‘Those meetings went well’, said my manager who was visiting me in Mexico City from the USA. He was referring to both the internal reviews with my team as well as the client visits we conducted around Mexico City. ‘I am actually not sure if there is much of a language barrier’, he continued.
The Official Language
The English language is considered native to approximately 400 million people. With a world population of almost 7.4 billion people, English is therefore considered native to almost 6% of the population. Maybe that is actually not a lot. It is estimated that the English language is used at a useful level by 1.75 billion people. Useful. In international business however, crossing language barriers takes effort and what is lost in translation might be important.
Unintentionally to the Point
The meetings in Mexico did go well and a two-way communication did take place. But one client was nodding a lot. More so than in previous meetings I had with her when Spanish was spoken. She also did not comment a lot, which was somewhat unusual. A few times, she did jump into the conversation. In plain and good English, with some pauses to find words while her eyes looked down on the desk, she made arguments we all considered to be important.
Translating Takes Energy
The meetings in Mexico with my team did go well too. That night, after a series of meetings, we finally went to dinner and started of with a tequila. One of my team members was sitting next to me. He sipped some tequila, took a very deep breath and said in Spanish: ‘I think it was a good day. It is important to have people over from headquarters. It also was a long day with a lot of talking and listening. In English! I am exhausted.’
The native English speaker puts in effort too and has to digest English spoken by non-native English speakers. Details and subtleness can get lost when translation takes place. Many times humor, the highest level of language, completely gets lost in translation. Some words can’t even be translated well, resulting in people visibly looking for words. These moments of silence when people are looking for words can be translated as: ‘I am trying! My brain is working at full speed!’
A Powerful Differentiator
Language barriers can trigger body language, which -in turn- is a reflection of how business is conducted differently between cultures or nationalities. Verbal communication may appear to be useful, while body language may be very telling. Many times, language at a useful level is in fact the barrier. Language fluency, as part of understanding nuances in international business, can turn language into a powerful differentiator as opposed to being just useful.
Nelson Mandela on negotiating: ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.’