We were nearing the end of a five-hour photo session. Niall, the photographer, asked if I wanted any other photos.

I looked at Bo and said, “Go monkey,” and then covered my mouth. Without saying a word, he covered his eyes.

Leslie, in total confusion said, “Huh? What are you two doing?”

“The monkeys1. Cover your ears,” I replied.

“Cover my ears?” she said.

Snap.

The photo captures how short cuts in language lead to confusion. I work from home. My team has only a virtual experience of me via conference calls, emails, and instant messages. It’s amazing we get anything done with the potential for miscommunications. Sometimes these missed cues can be as simple as not having the context be it cultural, generational or geographic. Trust me on this one. When I first arrived in California and used the expression, “the dog won’t tree.” It was obvious that I was from somewhere else.

I learned when communicating; beware of short cuts in language and slang2. Business environments are often multicultural. Avoiding the use of slang or language short cuts, like “go monkey,” helps to avoid misunderstandings. I remind myself that I can either be funny and current or I can be understood. In business, I need to be understood.

I also need to understand. When someone says something I don’t understand, I ask what it means. I have found there are times when people cannot articulate what they meant by slang. Once questioned, the speaker is forced to express what he or she really means. This leads to a better understanding for both parties.

Slang and short cuts in language make a common understanding exceptionally difficult. Popular phrases and expressions often come from popular culture which varies based on culture, generation and geography. So in business, why do we precariously communicate with slang and language short cuts when it is so important to be understood?

A sports coach can give an instruction and it is immediately obvious if his or her team has misinterpreted or is confused by the directive. Mayhem ensues. A whistle will be blown; the team will regroup, and then the communication will be attempted again. In sports, there can be an opportunity to recover from a miscommunication or to at least get immediate feedback that something was not communicated successfully.

I was working with an executive in China. We were in a meeting and he said, “Mr. Li signed. Glad I got that monkey off my back.” In that moment, I knew there were those present who did not understand. With his permission, we went around the room and asked the meeting participants if they understood what he was talking about. Three team members said they had no idea. The team member from Turkey said that in his language there is a similar expression, only the monkey is up one’s sleeve and this is a good thing to have.

It was a simple exercise in which I checked with the group to make sure everyone understood. However by that point, I was laughing by the absurd visual of both expressions and the executive was laughing because the one team member who thought he understood had the opposite meaning. The executive reminded the team of a client issue we had with a contract. Now that the client had signed the contract he was relieved and no longer had a major task to complete. He told the team he meant the monkey was a problem he had now eliminated and was no longer troublesome for him. Ironically, with the explanation, we all understood something that did not initially come through. The contract was now signed.

When in a business setting, you need the team all doing the same thing, which means they need the same focus and the same interpretation of the goal. Using slang doesn’t help in that objective. Lorelei Carobolante, (http://g2nd.com/) mentored me on this and is a great resource behind the idea of not using slang or “cultural short cuts.”

I know it’s hard; I’m not perfect at it either. Obviously, I said, “go monkey.” It’s a practice. But I must admit, there are times when rather than saying that recent action seems to defy all components for a logical process of thought, and beyond my realm of comprehension, it’s easier to say, “That was cray cray.”

1Note: Refers to the three wise monkeys: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_wise_monkeys

2Note: The urban dictionary defines slang as words employed in informal conversation, often using references as a means of comparison or showing likeness. Some modern slang has endured over the decades since its inception (i.e. cool) and some will only last a few years before being rendered obsolete or outdated (i.e. bling bling).