business class

Advanced business idioms
for turbulent times

Idioms are part of language, and even if international business professionals may themselves not want to use them, they may well find themselves discussing with someone else who does.....

In 2023, there is a general feeling that the world, the only one we have, is not exactly in tip top condition. We are living in turbulent times. As if climate change - something we've known about for decades now - were not enough, we now have to face the turbulences caused by Covid and a disruption of international trade by a completely unnecessary war.  The idioms used in international business English evolve with the times, and teachers need to reflect this new reality.  David Cox has some ideas...

David Cox is an experienced certified British TEFL teacher based in Prague. He offers peronalized online business English tuition worldwide through his website To find out more contact David at Fluencyspace.

Advanced Business Idioms for Turbulent Times

We all experience chaotic and turbulent situations in our lives.  Due to the current global situation, I find that my students increasingly want to talk about the chaotic state of the world.  Naturally, when we are talking about chaotic and dramatic situations, it is great to add a little bit of colour to the language that we use, and there can be no better way to do this than through idioms! 

Here are some of the best idioms that I have looked at with students recently to discuss these uncertain times:

 Up in the air

If something is up in the air, it means that a matter is still to be resolved.

            “The future of their cooperation is up in the air.”

    We often use this phrase very generally to describe a general chaotic situation:

            “Everything is up in the air at the moment.”

◙  To be in choppy waters

    This means simply to be in difficult or uncertain times.  We can “sail through choppy waters”  or we can simply “be in choppy waters”.

            “The company is sailing through choppy waters at the moment due to volatility in the market.”

            “We are in choppy waters at the moment.

◙  To be in uncharted waters / unchartered territory

    If we are in uncharted waters it means that we are in a situation which is completely unknown and potentially dangerous.  Of course, having recently experienced a once-in-a-generation global pandemic and the subsequent global economic fallout, this phrase has plenty of uses:

        “The economy is currently in uncharted waters.”

    If we are in an unknown and potentially dangerous situation, this can also be an exciting situation as well:

        “Having just entered the European market, we are currently in uncharted waters.”

◙  To play it by ear

    During difficult times, it can be difficult to plan too far ahead. Sometimes a business needs to change its plans according to how a situation develops: 

“We can’t forecast which platforms are going to offer us the most exposure.  For now we need to play it by ear before pinpointing the platform that could be most beneficial for us.”

    Rather than playing ‘something’ by ear, I find that it is more comfortable to use the construction ‘to play it by ear regarding…

" We need to it by ear regarding our social media content.  We should firstly look at what types of content are gaining the most traction and adapt our strategy accordingly.

◙  To stay afloat

    This means to survive, to have just enough money in order to continue operating. It is mainly used to describe businesses, but can also be used to describe an individual:

        “The restaurant across the road has been struggling to stay afloat since the pandemic

◙  To hit the buffers / to grind to a halt

    Many plans and projects, whether personal or in business, have been forced to stop or pause due to financial uncertainty. If a project hits the buffers, it means that it finishes or or stops unexpectedly:

        “The construction project has hit the buffers due to a lack of investment.

        “During the covid pandemic, the global supply chain ground to a halt.

And a few more idioms for difficult situations ...

To take a hit -  meaning to suffer

To take the flak - to get the blame

(To fight ) an uphill battle - to face difficult problems

To go out (of) of the window - to be abandoned, to be cancelled.

To be put on hold - to be temporarily suspended (and potentially canceled).

To be in dire straits - to be in a very difficult sitation

To be in the doldrums - to be unable to make any progress

To be sunk - to be finished, to be in serious difficulty

To ride out the storm - to survive until the situation improves.

Idioms can often seem like uncharted waters for English learners, and therefore they are sometimes quite hesitant to use them.  However, if you play it by ear and test to see which ones they like, it can really boost their level and confidence.  All of the idioms above have a certain use case, whether that is because they might not have a good synonym or they add some genuine character to the sentence.  

Next time your advanced level student wants to use one, hopefully their sentence won’t come grinding to a halt. offers a broad range of free content-rich  EFL / ESL reading texts
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