Problems and solutions for when you’re talking about your job in another language

One of the first things that you are often asked at business social events or when you meet new people at work is “what do you do?” This seems simple enough, but sometimes it causes problems, especially if you’re communicating about your career in another language.

In this article, I look at eight of these potential problems. Some of them are things that I’ve experienced myself. Others are experiences that my customers have had. I don’t just want to talk about problems, so I offer some solutions as well!

If you’d prefer to hear me talking about this, you can also listen to episode 167 of the English with Kirsty podcast.

1. My job title doesn’t translate very well

Professions are some of the first things that you learn when you start to speak another language. It’s easy for some job titles, such as doctor or teacher. The problem comes when you have a job title that is more specific to your company and that doesn’t really explain what you do.

Another issue can be that languages use words differently. In some countries, if you have the word “manager” in your job title, it means that you manage a team and have a certain amount of responsibility. In English we use it to mean all sorts of things – you could be managing a project or managing complaints. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a manager in the traditional sense.

If you’re writing a CV in another language, there’s no way round it. You need to find some way to translate your job title, or at least provide an explanation of what it means. However, if someone has asked you about your job, it might be easier to explain what you do, rather than to waste time on a job title that doesn’t translate well anyway. After all, that’s what the other person really wants to know.

2. It’s difficult, even in my own language

If what you actually do is so technical that it would take you half an hour to explain it, you need to find a way to simplify it and make it relatable to something that the other person will actually understand. If they’re in the same industry as you, you might be able to assume some prior knowledge, but don’t spend the next 10 minutes filling them in with information that they probably don’t want to know.

It might also be complicated if nobody actually knows about your organisation. I used to work for a government department that some people didn’t even know about. Sometimes there were good reasons to keep that quiet – it got people’s interest, but people often asked more questions than I could legitimately answer. Or sometimes I didn’t want to listen to a tirade of all that was wrong with the current government – working for a government department often has nothing to do with whoever happens to be in power at the time.

Sometimes “where do you work” really means “what kind of work do you do”, so it’s easier to answer that question.

3. You’re not used to the vocabulary or explaining what you actually do

This happened to me when I was in my early 20s and I’ve never forgotten it because it was really embarrassing. I was sitting at the breakfast table with a group of German people and someone asked me what I did. We didn’t cover things like that in my studies, because I didn’t have that job then. I trotted out my job title, but then someone wanted to know more – what did I do on a day-to-day basis? Oh. I’d never thought about that in German. Sitting there with everyone looking at me and waiting for an answer didn’t help me to think of a quick answer either.

I must have said something, but I know it made me look as if I didn’t do very much, and whilst I wasn’t doing my dream job at the time, I knew I could have made a better job of answering the question.

It’s a good idea to at least practice talking about what you do/how you help people/what an average day entails/who you work for etc, so that if someone does ask you about these things, you’ve at least got some ideas ready about how you can answer them.

4. You need different answers for different groups

Sometimes there isn’t just one simple answer when it comes to what you do for a living.

If I’m talking to teachers, I focus on the kind of teaching that I do. The kind of students that I have, the methods I use, the kind of areas that I focus on most. If I’m talking to other self-employed people, the conversation might move to aspects of self-employment that we both relate to, even though we’re doing different things. If I’ve just met someone, I have no idea in what direction the conversation we’ll go. If I meet someone who wants to learn English, they might be more interested in how the lessons work practically, or what kind of things I specialise in.

The conversation can take a number of directions, and that’s likely to depend on the other person, how much they’re interested in what I do, or whether there’s a chance we might be able to help each other.

Of course the other person might not be really interested in me at all – either because they just asked the question out of politeness, or because they’d rather just talk about themselves!

People in your company will know about the company, unless they’re new, so they’re probably more interested in what you do, or how your roles relate. Someone with the same job might like to talk about job-specific things, or they may be more interested in the company where you work.

5. Underselling yourself

It’s a balance. People often don’t feel it’s a problem when they undersell themselves, but it’s sad to see when you know someone is amazing and they really play down their strengths or what they have achieved. Sometimes it’s part of their charm. I can think of someone whom I really admire that you’d never catch boasting about their achievements. But at the same time, if people are showing an interest in you, don’t try to hide your accomplishments.

It’s a balance though. The UK culture is more understated than some others, and if you come across as too full of yourself, or too full of claims that you can’t back up with facts, it won’t go down well either.

6. You have too many things going on

It is sometimes difficult to decide what to talk about if you’re involved with multiple things. I primarily teach English, but I also have my second website, where I promote my other services such as translation and accessibility testing. I have a podcast, a couple of books, and two other blogs in addition to this one. I have a lot going on, and if I try to cover all of it when someone just asks me what I do for a living, it could sound a bit confusing. So sometimes it’s better to give a good, clear answer, than an answer that covers absolutely everything that you do.

7. Talking too much

If people’s eyes start to glaze over, you’ve probably said too much. The same goes if you notice them trying to find a reason to get away! Don’t be that person whom people regret trying to engage in conversation. A conversation shouldn’t be a monologue. Answer people’s questions, but often less is more. If someone wants more information about a particular aspect of what you’ve said, they can ask for it. Sometimes when you’re speaking in another language, there’s a temptation to give all the information because you don’t want to give short, basic answers, but this doesn’t always end well if you go too far!

8. I don’t have a job

You can’t talk about what you don’t have, but you still need to give some kind of answer.

If you’re a student, you could talk about your studies and what you’d like to do eventually. If you’re looking for work, you could talk about the kind of work you hope to find – who knows, the other person may have a tip for you! Or you could talk about what you’ve done in the past, any training you’re doing, or voluntary work. Or you could deflect the attention back to the other person. There’s no right way, but it’s good to have some kind of answer that avoids an awkward silence.

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Kirsty working with students