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Skip to 0 minutes and 1 second So sometimes I find myself Flexing to different audiences, and I think actually it’s really important that we can all do that. Especially if you’re working in a global company with lots of different types of people, you have to be able to Flex to them. And one visible example of how I do that is actually I find myself doing that in my voice. So, with all the Americans I talk with I end up having kind of a mid-Atlantic twang. When I’m talking to lots of British people, then it tends to be my natural, normal voice.

Skip to 0 minutes and 32 seconds It’s a bit tricky, sometimes, when I have a mixed audience, and then I have to think, well, who is the authentic myself that I need to be here, and what is my real voice sometimes. I have to catch myself and remind myself what my real voice is. When I moved from culture to the world of government, which is my big transition, I discovered that the civil servants, who are delightful, fantastic people, often would sit in a room and you would assume that they shared the first language of English with you and that they understood everything that I was saying.

Skip to 1 minute and 10 seconds But I realised, and I would use this as a metaphor, but in fact, their first language was some civil service language. I used to say Serb or Croatian, but it doesn’t really matter. So their English was incredibly good, but it was not their first language. And a lot of the time, they didn’t understand what I was saying at all so that it took me ages to understand. And we’ve all seen it in Veep or The West Wing or Yes Minister to understand the ways that they would block politicians and advisers like me. But also just the ways in which, without meaning to, they would simply not understand.

Skip to 1 minute and 47 seconds So for example, words about action, words about doing things, words about actually changing lives, they found very difficult to grasp as being within their power. So, we would want to change the world. They would assume that you should write a paper.

What did you say?

Language is an enormous barrier to Cultural Intelligence. In the video above Riaz Shah, Global Talent Leader - Assurance Services, EY LLP and Ruth Mackenzie, Artistic Director, Holland Festival provide us with their insights into the importance of language as we cross borders and divides.

Along with the languages of nations and languages of multiculturalism we need to:

  • consider the languages between generations: expressions that come in and out of usage, created by young people or remembered by old, and often dividing the two
  • consider the jargon of different sectors, designed to create cohesion and promote convenience but often perceived to create in-groups and cliques.

Sometimes it is almost as if language is being used to set traps to catch people out; to make them misunderstand, misinterpret or say the wrong thing. Have a look at this example. Idioms are another interesting example of this. In the UK these sayings are often used: fish out of water, pulling your leg, egg on your face, putting the cart before the horse, or low-hanging fruit for example. We all have our private languages, but leaders in search of Cultural Intelligence need to be very careful when and how (and with whom) they use them. What are some of the idioms from your place in the world?

The widespread use of English has made communicating across cultures much easier. English now has official or special status in at least 75 countries, with a total population of over two billion. This is undoubtedly helpful in many ways. Increasingly, people the world over can slip into a common language and communicate.

Though this ‘common language’ makes Cultural Intelligence much easier at one level, it makes it far more difficult at another as this common language is still a second language for some. The downside of this is that ideas sometimes get lost and misunderstandings are common.

Many leaders whose first language is English do not learn a second one. Therefore English-only speakers might not understand the following experiences:

  1. They never experience at first hand the deep frustration of trying to communicate in a different language

  2. People who only speak English don’t understand just how complex and nuanced translation can be and how vulnerable it is to misinterpretation

  3. English-only speakers think that if the other person speaks English too, then they share more than just a language. English itself is not a culture. It can get English speakers into real problems.

English-only speakers start their Cultural Intelligence journey at a considerable disadvantage, and understandably, they often believe the opposite. At the same time, English itself is evolving. Mixing of languages is becoming norm, new words are forming on a daily basis. For example in India we now have ‘Hinglish’.

It is not just about language and vocabulary either. Accents and tunes are important too. If the tune in our voice is wrong people will not trust us.

Many people are very clear that their language is an essential part of their culture. If their language is lost, their culture will be too. Leaders with Cultural Intelligence however:

  • keep most language in Flex. They don’t complain when they have to adapt expressions or words. Even their favourite ones, if they find that they are received differently from the way they were meant.
  • allow other people to decide exactly which words to use to describe themselves.

Matt Hyde was with the National Union of Students in the UK and is now with the Scouts movement so he has represented young people for a long time now. His view on language is very clear:

‘Words matter, and they matter a lot. People just have to learn to be a bit more polite. Don’t use words that upset other people, or put them down. A really easy example: don’t refer to young leaders as “kids”. It’s rude, and it makes you look ignorant. If you call young leaders “kids”, it’s no surprise when you find yourself treating them like kids, and then they switch off. Trust has gone out of the window, and it’s unlikely to return.’

Read again what Matt said about the word ‘kids’.

  • What contexts similar to the above example take place in your culture, and what word/s are the main causes?

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This video is from the free online course:

Developing Cultural Intelligence for Leadership

Common Purpose