You are currently viewing Ep. 011 – Mary Ritter – Immigration & Eliminating “Brain Waste”

Ep. 011 – Mary Ritter – Immigration & Eliminating “Brain Waste”

“We’re bridging the gap for the Venezuelan legal scholar who is currently working in a Halal burger joint because that kind of brain waste makes me crazy!”

Successful Communication in Business

As this article is being published, Canada is in a massive employment crisis.  The good news is that it’s not a crisis of unemployment but, rather, a gap in talent supply to meet the demand for available positions.  One obvious way to most quickly fill this gap is through the effective integration of immigrants and other newcomers into our workforce.  Many of them are experienced and well-credentialled, but unfortunately due to language barriers, many of them come with a built-in communication gap that needs to be overcome for their skills to best be leveraged in our workforce.

Ineffective communication skills can kill business. We can do business with more people if we can understand their speech or help them understand ours.

Born and raised in Oshawa, Mary K. Ritter is a Professor in the School of Professional Studies at New York University and a co-founder of NYU’s Collaborative for New Immigrant Education. As an Intercultural and Language Consultant with TASMY Consulting, she helps international professionals increase their cultural fit and communicate appropriately for businesses. She also helps managers of international teams improve their global leadership, communication skills, and intercultural competence so they can more effectively lead their teams to success. Mary joins the podcast to talk about improving communication between native and non-native speakers of English.

Brain Waste

Many of us have had the experience of meeting someone who was, say, a legal scholar in Venezuela but is now working at a burger restaurant. Although such highly-skilled immigrants have a unique potential to progress in their lives and careers, as well as to contribute to the local economy, this potential is often untapped. Why? They struggle to express and assert themselves in English, and their skills are often underutilized. One solution that addresses this brain waste is a model like the Collaborative for New Immigrant Education, which offers tuition-free advanced-level English classes and social services to refugees. Access to professional or workplace English often makes the difference between having a job and having a job you love.

Listening to Accents

Unfamiliar accents rank high among the many elements that make communication difficult. While in the past, this was considered “their” problem, it’s now in our mutual interest to consider it “our” problem. While non-native speakers can work on pronunciation, native speakers can help by enunciating clearly, pausing frequently, and listening sympathetically. Strategies to improve our listening include using mirroring language, such as by repeating the final words of a sentence to encourage the speaker to give more information. We can also ask clarifying questions such as “do you mean opera or Oprah?”

Checking our Understanding

Another strategy for working with non-native English speakers in business is to use comprehension checks. Instead of explaining something and simply asking “do you understand?” or “do you know what I mean?” which most people will nod or say “yes” to, we can ask open-ended questions that invite a response such as “what questions do you have?” or “what could I explain further?” We can also ask conversation partners to restate instructions in their own words. This strategy may not seem efficient at first, but if it results in fewer mistakes or reduces the number of prototypes you make, for example, then it is worth it.

What’s It Got to Do with Us?

For years, Mary helped her students improve their pronunciation, correct their grammar, and deliver confident presentations. But communication, like globalization, is not a one-way street. As workplaces adjust to become more diverse and inclusive, we can adjust our linguistic and cultural norms to include the numerous immigrants who speak English as a second or other language. We all want to succeed at work, and taking co-ownership of communication problems that arise will doubtless lead to better and faster solutions to them.

You can find Mary K. Ritter on LinkedIn or at

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