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11 September 2023

Razzle - dazzle

Written by
Cornelis Tanis

I am in an on-line meeting, talking about leadership onboarding practices. We share data points from experienced executives who have recently joined our client’s organisation. They signal the need for real conversations – to be able talk about the confusion or doubts in the midst of all the razzle dazzle that is so prevalent in the company. 

If you are a non-native English speaker (like me), it may well be that ‘razzle dazzle’ is somewhat of a riddle for you. It does ring a bell, but you’re not 100% sure. We infer from the sentence and the context that it probably refers to something positive. Also because dazzle lies next to ‘dazzling’ in our memory drawer. 

Back to the meeting. Since the term is used twice afterwards by other native English speakers, and because I am simply curious, I decide to look it up. Even though I misspell it, Google nails the job for me:   

The Britannica Dictionary definition of RAZZLE–DAZZLE:  noisy and exciting activity meant to attract attention. The kids enjoyed the razzle-dazzle of the circus.

Interesting. It needs a hyphen apparently. Check.  

And there goes one minute. Now, where were we? Ah, the conversation has moved on. We share more perspectives and ask questions. 

Later, I think I hear a person say:

 “Here’s what my spighty sense says.  I don’t have a lot of data to back it up, but it’s my spighty sense”.  

While I am in the dark about what a ‘spighty(??) sense’ is, I do get the drift that what she will be sharing next, is her tentative thoughts. 

Increased awareness

If you too find yourself in on-line meetings with a mix of English proficiencies, some of the above examples will be familiar.  It’s the price we pay to play as non-native English speakers, as I wrote in my previous post. Native English readers may recognise the ease with which idioms or cultural references can, inadvertently, slip in.

This previous post generated many rich follow-up conversations and stories from all over the world. People shared perspectives, needs, and concerns, such as:

  • It is incumbent on us, the native English speakers, to modulate our speech, especially when we are a minority in a meeting where everybody speaks English.
  • As a native English speaker working with non-native colleagues I seem to assume that their professional fluency also means that they understand my idioms or cultural references, or that they will ask if they don’t understand. 
  • If I have to ask for clarification as non-native speaker, I worry that people will judge me as less professional.
  • As a native speaker I hesitate to over-explain something because I’m afraid I will come across as patronizing in front of colleagues who speak English so well.
  • I am actually embarrassed that I don’t speak other languages, so as a native speaker I am reluctant to correct people or ask for clarification, it doesn’t feel fair.
  • I find it difficult to get a sense for when it is appropriate to interrupt someone when I (and I think more of us) really struggle to understand their accent. 

Reading these contributions, you too may notice the opportunity. There seems to be an untapped potential in the mutual hesitance – a possibility to experiment with some underlying assumptions about, for example, the relationship with status-vulnerability or roles.

Safe-to-learn experiments

A French executive told me how grateful she was for the unsolicited support she received from a US peer when she joined their global leadership team. They agreed that during meetings the two of them would message each other with suggestions and questions about what was said or about how to say something in English. While this online, live, and private mentoring took extra effort on both sides, it helped to lower the French leader’s anxiety as she rapidly improved the quality of her contributions in English. This benefited the whole team and it created a very tight bond between them.  

I also heard about a more public safe-to-learn experiment in a global organisation that works with education systems around the world. Their (online) meetings almost always have a mix of native and non native English speakers, with varying degrees of proficiency and accents. 

Without being asked, a native English speaker colleague decided to start listening for idioms, cultural references, and sophisticated words or sentences during their on-line meetings. Every time she heard one of these, she would put a sentence in the chat explaining it, for all to see. She would use neutral language – and this is key – neither correcting nor supporting anyone in particular. You could say that she simply provided occasional subtitles, synonyms, and clarifications in the meetings she went to. After a few weeks, she started to observe some shifts like:

  • Seeing her contributions in chat, the native English speakers started to regulate their own pace, speaking slower
  • People would put more intention behind speaking clearly. Not their pronunciation, but articulate their ideas more clearly, and in different ways. 
  • People would catch themselves when using an idiom, cultural reference or difficult word and then provide an explanation themselves. 
  • People started to add things in the chat when she missed something, often with humour.

Over time, other native English speakers started to also take on the role of the ‘subtitler’. I did not ask how that happened, but my sense is that it helps distribute both the effort and the joy. It also can prevent people from getting stuck in a role. After a while, this practice disappeared again. It had contributed to more awareness, self-regulation, and inclusivity. From what I understood, it may well reappear in the future in some shape or form.


I encourage native English speakers to consider trying out some version of this more public practice when in meetings with mixed English proficiency levels. And then to notice what shifts occur, if any. It is a small move that potentially helps raise awareness, increases the odds for equitable dialogue, and does not make anyone wrong. Moreover, it is simple and requires no permission. 

And it does not need to be online, in the chat. For example, I have seen US colleagues who graciously repeat an expression or idiom that someone else used a bit earlier and then paraphrase it without addressing anyone in particular. 

Regulating and testing what feels safe seems important to mention here. While at the surface we deal with practices towards more language-inclusivity, they ride on the deeper currents of power and privilege. The social risk appetite for experimentation will be different for different persons, native and non-native English speakers alike.  

Personally I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to study different languages, and to live and work ‘abroad’, albeit mostly virtual these days. While I don’t think that in English I am ‘out of my depth’ in most work contexts, I’m eager to learn more, try out new words and expressions, and celebrate cultural differences. Solutions like using closed captions or translation technologies can be very useful here. A solution, however, to not use idioms or cultural expressions is too simple, in my opinion. While it may be efficient, it seems to rob us of learning about nuances, curiosity, and often smiles. I encourage us to take some small social risks, to look after each other, and share some of the work.  When we meet, it will serve to strengthen and colour the relational fabric that is us. 

Back to the meeting 

I see my US colleague Rebecca post a message in the chat:

Spidey sense is a thing that Spiderman had, non-Americans. (I figure you got the meaning from the context.)

“What a kind gesture!” I say to myself. 

Then, also seeing the message in the chat, the US person who used the term, says: “Thanks, yes, my Spidey sense is my intuition”. 

Another quick Google search clarifies it further for me:

Spidey sense: from the superpower of the fictional character Spider-Man nicknamed Spidey, who is able to preternaturally sense danger before it can be perceived by other senses.

And there it is. The meeting was already going well, and with a little help from a friend, we all learned something extra.

Thank you Laurelin Whitfield for sharing the practice at your organization and Rebecca Scott for your kind support.

2 thoughts on “Razzle – dazzle”

  1. Carolyn Coughlin says:

    Thank you, Cornelis, for writing about what it’s like for non-native speakers—even those who speak the non-native language seemingly fluently–to navigate non-native conversations. And for reminding all of us native English speakers to be cognizant of how much we take for granted. I loved the story about Rebecca, which of course did NOT surprise me one bit!

  2. Zac says:

    Nicolai, I am pondering if your thinking here can (and should!) be extended to even native English speakers. The colloquialisms and idiosyncrasies of language and human behaviour can shift even within English speaking countries and cultures / ‘dialects’ for the want of a better term. For example, what means one thing in New Zealand means a completely different thing in Australia (or a slang word for one thing doesn’t mean the same in another country). Your blog post resonated with me on this level because I sometimes don’t understand (or find myself googling) slang that makes total sense in one country that doesn’t resonate. Thank you for your thought provoking article.

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