communicating across the cultural divide

Over the last two weeks I was able to observe often cross-cultural communication without moving more than few km from my place.

And I will never cease to be surprised at one of the few absolutes that still linger inside the mind of even the most open-minded people.

Language.

If you search the word “language” in this website, you will see that it is a recurring theme.

When I was travelling first across Italy, in late 1980s, then in Europe, I always heard the same complaints- about the accent, syntax, vocabulary of the “others”.

As if each community had the “universal truth” about language.

Or, in a typical representation of our coherence in being incoherent, a “relative absolute”.

I cherish my accent- Italian, of course.

Well, unfortunately it adapts to the environment.

Pity that I need to spend but few days with people to pick up their accent(s).

With some hilarious results- as when a bus conductor in London said that I had a mix of Texan and Japanese accent (you guess why: I was spending most of my time outside the class with two friends).

Or when, after spending all the day going around in Rome while listening to a Dutch course, a Scottish pub friend that I had not seen in a long time asked: “Roberto, where did you pick up this South African accent?”.

Let’s be frank: an accent is a temporary accident, but we will overcome the accent issue only if we will keep mixing accents on a daily basis.

And this applies to all the ancillary language “nuances”: vocabulary, syntax, and so on.

Maybe in the future, when we will all be interconnected 24/7, the “standard language” will be like a “fashion trend”- or a wave in a sports stadium.

Somebody starts it, other follow, rises up, and then disappears- to be replaced by another one.

Except, of course, for some unrepentant bookworms.

I went outside Europe only in US and (just once) in Turkey, but I had to understand (mainly in business) at least the following English accents:
American (various), Arabic (various), Austrian, Brazilian, British (various), Canadian, Chinese, Dutch, Flemish, French, German, Greek, Korean, Indian, Irish, Israeli, Italian, Japanese, Latvian, Mexican, Pakistani, Philippino, Polish, Russian, Scottish, Spanish, Swedish, Swiss (various), Turkish, etc etc.

And, while travelling, I have been assigned the following “origins”:
Argentinian, British, Canadian, Chicagoan, Italian, Mexican, Polish, Spanish, Swiss (Zurich), Texan, etc etc.

Communication is not a matter of accent, but unfortunately inclusion is still linked to the accent- more than vocabulary or syntax.

Be it within a single country (I saw it in Italy, France, UK, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium), or across countries and communities.

Personally- in a multilingual and multicultural world, I believe that language training should include language listening and cross-cultural communication.

As a way to open up the mind of the listener to the possibility of expressing the same concept in a different ways with different nuances- but still worth listening.

I think that my “accent of the day” is as difficult to understand for a Chinese or German as I had troubles understanding sometimes my Scottish or Indian contacts.

The funniest part? The only people who are absolutely confident to have no accent or “alien” influence while using a foreign language are simply unable to hear what they say.

And their inability to hear themselves is just the tip of the iceberg of their inability to listen.

They have just, you guess, a local relative absolute.

The easiest way? Teach a language. And then, let people spend just one hour with alternative pronunciations, as if they were to study the tonal system of the language of their interlocutors.

I did an experiment with more than half a dozen languages, plus half a dozen variants of British and American language.

The official purpose? Adopt one of the accents. But that was part of the process. And it would make sense only if I were to leave within the community that has that “relative absolute”.

The real purpose? See if the intensive exposure had any side-effects on comprehension.

It worked in late 1980s, when I was just travelling across Italy on a daily basis, North to South to West to East.

And it worked now.

With a twist: as the tonal system of, say, Chinese, is completely different from most European languages, you learn not only to understand the word that they say, but you increase also the “predictive” factor in your understanding.

Let’s be frank: the reason why most automated translators are almost useless is because they are stupid.

When we communicate, we do not just listen- our brain tries to anticipate, by using the patterns that we know.

With a foreign interlocutor, the risk is that our brain “puts the coach in front of the horses”- and infers a conclusion where none if forthcoming.

Our natural instinct to predict becomes a damage to our effective communication.

But if we know the mindset and cultural/syntactical framework of our interlocutors, the brain will first try to position what they say within the context of your knowledge of their mindset/culture, and change radically how it predicts “what’s coming next”.

I used this approach successfully in the past, while doing multicultural negotiations.

It is not just the non-verbal communication- also the verbal communication patterns are culturally-relevant.

As cross-cultural communication becomes not limited to the few, but a basic element of everyday life, this “identify the right box” before “thinking outside the box” is a critical basic skill.

Try doing some experiments- by observing how you “jump ahead” while listening to somebody.

And try to see consciously how often you would have been benefited by first identifying the mindset of your interlocutors, and then using that knowledge to steer your “predictions”.

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