It is Not Just the Language
Three travelers were on a tour when they became separated from the rest of the group. They found themselves alone in a strange area of a strange land. They each spoke a tiny bit of English but did not speak the language of the area and other then their little bit of English they did not share a common language. They did all agree that they were hungry and they agreed to pool their money to purchase some food. This is when the arguing began.
One traveler kept insisting on a specific food item, no one else wanted that item. Another traveler argued that the item he was suggesting was the most affordable. And so it went. Finally a man approached them. He explained to them that he was a linguist and that he understood what each was really saying. If they trusted him with the money he would bring them back exactly what they needed. Unable to resolve the issue among themselves they decided to trust him. After a short period of time the linguist returned to them with some bread and cheese. They were all astounded, because this was what each of them was demanding.
And this is when they realized that they had all been trying to communicate the same message; they simply did not know how to express it to one another. Each of them was saying “let’s get some bread and some cheese”, but they did not understand one another and in their frustration two of them became louder and more animated in their arguing and one of them completely withdrew.
There are certainly multiple messages in this story. Let’s take a look at three of them:
- We work in a global marketplace and most of our workplaces are multicultural. You can take the above story at face value and recognize that many of us are now coming together from different heritages and we literally do not all speak the same language. Continued arguing, issuing demands and raising our voices will not help us break through the barriers. Using other tools, pictures, symbols, a linguist (or a facilitator) and a liberal amount of patience and trust will help us break through the barriers. In the story above our travelers were working together to solve the same problem and had even arrived at the same solution – they just did not know it and therefore became adversarial. What if they had trusted that each of them was working with one another and not against one another?
- Even when we speak the same basic language we still don’t always share the same usage of that language. Do you remember when you were new at your company? You attended meetings and it felt like everyone around you was speaking a foreign language? They had acronyms for this and nicknames for that, it was very confusing. It felt like learning a new language and it did not help that when you tried the new language some people laughed at you when you got it wrong. How helpful it would have been if someone had taken the time to help you with the lingo of this workplace. How helpful it would be if you did that today when new co-workers join the team.
- Even when we have worked with the same people for years and use the same language and the same acronyms and nicknames, we still have instances when we speak at each other or across one another. The more important the topic, the more likely we are to misunderstand one another. This is exactly the time when we need to go beyond our basic use of language and really make sure that when you and your colleagues say “bread and cheese” you all really mean a loaf of bread and some Gruyére ; not a grilled cheese sandwich.
Our travelers were lucky a linguist arrived on the scene to help them through their conflict. You may or may not fare so well. Most of us are tasked with being our own translators. Of course you are up to the task, just remember – do not assume that the same words have the same meaning to each of us and do not become frustrated when you and your co-workers do not use the same words to describe an outcome. Work to build the trust which will allow you to see past the language and toward the fact that you seek a common goal.
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