Quite frustrated with the service provider, my foster daughter comes up to me and announces that the ‘the hi-fi is not working’.
I tell her that it is ‘wi-fi’ and not ‘hi-fi’.
My six-year-old son turns to me, searches for my ear and whispers assuring, ‘Mamma, don’t worry, she’s English is like that only.’ Americans simplified spellings in English, my son threw a whole new light and in that clearly communicated that his sister’s English wasn’t good.
Before I ‘grew up’, I would be equally frustrated to hear wrong English. It used to ring irritating into my ears, sprint through my head, trample my heart and finally hit my last nerve till I wasn’t a pretty sight anymore.
However, over the years, I’ve come to the realisation that the serious ignoramus in all this was moi.
All. The. While! Working with professionals from all over the country and the world, I learned that English is not the first language of choice for everyone (and a realisation that it is neither for me) and as long as we are clear in our communications, we shouldn’t sweat it too much.
As communications professionals we should possess the ability to write, if not speak, impeccable English (linguistic legacy of the ‘Raj’ era). However, writing is not our only competence, albeit it’s an important one. The Holy Grail is the ability to use communication to connect with people to weave narratives and tell compelling stories.
Here are a few things I learnt about communicating without the comfort of a mutual language, in a day-to-day business scenario.
Language is a tool
I have noticed how people confuse tool with talent. I see people call themselves ‘creative’ or ‘designers’ because they know how to use a graphics software tool. Similarly, people with good English language often assume that they can ‘communicate’. Presumptively as communications people we assume that people with good English can give us better briefs, write great drafts or explain things better. Remember, language is a tool and you have to be an expert to use it to communicate with richness and clarity. There is a difference between stringing words together with perfect grammar and communicating clearly.
Listening is as important as speaking while communicating
Clarity comes with listening well. One instance, in a townhall meeting with over 1,500 Indian colleagues, we had one Italian colleague who put out a question to the CXO on stage. Her accent was heavy and she chose her words carefully. Alas, to untrained young ears it was beyond comprehension. I didn’t understand her question and asked my colleague sitting next to me if he did, and he gave a blank look and so did some others. However, the CXO to whom the question was directed at, was listening intently. He not only answered her question to her satisfaction, he also rephrased it for the rest of us. I found that a great lesson in listening especially since we work with multi-nationality colleagues, we have to keep a sensitive ear to accents and language so that they don’t become a barrier.
When in doubt, ask!
We all know that language and culture are connected. When we learn a new language we also learn about the culture of the place and therefore, their expressions and other nuances. These expressions and nuances can change the meaning of a certain word or even a sentence. Be wary of the nuances and meanings while communicating. Even different English speaking countries have different meanings and expressions for the same word. Did you know, for instance, that ‘dipstick’ means a stupid person? Often in multi-national companies we use ‘dipstick surveys’ to access feedback. Before you make this insensitive mistake, you could just ask. I find building a community with multi-national communications professionals very useful for this. Online or otherwise.
This applies not only to mass communications but to daily business communications as well. If something seems unclear, always rephrase and ask what they meant.
In conclusion – Good English might land you a job in Communications, but it’s the ability to connect and bring out stories from diverse people and businesses that will keep us in good stead, over time. To connect well, be clear in your communications by listening well and understanding the nuances of different cultures.
As they say, good communications is a bridge between confusion and clarity.