may not be perfectly flattering come up in conversation. This is not always a bad thing, though I find it best to not allow the chance for it until you know your class well and they know and trust you. It gives everyone a chance to discuss these issues which is a form of business-related English training, perhaps gives you a chance to learn something from your class, and gives the trainees the chance to, if they are up to it, engage with problems facing their field that they may not have confronted in any language. If it happens, it can be a powerful tool to be something of an activist in class – without being an opinionated know-it-all, of course – by fostering conversations that can have real, if tiny, impact. That might be quite important to someone who wonders about the ethics of their place in the system – to be a small force for change within it.

And, honestly, a strong, open dialogue can beget real change, even if it is at a person-to-person level. If such a discussion does happen, and it’s important to be open to perspectives you don’t agree with (or at least to accept rather than attack them), never make it personal to a trainee or a company, take a nuanced view and not beat people over the head with your opinion – all very obvious things, but all worth saying.

In fact, I think I’ll devote an entire post to that some time in the future...

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