Caught between two worlds
1 Feb 2021

People working in the international organizations are often caught between two different worlds; a formal diplomatic one and a more informal collegial one. 

Do you write UNese style?

Many tell me that when they joined the United Nations, they came from the private sector, where they had to build up good rapport with clients.  They had to write concisely and to the point.  Their clients had neither the time nor the inclination to read voluminous texts full of antiquated language.

Then, at the United Nations, they arrived in a section where they were told they had to include pomp and ceremony in all their writing.  They learned the craft of UNese, as it were.  Linguists talk about parentese, a term for the way parents talk to their young children; like legalese, language containing an excessive amount of legal terminology; so why not UNese?

When I started teaching writing skills at the United Nations some twenty years ago, people were writing in a style reminiscent of the 1950s or earlier. Happily, that has changed in many respects and throughout many departments.  Nevertheless, senior staff members are often from an older generation and may favour the old-fashioned writing style.  They may even be shocked by the more modern style used today in emails.  Similarly, they may prefer a block of text with academic textual connectors such as ‘Furthermore’, ‘On the other hand’, ‘Despite the fact that’, rather than a short report using headings and lists.

Adapt your style to your audience

In the diplomatic world, times are also changing.  Some of the Permanent Missions we interact with are also turning to more modern communications.  The best approach is to mirror the writing style of those you are writing to.  So, if the mission is full of pomp and ceremony, then your communications should reflect their style.

The balance of power is also something to bear in mind. If you are the one bestowing favours, then you may set the tone.  

But if you wish to play it safe and you are just a sender of the message, you should write your missive in their type of language.


Constraints with working together

At the United Nations, we increasingly have to work together in groups (or “teams”), with collaborative tools and documents, and have to respect the style used in our particular section. If, however, we are in senior Professional positions, we may be the instigators of change, or the perpetuators of an old-fashioned style. We may also be lucky enough to work with editors, where we will be helped to write in a suitable style.  But often we write alone or in a team that has no official guidance whatsoever.

Adopt your own style where you can

I tell my students that they can adopt their preferred style in their own communications – if you prefer a more direct, more concise style, using formatting to help guide the reader, then use it.  When writing on behalf of the section or someone else, respect the style of the person or section you represent.  It is a balancing act.  Cultural factors also can play a role and we must consider very carefully what approach to take when communicating a message, particularly if it’s a sensitive one.

Image problem with old-fashioned style

Another problem with using a dull, old-fashioned style is the perception the outside world may have of our work.  We may unwittingly give the impression that we, and the Organization we represent, are overly bureaucratic and lethargic.

Version with old-fashioned language

  • Passive voice:  It was suggested that ….
  • Vague language: There are a number of issues to address.
  • Impersonal or dead beginnings: It is / There is … (in the two examples above)
  • There are many factors preventing us from resolving the conflict.


Modern dynamic version

  • The Chair suggested that ….
  • We need to address the following issues: x, y and z.
  • [Delete or rephrase to remove. Put a real subject first.]
  • Many factors are preventing us from resolving the conflict.

Join a course or sign up to my writing tips to learn more! 

If you wish to learn more about writing well, join our Writing for Professional Purposes course starting in January, April and September. It’s a mix of online content and webinars, with feedback from the tutor on your own writing. 

Another way you can keep up to date is by signing up to my writing tips.  I produce these once a week during term time and address a mix of style points, confusing words, jargon and other points of interest.  or sign up here:

* Carol Waites is an English language trainer at the Centre for Learning and Multilingualism, United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG).
Read more articles about INSIDE VIEW