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One Word...

It was just one word that Hongfei didn’t understand. It shouldn’t matter, right?  Wrong. It matters when that word, that ONE English word, conveys the essence of the question. Get that wrong, you get the whole answer wrong. You may lose the very Business opportunity you’re seeking.

For this young Chinese MBA student, an important interview was in two days. He had been contacted about a potential post-grad internship which, should he get it, would allow him to stay in the USA for four months past graduation. He wanted this chance to extend his stay, improve his English and work in an American company, even for just a little while.  To get ready, we held a mock interview instead of our regular English class.

One of the questions he was given by the organization awarding the internships was “Tell me about a time when you had to adapt your style for the good of the team?” I asked him that question and Hongfei calmly smiled and began. He fluently described a time when he wanted to take a daily nap after lunch and “demanded” his boss give him the 30-minutes he wanted so he could work better in the afternoon. 


Oh dear. What was he missing? I reviewed the question, asked if he wanted to reconsider his response, add anything, delete anything.  “No, that is my answer. I prepared it last night.”

Slowly, I deconstructed the question. Confidence melted into shock. The one word he didn’t understand was ADAPT. He understood ADAPT to mean “change” so chose an example that showed he knew he needed to nap after lunch to change himself, beat the fatigue he was feeling every day in order to be more successful in the afternoon.  The nuance of the word ADAPT, as used in this business situation, eluded him. 

According to Google, ADAPT is a verb that means 1: make something suitable for a new use; modify 2: become adjusted to new conditions 3: alter (a text) to make it suitable for filming, broadcasting or the stage.

Hongfei needed to understand that in a work context, being able to ADAPT was a sought after trait, one he was required to demonstrate as a strength. He needed to show that he could adjust his behavior to the new conditions required by participation on an American work team. Had he not practiced and prepared for that critical interview with me, he would have miscommunicated his intended message. 


1. Preparation and practice of Business English for interviews, networking events and presentations is essential. Practice, but don’t memorize your answers. Think in “bullet points”; know the main ideas you want to say. 

2. Understanding that there may be a subtle meaning of words in business settings that differ from how you  have used those words before.

3.  Making the right word choice is core to making sure your message is authentic, relevant and delivered with confidence. 

4. When English is not your mother tongue, dedicated effort must be given to increase your understanding of business terms. 

Remember, the words you use and the way you sound matter.

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