Sunday, January 18, 2009
Silent at Lunch: Challenge of Global Communication
As I sat silently at lunch one day this week, listening to an incomprehensible swirl of Chinese around me, I realized how much energy it takes to stay connected when you don’t understand what’s being said. How many times has it happened to you? I remember conversations in Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, and Italian that surrounded me as I sat waiting for some English to emerge. It’s tiring to keep your focus on the people speaking, easy to mentally drift away, to feel that people are talking about you, your company, your project purposefully not sharing with you. From that perspective we can quickly become frustrated, annoyed and to withdraw.
But it’s essential to stay alert, to show that you are engaged with the people around you both to be polite and moreover ready for the moment the language shifts and once again you can speak, understand what’s being discussed. Don’t miss a question directed to you, an important point being made.
Thinking about that experience is a reminder to be thoughtful (even kind) when we are the host and it's the visitor who sits silently, waiting for us to shift languages or at least for the speakers to adjust their English to his or her speed, vocabulary. It’s simple to get caught up in a conversation and forget that a guest, even one who speaks some English, may not be able to catch everything that’s said when we speak at our normal pace.
We often discuss the challenges of communicating globally in terms of subtle issues,
how culture shapes our choice of words, whether we’re direct, quick to say what we mean or subtler where the answers are woven into a story, slower, less direct. But sometimes the difficulty of global communication is simply that conversations get conducted in multiple languages and we don’t always understand all the languages in the mix.