"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Nelson Mandela
In the rare times that we do speak words with conscience and clarity, we are essentially sending someone an invitation into to peek into our minds.
Most of the time, however, we confuse true communication and speaking out loud. These are two very different things. We tend to assume that what we have said out loud and the ideas we have expressed, will be correctly translated into the brains of the people listening.
Most of the time what we say is an attempt to convey meaning but much of that meaning often lies outside the spoken words. French writer Bernard Weber’s poem Tentative speaks of the great distance that there is between what you think, what you want to say, what you mean, the words you choose to use and what gets heard, understood and interpreted as a result.
It is in this great divide, a space full of pitfalls, that most miscommunications are born.
In recent years we have heard the steadily beating drum that calls for hiring for diversity. Other than being politically correct, what are the very real benefits for doing this?
How can we find success in the quagmire of miscommunications waiting to happen? Here are just a couple of ways in which we can learn to be more open-minded.
Learn a new language or immerse yourself in another culture
To understand a speaker’s intentions, you need to be able to take the speaker’s perspective.
A University of Chicago study published in Psychological Science in 2015, established a link between how bilingualism or multi-cultural exposure lead to an enhanced ability in perspective taking and understanding the meaning behind the words being spoken.
This leads to a critical difference in terms of effective communication.
Geert Hofstede, a pioneer and Professor Emeritus of Organizational Anthropology and International Management at Maastricht University, termed culture ‘the software of the mind’. And language is one of the major markers of culture. It enables us to not only get our thoughts out from inside our heads but also to create those thoughts in the first place. Having several languages and cultures, therefore, gives you several ‘mindwares'.
When speaking in one language or living in one culture, we might have certain expectations and reactions that we would not have in another. Understanding that we all live in different worlds, lets you move between them and creates more expanded visions of what is possible.
A suitable parallel to being able to move between different worlds might be acknowledging the different avatars we all seamlessly inhabit. When we need to, we become different people in different contexts. For example, when at work we are the respected professional, at a charitable event a passionate crusader for a cause and within the family context, a father, a mother, a son, a daughter, a sister or a brother. All of these roles call for us to behave in certain ways and we know how to suitably switch from one to another with ease. Most of the time we do so without thinking about it. Having multiple cultures enables us to do the same in a larger context.
All the great technological innovations have been achieved by people who are good at thinking outside the box. Several studies have proved that the multicultural experience makes us far more flexible and greatly enhances our creativity especially so in our approach to problem-solving.
Awareness of the relativity of context in communications is equally important as being able to speak more than one language.
Context plays a huge part in how you transmit information and knowing that different people adopt different styles is as essential. There are cultures in this world that have more or less explicit ways of sending messages. Northern European countries and the USA are considered to be explicit cultures where much of the meaning in an interaction can be taken from the words being said. Others, such as Japan, Korea, and India are better known for being highly implicit in their ways of exchanging information. In these cultures, much of what needs to be said is being conveyed outside of spoken word and coded into unsaid expectations of correct behaviour. These are codes that are so ingrained in us that we are hard-pressed to explain our knowledge of them. They are the unspoken reasons why an Indian child knows that saying yes to the first offer of food might be considered impolite. These codes are also the reason why a Japanese junior manager knows the exact pecking order as to when it will be his turn to speak and where to sit in a meeting room.
By consciously seeking exposure to newness we create within ourselves the ability to see multiple realities. We start to consider difference not as something to be tolerated, but as something to be expected and celebrated. We are open to the fact that the stories we tell can be renewed and revised.
And along the way, we might also find a way to connect more deeply with one another.
Nandita Sood Perret is a communications consultant and leadership coach at CTD Cultural Insights, where she helps people and companies break through old patterns, to develop new perspectives and innovative solutions for collaboration and growth. The Idea Project is a column that will explore ways to help people and companies see around the corners and find success through interesting ideas, thoughts and innovative perspective taking.