Lessons from Language Barriers

A man of many language symbols
Image by eyesplash Mikul via Flickr

I’d love to read more stories like these two. They provide valuable insight in human nature, perception and more.
The Executive and the Branch Manager
The first lesson is in perception. I caught this nugget in a New York Times article [Link: Jack Scharff]. It’s a valuable lesson involving a language barrier that applies to people with hard-of-hearing or deafness. I’ve run into this many times in my life.
The interviewee asked Robert W. Selander, retiring chief executive of Mastercard, “What are the most important leadership lessons you have learned?

Brazil is a big country. I was living in Rio and it’s like living in Miami. I was out visiting a branch in the equivalent of Denver. Not everybody spoke great English and I hadn’t gotten very far in Portuguese. As I was sitting there trying to discern and understand what this branch manager was saying to me, and he was struggling with his English, the coin sort of dropped that this guy really knows what he’s talking about. He’s having a hard time getting it out.
As I thought about the places I’d been on that trip, I realized this was probably the best branch manager I’d seen, but it would have been very easy for me to think he wasn’t, because he couldn’t communicate as well as some of the others who were fluent in English.
I think that was an important lesson. It is too easy to let the person with great presentation or language skills buffalo you into thinking that they are better or more knowledgeable than someone else who might not necessarily have that particular set of skills.

I can’t tell you how many times I open my mouth and see the expression on someone’s face change when hearing something different about my voice. If I should ask someone to repeat, I’ll get a similar reaction to the one Selander described. Is it any wonder I love interacting online and social media? It filters out my accent and voice leaving the “language” barrier behind. This allows me to express myself and thoughts without any interference.
The Friend and a Family
The second lesson is in energy. A friend went to a foreign country and had dinner with a family. The family, of course, spoke in their native language. My friend only knew a touch of their language and struggled to follow the conversation. She shared this story and told me how exhausted she was after the conversation. Little did she know she taught me a lesson that I hadn’t learned in over 30 years.
I thought I wasn’t a high energy person by nature. This has nothing to do with enthusiasm, but everything to do with being able to go, go, go — which I can’t, can’t, can’t. I’ll go, go, go when I need to. However, I try to avoid it.
Listening to my friend’s story helped me realize exactly why I don’t have a lot of energy and why I collapse after just one day at a conference. Even though English is my native language, I have to work harder than the average person with hearing to “translate” everything from lips to words. Not everyone’s lips are easy to read, thus my eyes and brain go in overdrive. (It’s true that lipreaders only catch one-third of what the speaker says. Imagine reading every third word in this post.)
While this second lesson won’t affect many of you — it offers unusual insight into my life as a person who is deaf. Maybe you’ll get a different lesson out of this story.
What lessons have you learned from foreign travels or talking with people whose native language isn’t yours?

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