# 105: Always Carry a Dictionary

Axtell, Roger E., ed. (1993/1985). Do’s and Taboos around the World, 18.

Story behind the Passage

Of course, the title today is quite dumb! We live in the age of smartphones — so, you always carry around your virtual dictionary. But you know what? That does not help you at all when we are talking about the really difficult intercultural communication clashes that occur in everyday business and life. And the one I am usually dealing with is the one between business and the public sector, particularly education.

Sure, I should know how to deal with this. It is my specialty to bridge both worlds and usually I am quite successful. But you can never ever claim that you are really able to handle all potential misunderstandings that can occur. Or, rather, you cannot foresee all of them. We are humans, we make mistakes every second, it is natural. It does not matter how experienced and how sensitive you are — there will always be situations that surprise you without warning. Then it is already too late — sometimes.

I experienced such a clash this past week. I cannot talk about the details but it was very unpleasant for me — and for the other people, probably. We were able to sort of rescue the situation. After all, that is what communication experts can do — they can bring things to the table and openly share whatever they really wanted to say without blaming the other party for whatever he/she said. This only works if you are able to make one thing very clear, however: You are not judging the other party, especially not in a negative way.

But that is quite difficult to do in intercultural communication.

This is why I picked Axtell’s book Do’s and Taboos Around the World (the apostrophe is wrong, actually — not based on my subjective perspective, based on objective grammar). I bought it while I was working as an apprentice in industry. I think, I wrote about this before but cannot remember in which post exactly. Anyway, I was asked to give a workshop on intercultural communication with a focus on German-U.S. relations.

At the time, I had no idea what the benefit would really be for my colleagues in the controlling department. In a huge organization, nobody really has a clue what the exact contribution of his/her job actually is on the higher level of the business. Still, I was young and I felt honored to run a workshop on something that I actually had a clue about (as opposed to EBIT and whatever else which I really had no idea about…). That is when I ordered a bunch of books and I still look at them nowadays when preparing lectures or seminars on intercultural issues. These books actually help, I assure you. Yes, they do not replace practice and actual intercultural encounter. But they can open your eyes and improve your awareness of the many things that can go wrong.

My Learnings

“But no matter how fluently the natives speak your language, remember that it is never spoken — or understood — quite the same way it is at home.” The author is talking about foreign languages here, but there are so many other languages that one can learn without being able to consult a dictionary. The dictionary “Business : University,” for example, does not exist (well, I am kind of writing it…). What I mean is that the language itself can usually be overcome if you practice a lot and if you have an open mentality. But the problem is: There are usually different value sets and very different characters involved.

My clash this past week happened because somebody saw the artist in me but not the business person and, to some extent, the researcher. All these personalities differ in many ways. If these characters remain in their own secluded worlds, they have no trouble. As soon as they start interacting, many things can happen. The reason why they even interact usually has a common objective at the basis. Exactly this can turn into a disaster. Such a collaboration usually happens when both parties are in a really great and relaxed mood. But then, small misunderstandings add up to a huge misunderstanding and then both communication partners start throwing dirt.

I tried to avoid this latter part but I did not really succeed. The problem with intercultural communication clashes is that the judgmental and derogatory messages happen unconsciously. Of course, you do not intend to say that you are not seeing or appreciating the value in what the other party is doing or saying. But you still send this message. This makes the other one explode — rightly so. Of course, you feel the same way. That is the natural course of such a story up to the point where the parties get divided in a way that they do not want to mess with each other anymore.

I know, this is all very abstract now but I really do not want go into detail. From today’s perspective, I am quite happy that this clash happened. Everything in life happens for some purpose — usually this purpose is learning. Whenever you learn that, “no matter how fluently” you “speak the language” of someone else, they will never quite understand it in the way that you intended it to be understood, it makes you feel humble. You become more careful again. But in contrast to situations like this one in the past, I do not become so careful that I completely freeze or withdraw anymore.

Rather, such a situation is a nice opportunity for reflecting who you really are, which languages you really enjoy speaking, and which cultures you really want to interact with. In some cases, you might decide that you want to improve your language skills. In these cases, you consult your ‘dictionary’ again and again and thus improve your intercultural competence. In other cases, you might simply say: No, I am sorry, I simply do not want to go any further. This does not feel right, I am simply hurting myself by enforcing a relationship that brings more harm than good to all those involved.

This is quite reasonable. But as in all intercultural communication scenarios: Do not generalize. The next person coming your way who speaks the same language is a completely different individual. Yes, certain cultural values and norms are ‘typical’ and thus transferrable. Scholars share certain habits and language patterns which differ tremendously from those of business people or artists — and vice versa. But do not forget: The world is changing every day, every single minute. And before you judge: check your inner dictionary twice.

Reflection Questions

1) What was the last intercultural communication problem you had?

2) What is a language that you speak (e.g., professionally) that is I hard to understand for “outsiders”?

3) Do you think it is possible to really not judge someone from a different culture — not even unconsciously?

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