November 11, 2005
On language expression and real communications for public diplomacy and business
An amusing side note. In conversing with my Italian colleague who is in town, about an analysis of a financing issue, a language issue arose. Or rather an amusing (for me at least) arose. My colleague, I should note in advance, is perfectly trilingual between Italian, English and French (well her French is slightly weaker on a professional level).
In reading my analytical note (in English) on a company we met with respect to potential financing issues, she said, “You think in French, don’t you.” I render this without question mark as it was less a question than a statement, her being trilingual, and familiar with business usage in all three. Not, to be frank, entirely accurate, but I will touch on that.
This is, perhaps, somewhat trivial but it gave me cause to reflect on my own evolving writing style and the peculiar environment in which I write in three languages, two of which require a rather more elaborate and indirect method of expression (I recall agreeing with an Arabic professor once that it was far easier to go from French to Arabic or the inverse than between English and Arabic, for the sole reason of style of expression – the preference for indirect and more elaborate expression). There may even be a larger or more general lesson with respect to doing business overseas and in a multilingual environment.
Certainly I was not entirely surprised that a similarly multilingual business person (rather more senior than I) understood (i) my perhaps peculiar English style; (ii) the tension between English business expression (and in general) and preferred modes of communication or style, even in business, outside of English; (iii) my own hybrid style.
At the same time, I was interested that in reading my analysis she immediately put her finger on this (of course as a native romance language speaker, I am sure she saw the underlying structures). For all that, I should note that I do not, in general, ‘think in French’ – but rather worse than that, as far as I can discern, I think in a mix of the three (or four) main languages I use. I have to say that after what should be a good 15 years or so in this kind of environment, I am neither ‘here’ nor ‘there’ – an issue that I am sure throws people off as being a polyglot with a particular strength in ‘the feel’ it would seem that I end up having a mode of expression that is permanently foreign (of course spending a good decade in only partially English speaking environments can have that effect).
This aside, the general lesson that suggests itself here is that even when one is dealing with more or less fluent English speakers, that one must realize (and here English monoglots are particularly weak in understanding) that even when one’s interlocutor speaks English with real fluency, their frame of reference with respect to mode of expression will, unconsciously unless they are an international polyglot, remain their native frame.
It strikes me that this remains perhaps one of the most serious challenges one faces in either business or, if I may range afar slightly, public diplomacy. It is not merely a question of rendering the message mechanically in the target language – whether via mechanical translator (which I advise against if you are sending a document to a non-English speaking counterpart, the potential for disaster is without bounds) or via translator – it is a question of rendering the underlying message in the proper frame of reference to achieve one’s objectives.
Here we hit on a key challenge and a key issue, both with respect to business and to international politics or relations. One can call it hitting the right notes, one can call it a number of things. The core issue is properly communicating the real message – and the real message is not merely mechanically translating the words, but rather getting at the entire message, including nuances and the like.
This is non-trivially difficult. It is a matter of style as much as anything, having an understanding of how to approach a question. Having long been away from American business, to take an example, I admit that I am, for example, taken aback by the abrupt directness which Americans tend to plunge into subjects (not that I can not do the same). At the same time, one has to admit that even if one understands in theory that, say, Arab culture or whatever requires a less direct approach, it is hard for the person who has merely read this in a ‘cross-cultural’ communications handbook to truly integrate this into their actual behaviour or understanding of what is said.
Taking a concrete example, I had two executives from The Titanic in town (theoretically quite experienced internationally, but only at the level of highest end – large firms) for a meeting with a client here, a major bank. They wanted the bank in question to kick in and help us on a project The Titanic thinks they can create in the region. I frankly think the entire concept is utterly loony, and I am sure the local bank in question does to. Now, in the meeting I clearly read the “yes” and ‘agreement’ from the executives in question were not at all “yes” – they were “non” – if one is plugged into the style of communication you can read these things, no brilliance on my part other than I’m integrated enough into society to know not only that such habits exist, but can read them.
My senior NY based executives came away enthusiastic at the “partnership” that was going to come out of this, etc. I observed sourly, ‘not bloody likely’ and predicted that the Bank had not wanted to make us lose face by telling us they did not like the concept, but would merely avoid getting involved. Now, 3 weeks later the local senior management are not returning our calls, and generally doing what they can to avoid the vulgar enthusiasm of New York. I probably will be blamed for being too negative, but in my opinion, it’s their bloody fault for not reading the client / partner and not listening to their local office in telling them they had not read the situ right.
I note that these reflexions are as much aimed at the concept of public diplomacy as business. One of my key thoughts is that mastery of language is not the sole issue, it is also an understanding of the style or culture of the language, which is sometimes more important than technical mastery of the language. Small faults but in the right style are forgiven easier than technical mastery and a brutal, off-base mode of expression.
In the context of public diplomacy, I would suggest that while one does need excellent speakers for the public facing work (in general, but one should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good), staffing in terms of development and analysis has to include staff with the right "ear" for the 'native style' in the creation of the message.
Posted by The Lounsbury at November 11, 2005 10:03 PM
Filed Under: Biz - Private in MENA
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quick bullet points:
* I made a similar observations about indirectness in the post comments of below entry.
* I revert to my occasional ugly Americanness when I say that the indirectness (when it comes to BUSINESS) of many non-Americans, eg Arabs especially, is simply annoying with no redeeming value. Socially it is nice.
* Your English is not in any way unusual, at least here, there is occasional British-bred word choice making it different, though not difficult, for an American, especially when going scatological, but not in any way alien.
Posted by: matthew hogan at November 11, 2005 10:20 PM
Somewhere when doing a piece on the 1956 war in ancient days (for me) I came across a story whereby an American mediator between Nasser and Ben-Gurion came away from a meeting with the former convinced they had solved the Mideast regional war. Only after did he learn from another at the meeting that Nasser's repeated smiling and nodding yes was his polite way of saying "I have no idea what you are saying in your thick Texas accent."
Posted by: matthew hogan at November 11, 2005 10:23 PM
Well, with respect to business, given that is my life here, I can only say that I prefer a happy medium, but at the same time my core lesson is that 'when in Rome....'
One needs to adapt to the local habits. There are other issues that I find worse than the issue of indirectness (in particular, esp. in the old Middle East, the aversion to criticism, even indirect). The Maghreb, thank God, is better, but sadly adopted the almost as bad French business habits.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at November 11, 2005 10:54 PM
Actually, Col's stylistic use of English structure is very unusual and not just for the occasional British idiom.(At least in written form anyway, I've never heard him speak and most likely won't unless Eerie decides to set up The Lounsbury Podcast).
This distinctively eclectic word pattern is why Col's Italian friend asked her question, which to my mind was a very logical one, and also why some ppl inquire every so often if he's a " company man".
Posted by: mark safranski at November 12, 2005 03:22 AM
agreed on the comment regarding Col's english structure and word usage patterns. it is not the american english norm. it is much too educated for that.
Posted by: drdougfir at November 12, 2005 04:29 AM
What is the fourth language you speak? Spanish? Hebrew? Icelandic?
Posted by: dubaiwalla at November 12, 2005 08:43 AM
Odd, my structure is unusual in English?
I suppose it's because I have to structure my writing in 3 languages, and I end up with a melange.
Although Marc I am afraid given reactions to my spoken English where literally everyone takes me as a foreigner.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at November 13, 2005 11:02 PM
It strikes me that this remains perhaps one of the most serious challenges one faces in either business or, if I may range afar slightly, public diplomacy. It is not merely a question of rendering the message mechanically in the target language . . . it is a question of rendering the underlying message in the proper frame of reference to achieve one’s objectives.
Quite correct. This is a problem (and, occasionally, an opportunity) on many levels.
First of all, languages do not map into each other one-to-one. Every language can express concepts that are unique to it and effectively untranslatable into other languages. English usually solves this problem by simply adopting the foreign word and corresponding concept but in many languages, it's not so simple. Consider the differences between angst, ennui and depression. I'm guessing that finding an elegant translation for these words into, say, arabic, is something of a headache.
Second, whether language drives culture or culture drives language,language is inextricably intertwined with its cultural context. Even in the driest of business environments, concepts must be translated with an eye to their cultural significance. At the most basic level, consider how absurd the circumlocutions common in arabic look when translated directly into english. I can only assume that standard business english borders on a criminal threat when translated directly into arabic.
The problem is, of course, much more complex than that. Think, for example, how notoriously difficult it is to translate humor. This is because all humor relies on a shared cultural context to make it funny. For example, there is a class of humor that involves some member of a disfavored ethnic group/country being reliably stupid. Once upon a time in the U.S., Poles were the butt of these jokes. (Though not, apparently, since the mid 1980s.) In England, it's the French, in Argentina, Chileans, in Canada, people from Newfoundland, etc., etc. In order to make one of these jokes "work," you must adjust them for cultural context, even when going from Canada to England. It's a hundred times worse when going from Canada to Egypt.
Humor is an extreme example but this problem arises in all cross-cultural communications. The answer is to forget trying to translate the language of the communication and concentrate on the effect you want that communication to have on your counterparty. Suppose, for example, that you're a North American company having a serious warranty issue with another company. Your goal is to get them to perform. In the U.S., you might write a fairly direct and nasty letter threatening legal action. But if your counterparty is in Japan, such a letter will be worse than ineffective. If you want your warranty problem fixed, you're going to have to approach your Japanese counterparty in their cultural context and communicate the seriousness of the problem and your resolve in a way that resonates with their cultural assumptions. Everybody has levers that can be pushed but in order to push them, you must understand their culture to figure out what they are.
Finally, (at least for the moment) there is the problem of studied ambiguity. Cross cultural communication often obscures as much as it communicates, sometimes intentionally so. Think, for example, of the careful turn of diplomatic phrase so often necessary to "resolve" some dispute. All the parties know that each party interprets the phrase differently and all the parties hope that there will never be a need to clarify the phrase's meaning.
This is not, however, simply a problem for international diplomats. It happens every day in cross-cultural agreements of every kind, whether personal or business. I have often seen business contracts which include a potentially suicidal term along the lines of "Both the english and italian translations of this agreement shall be equally authoritative and binding." The english and italian versions of the agreement do not and, in fact, cannot, say the same thing.
Fortuitously enough, there is an article on this weeks Economist on this very topic. It turns out that in order to communicate, people do not have to agree on what symbols mean, they must simply agree on what symbols to use.
Posted by: Anonymous at November 14, 2005 03:04 AM
From a post at ChicagoBoyz
"My idea of hell would be life lived in code; our inner as well as our society's health require an ability to speak honestly, directly, words coming up and out with no filter, no hedging, no reinterpreting in "appropriate" words, muted feelings. With such a distraction at such a level, we become less intent on (and less good at) capturing reality. It wastes time but more importantly energy."
Posted by: amy at November 21, 2005 05:50 PM