Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Office English: What to Call the Assistant

What do you call the person in your office who provides support to the staff? In the old days, this was called the "secretary." But nowadays, most people call her (yes, usually her) an administrative assistant. Since that's a lot of syllables to get out -- even for a native speaker of English -- this is often shortened to "admin" or sometimes "assistant."

There was a great article in the New York Times recently about the role today of the admin. I'll include a link later to the article in case you want to read the whole thing. In the meantime, let's examine a few of the lines from this article in our quest to speak better Business English. The lines in blue are from the article.

Part 1:

Assistants tend to be on the front lines when a company adopts new technology, said Ray Weikal ... They can be the ones coordinating remote teams, managing their company's Web site and learning cloud-based applications.

on the front lines  the first ones to be affected; those people closest to the real action. If this sounds like someone fighting in a war, there's a reason. The term derives from the military, with those on the frontline being the first to be involved in the fighting. On the front lines 

Part 2:

At Adecco, the staffing firm, more clients are asking for assistants with college degrees, said Joyce Russell, its president. “They want that broad-based knowledge that you pick up in college,” she said, and she has seen clients promote people who perform well in that role. But Ms. Russell added that she didn’t think a college degree was necessary to perform the job.Ms. Duncan said: “I’ll take street smarts and common sense” over a college degree in an assistant.

street smarts - the practical knowledge needed to deal with difficult situations (versus "book smarts" which is the kind of knowledge you learn in books, the stuff not always immediately applicable in the "real world." For example, you may know all about Beowulf, the Old English epic poem, but that does not mean you will be able to operate the office copier). I think of "street smarts" as being very similar to "common sense," which is also mentioned in the same sentence.

Part 3:

When it comes to job duties, where do assistants draw the line? Will they be expected to serve coffee? Pick up dry-cleaning? Boundaries are best established during the job interview, Ms. Duncan said. The relationship works best if both parties see it as a business partnership, she said, adding that there is a difference between providing a service and “being a servant.”

(to) draw the line - to set a limit; to establish a boundary. This is a very useful idiom. In business, you often do need to draw the line ... and not just if you're an admin. Let's say you're boss keeps asking you to work weekends. You might say, "I've come into the office every weekend for the past four months. It's time to draw the line." 

Do you want to learn more Business English? Check out Speak Better Business English and Make More Money, published by Language Success Press.

And here is the promised link to the complete New York Times article.

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