A failure to communicate

I live in Spain and one of the most obvious features of Spanish culture is the primacy of football over all other sports. This is perhaps exemplified by the existence of “Marca”, a national daily newspaper that features almost entirely stories about football. Pressure on teams to perform successfully is huge and that pressure focuses particularly on the entrenadors, the coaches, who, on an almost daily basis, appear at press conferences justifying their teams’ performance. Recently, two individual coaches Gary Neville of Valencia – and lately of Manchester United and England – and the French star Zinedine Zidane have been ever-present; and a striking contrast between these two pressured individuals is their command of the Spanish language. Both are articulate and measured but Neville, newly arrived in Spain, gives all his interviews in English while Zidane converses easily in Spanish. Of course, Zidane has the advantage of having lived here for many years and French and Spanish have many similarities but the difference remains conspicuous.  Now, I am not going to contribute to the well-worn debate about native English speakers and their poor performance in foreign languages. But, like Gary Neville, in my current job, I work with many non-native English speakers and what has struck me is the importance of language as a leadership and management tool.

We understand the importance of written and spoken communications in leadership and management and therefore as leaders and managers we focus on improving these skills through training, practice, self-analysis and study. However, once you are faced with communicating with non-native speakers, a whole new set of challenges is opened. No more the use of subtle implied phrases, familiar metaphors or friendly irony or banter.  Without a detailed understanding of your audience’s knowledge you are forced to focus on absolute clarity – at the same time ensuring you are neither patronizing nor belittling your colleagues.  Jargon and slang, which before aided or brightened your communication, suddenly becomes a bear trap. I recently observed two of my colleagues discussing at length an e-mail from a British friend, which urged them to contact him if ’they had any dramas’ and going on to ask them ‘to cross his palm with silver’. I have for a long time subscribed to the view that when thing go wrong in business, it is rarely caused by a lack of professionalism on anybody’s part but almost always down to some failure of communication.  Working in English with non-native speakers is a ripe context for failures to communicate

I can offer a couple of lessons for communicating with non-native speakers. Firstly, check understanding frequently and ensure you summarize the discussion. This will help your colleagues to keep up with the conversation and give them an opportunity to ask questions. Secondly, be humble. Native speakers can often appear to be arrogant (unfortunately sometimes they are), so make sure you let your colleagues make their own contribution, even if they may need some time you get their message over.  Finally, when writing, proof read your work from a non-native speaker’s perspective removing jargon, slang and anything else that would not pass the inspection of the Plain English Campaign.  With the dismal performance of Valencia, I’m not sure that Gary Neville will have time to apply these lessons; never mind to learn Spanish – but they may be useful for anybody else in the business world either inside the UK or abroad when working with non-native speakers.

1 Comment

Iain P W Robertson June 6, 2016

Sage words from Sean Maddison. Yet, while native speakers can come across as exceptionally arrogant, if you were sticking to sports-people, they ALL come across as arrogant! Well, maybe not ‘all’ but a fairly high percentage of them do…it’s kind of wired into their psyches! Great piece, with which I mostly agree!


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