What Did I Say?
Problems in Business Communications
I had an argument the other day. The subject isn't important. But the person was.
My brother. Loved, admired, respected.
But the argument went on for quite some time.
In the end, we discovered we had almost the exact same point of view and there was no argument at all!
More musing. Some resulting thoughts.
The Tower Of Babel
The christian bible speaks of the Tower of Babel (from which we get the word "babble.") God supposedly punished his followers by creating so many languages that most people couldn't understand one another. (Mentally note this paragraph; I'll be returning to it.)
Hell! my brother and I were supposedly both speaking English, or so the rumour went. And yet the misunderstandings piled up, bringing us both, at one point, to total frustration with each other. ("Why doesn't he bloody well understand???")
The problem, of course, is that not only do peoples from various nations speak languages essentially unintelligible to people of other nations, it gets far worse. Within countries, there are "dialects," often so different from the main that the inhabitants of one village can't understand those from a neighbouring village 20 miles distant.
The "French" spoken in Paris is virtually "babble" to a Frenchman living near the German border. And Quebecois French, in Canada, is mostly a separate language to a Creole speaking French in New Orleans, Louisiana.
I remember speaking to a student of Slavic languages 30 years ago who told me that in what was then Yugoslavia, 77 distinct and separate languages were spoken! And that was a small country by any international standards.
China has almost 2 billion inhabitants, many of whom cannot understand any of the hundreds of different dialects and distinctly separate languages spoken in the rest of the country.
Had your fill yet? It doesn't get better.
Now we must add in the personal "filters," cultures, religions and rules of behaviour which dominate us all. Words and concepts, acceptable in one area, are considered totally taboo by people who may live only blocks away...or even next door.
Quick trip back to the earlier paragraph about the bible. I deliberately did not capitalize either "christian" or "bible." How many of you, dear readers, noticed? How many automatically "saw" capitals? How many were offended by the lack of them? How many had a thought of dropping me a line to correct my error? Just some further examples of personal and cultural filters, the colored glasses we use to look at various "important" parts of our lives.
And how about sex? Anyone who believes that his language is simple and understandable to all around him has never had a long relationship with a person of the opposite sex. Why do you think men the world over are puzzled by women? What do they mean? What do they want? And in the past 8000 years, apparently no one has come up with a satisfactory answer.
It's no better from the other side, either. Many of my women friends have told me they do not understand men, their attitudes, their lack of understanding.
Getting depressed yet? Just wait.
Here's still another barrier. How individuals and groups process words and concepts. (The example of opposite sexes above is one of the primaries.)
Ponder this: In the far north, the Eskimo people, who still live in close proximity to nature, have about 100 words for the concept of "snow." Someone living in London would probably not even begin to understand the subtle differences between those words. And a resident in parts of South America, for instance, would not have the slightest idea of what an Eskimo was talking about if she had never experienced snow, much less the minute variations being described.
Time Isn't Real...To Some
And those who do still live close to nature do not share the concept of Time as the industrial world does. At best, such people might think in terms of seasons or cycles. Minutes and hours have no meaning for them. The "past" or the "future" do not impinge on their lives as they do on most who are reading this. Time is a created concept and must be learned.
And you might think, "well, he's only talking about primitive peoples."
Did you know that many of our underclasses, both black and white, living in ghettos and with little hope of changing their current existence, also do not share the same concept of Time as understood by their counterparts living only a few miles away? And, without time, how can one sustain hope for a different "future?"
Further, the language spoken in those areas reflects meanings for such concepts incredibly far removed from what most of you understand.
How might it apply in business?
In Canada, America, Australia or the US, for instance, at a meeting of the top people in a company, the president might put forth an idea for consideration. Someone might comment, "Sounds a bit wacky to me." He'd be asked what he meant, why he'd responded that way. Little to no offense would be taken.
The same comment, in a Japanese company, might be construed as a staggering insult to the boss and possible grounds for dismissal.
Rather than being depressed by all the misunderstandings, arguments, wars, political, cultural, business and religious differences in the world, I found myself both surprised and grateful for all the amazing agreements which take place on a daily basis around the planet.
In the end, I suspect, it really has to do with individuals patiently working at making themselves known, explaining their ideas, listening carefully to each other and exploring areas of both agreement and disagreement. It requires some trust, believing the other person has a vested interest in achieving understanding.
Sometimes, it requires jumping in and admitting you don't understand something, trying different words, even getting an intepreter, someone who does understand the subtle differences in meaning between peoples of different cultures.
Know what I mean?
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