What Did You Say? And What Did You Mean to Say?
When I was a child, I wanted to speak seven different languages – one for each day of the week. Today, a few years older – and wiser – I no longer want to speak as many different languages as possible, but I want to speak those that I do as perfectly as possible!
Working as a strategic planner on international accounts and with colleagues from various nationalities I’ve learned one thing: Language is a powerful tool and if you’re not able to voice your thoughts so that others can understand them correctly, you have a big problem – especially when you’re working in the communications business with people from all corners of the world.
Research from the University of California, San Diego, suggests that the choice of words defines not only our understanding of a situation but also shapes our way to approach it and find potential solutions: In a series of experiments, test subjects were asked to read short paragraphs about rising crime rates in a fictional city and answer questions about the city. The researchers then assessed how people answered the questions based on whether crime was described as a beast or a virus. 71 percent of the participants called for more enforcement when crime was described as a beast. When the metaphor was changed to virus, the number dropped to 54 percent.
So the choice of words matters significantly – and as a planner we need to be especially careful with our choice of words when it comes to briefing or feedbacking the creative team to make sure we achieve the results we want. Furthermore, when it comes to multi-lingual workplaces such as international agencies and accounts the choice of words starts to matter even more.
Not only do you have to make sure you voice your own thoughts precisely, so that it correctly expresses what you want to say – you also have to make sure the other party understands your words the way you intended them. And if one of you (or even both) are not using your mother tongue, this will pose a certain uncertainty since neither party can be 100% sure the other party correctly says, understands or interprets what was said. In some situations one might have to rephrase the idea multiple times to make it understandable to the other party – and by doing this you might water it down or loose its focus and punch – and thus become less persuasive or exciting.
At the same time, if you don’t do that, you cannot be sure the other party has understood the core of your idea correctly. Too often we just assume we understand each other correctly since we (assume we) know the words. However, we might be unaware of the different levels of meaning it has – either officially or just to the individual’s understanding of the word, especially in a language that is not our mother tongue. A helpful technique on how to deal with this uncertainty of common understanding is repeating and rephrasing what was said. This way both parties can (at least to some degree) check if their understanding of what was said is aligned. However, this only refers to the meaning of what was said.
Another issue of multi-lingual workplaces is the tone of voice: if you’re not speaking in your mother tongue, you might be unaware of the slight tonality differences between two words or grammatical peculiarities – and thus misinterpret your colleagues’ or clients’ intention. Or you yourself might not be able to express yourself adequately. Especially when it comes to feedback, getting the tonality right is very important for the further process and multilingualism can often be an additional difficulty.
However, despite all its challenges, multilingualism also presents the chance to incorporate multiple different perspectives into the workplace and how we approach ideas as well as our colleagues and clients. So I for my part will continue to strive to speak my languages as perfectly as possible – even if it’s not seven languages 😉
Marion Mangold is Senior Strategic Planner at Havas Düsseldorf