Thursday, 18 April 2013

I apologize, but we appear to be separated by a common language

 "I apologize, but we appear to be separated by a common language"
  -- overheard in the hallways of an international corporation

The role of communication is enormous in the modern world. It has become the backbone of entire industries, allowing for ideas to spread ever more quickly, merge with others to create completely new paradigms, all while destroying many of the monopolies of old. In many fields the speed of communication is the new arms race. However, as we all become ever more interconnected, we increasingly have to run the obstacle course that is our unique backgrounds, cultures, mental models, and even speech patterns. While mental models is a big enough topic for another post, I thought it would be worthwhile to start with the joys of communication in what many mistakenly think of as one consistent and unified language: Modern English.

For those of us who were (un)fortunate enough to grow up with English as our native tongue, one would think that we would be seemingly blessed with the fact that our language is becoming ever more ubiquitous, especially in booming fields such as technology and business. While it is definitely great to be able to convey thoughts and ideas in your first language (as those of us who have tried to in a language we came late to knowing can attest), the infinite flexibility, adaptability and regional differences of English have opened a myriad of opportunities for misunderstanding, confusion, hilarity and very occasionally complete system failure even between native speakers. What are non-native speakers to do? 

Having now lived and worked internationally for a long time, you encounter misunderstandings and lost meaning amongst people almost every day.  After a while, you have to learn to watch your language and to check to see that you were understood, especially when using cultural references. Amusingly, one of the places where I have found some of the biggest and most dangerous misunderstandings were amongst those native to the supposed birthplace of the language:  England.

If you are from a large and fairly cultural and linguistically homogeneous place like Canada/US (where I am from originally) and Australia/New Zealand (where my wife is from), you might occasionally run into communication problems if people are either non-native speakers, not American/Canadian or Kiwi/Australian, or have one of a very small number of challenging regional dialects (such as Cajun, Newfoundland English, Deep South, and some New Yorker and Bostonian accents).  It is generally very rare for the misunderstanding to last long, and (unless it is a Québécois trying to be difficult) rarely does it devolve into complete communication breakdown.  Perhaps it is due to the relatively recent settlement of these countries and the rise of modern media that has helped.  Regardless, this homogeneity gives a false sense of certainty that what you say will be understood, at least for the way you meant it to be.

Across English speaking country groups the confusion really begins.  Even though the language and structure is more or less the same, and even many of the literary and media references are mostly shared, regional terms and cultural references are often lost. Between the North American cluster and the Australia/New Zealand one there are occasional misses, though whether it is due to similar historical backgrounds or the more direct nature of the cultures to quickly catch and fix these usually keeps these to a minimum.

This all seems to go out the window in the UK.  While one would expect some differences between Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England, there are also significant difference across England itself, sometimes even between two towns that sit right next to each other.  There are the many better known dialects such as Cockney and Geordie, but there are also many dialects and subdialects across Yorkshire, the Midlands, East Anglia and across the south.  These dialects are far more distinct than those found in the Americas.  Few speak the BBC English that many outsiders would be familiar with.  There are also differences between people from different classes, even those from the same area. The class boundary is a particularly odd one for Americans who, despite all of the recent press lamenting growing socio-economic gaps in the United States, simply have little grasp of the class concept. 

While this is all rather confusing for a foreigner, many English also suffer from a similar problem that many Americans have:  they expect by default that everyone will understand what they are saying.  The empire once was strong, and it is technically called "English".  But even when there are plenty of examples within one's own country that hint that this assumption may be flawed, it does not seem to affect the prevalence of complete communication breakdowns, many that often compete with Monty Python sketches for their absurdity. 

This becomes a huge problem in business, especially within multinational companies.  I have seen time and again language subtleties causing misunderstandings that derail teams, projects, and even big initiatives.  All of this affects morale and trust, let alone the productivity and success of the business.  Assumptions that everyone understands what you mean can be extremely dangerous, even, as with the English, everyone happens to come from the same country.

I have found when trying to convey and idea or concept, that it is always good to test in a non-threateningly way, whether it is by asking questions back of people of their thoughts or what they think they might do in response to the new information, to see whether it was really grasped.  This also works well the other way, which I use often.  That way drift can be caught early, leaving far less room for wild and dangerous surprises later. 

This can go further, and certainly is not restricted to just English speakers.  When looking at the health of a company, it is also useful to look at the means for which people communicate.  We all have stories of misunderstandings developing because someone misinterpreted something said, especially if a low bandwidth medium such as email was used.  Teams and companies also suffer when communication quality is not up to the mark.  I have personally seen very bad situations develop, not only in English and polyglot companies, but also in German and Spanish speaking ones as well.

People who have to interact with one another often work much more effectively together when they know each other well enough and both sides have the ability to further develop communication links. This allows people to better understand each other's context, and correct small misunderstandings at a ground level very quickly. 

Visual indicators, whether they be facial expressions, pictures, or even trends on a graph are also high bandwidth ways to convey complex information.  They work quickly and can be very effective to communicate concepts from diagnostics to thoughts to emotions, bringing truth to the old adage that "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Companies need to pay attention to the quality of communication across their organizations.  Without doing so, they risk creating a tower of incomprehensible babel and failure.

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