Q: What connects: George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill?
A: They’re all supposed to have created the famous quotation along the lines of:
Great Britain and America: 2 nations separated by a common language
Now, if getting 2 sets of people who supposedly speak the same language to understand each other seems to have worried these 3 famous gentlemen, what about when the companies have speakers whose languages are different? Apart from the obvious errors of misunderstanding, three other things can occur:
Them and us syndrome
Inevitably, people feel most comfortable speaking in their own tongue. But when there is a multi-national environment, a lack of language skills can lead to cliques, and feelings of distrust and fear – ultimately, a break-down in team ethos and a drop in morale.
Never underestimate the pressure that this puts on the international workforce. Even someone with ostensibly great language skills is working like a swan on the water: elegant on the surface but working its metaphorical socks off underneath to keep up, to communicate in a way that’s sophisticated enough for the given audience. It’s physically demanding too.
Knowing that someone else can understand your language (or indeed that you speak theirs!) levels the playing field beautifully, brings harmony to a team and greater effectiveness. Especially if both sides realise that the burden of being the ‘foreign body’ amongst a group of natives is shared.
Feeling of being judged
I used to teach English to the MD of a large international car manufacturer which had a subsidiary in the UK. His English was really very good, but he refused to speak publicly in English for the first 2 months for fear of being judged – not on his ability to do the job, but on his ability in English.
I worked with an overseas global sales manager who so lacked confidence in herself and her English comprehension that she would use the captions option in Teams meetings rather than rely on her advanced, if occasionally accented, English.
“I just want them to see the real me at work,” was her understandable lament. “Not a 2nd rate version of me.” Nobody seemed to consider this pressure in the workplace, and nobody considered speaking to her in her native tongue every now and then.
Not taking into consideration a foreigner’s limitations (and of course we don’t include ‘shouting more loudly’ to get yourself understood as a way of helping) can have a negative impact on the team.
Empathy goes a long, long way. And if you’ve felt pressure trying to communicate in a language that’s not your own, you are bound to sympathise more.
Language and Culture
Even when language levels are high, people often forget language can impact on culture and can cause discomfort at best, and offence at worst.
“Sorry, Jim. I don’t suppose you could possibly pass me that file, could you? Thank you. Thank you very much.”
is rendered in some languages simply by:
“Pass me that file!”
“Ooh they’re so direct, the XYZs aren’t they?” – I can hear it now!
Profanity or cursing is another prime example of this. What one country finds offensive, another may not – and by the time you discover how wrong it is, it’s often too late.
Learning a foreign language provides insight into why international colleagues speak the way they do – and then hopefully allows us to cut them some slack when they do it differently from us. Not better, not worse, just differently.
So, what are you waiting for? Get some language skills under your belt – bring that team together.