“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
Do you know what your first word was? If you don’t, welcome to the club! I’m sure mom’s written it down somewhere though.
Do you remember when you realized how you could charm people with your words? Do you remember when you realized that you could harm people with your words?
Language can be used either as a way of connecting with people or it can be wielded as a weapon. We should be encouraged to experiment with it. We should also learn to respect its limitations.
I remember a situation when I was talking to my cousin on the bus. I was in the seat in front of him. To his left sat a guy. And in the seat across the aisle sat his friend. They were talking too and it started to get a little hard to communicate. After a while my cousin asked the guy to his left:
– Do you want to change seats so that you can talk with your friend?
– No thanks. I’m cool.
I started laughing. At first because the guy obviously didn’t get the drift. Then, again, because I thought that maybe he DID but just decided to be a pain in the ass. Regardless, to me it was comic gold!
Later I got to thinking about how this is the “light” version of something Malcolm Gladwell talked about in his book “Outliers”. The section “The Ethnic Theory About Plane Crashes” tackles the issue of how the use of indirect language can be a factor of plane crashes. This is obviously not the ONLY factor, but it makes you think twice about using ambiguous language.
This wasn’t going to be a life or death situation. Nobody was going to get hurt. But… When you start thinking about optimal outcome for all people involved maybe HINTING at what you wanted wasn’t the best way to go about your business.
In this case stating EXACTLY what you wanted the outcome to be and ignoring pleasantries would have been really beneficial. This only took time away from all parties and didn’t take you a millimetre (if you live in Liberia, Myanmar or USA that’s a very, very small distance) closer to your goal.
It’s really cool to be pleasant and proper and all. But, man can it drain energy and more improtantly: time. Both yours and theirs!
I’ve had two great mentor who’ve taught me how to handle these things. One of them has tended to be really brash. This has taught me how to pull back a little to not offend people. The other has used humor to get to the point. I’ve found that this however makes people not necessarily take your words seriously. As usual, you can find the optimal blend somewhere in the middle. I’ve found that if you err slightly more towards humor you’re good as gold!
But even these lessons aren’t enough. You can’t win them all. As with everything else you’re constantly getting feedback and having to calibrate what you’re doing.
This became apparent when I recently had to start writing and speaking french (for the first time in 15+ years!) again. I’ve used the odd phrase here and there when connecting with clients in France and parts of Africa. I found it embarrassing when I had to grasp for words or use gestures and english. But the people couldn’t have been more friendly.
There were a lot of excuses for my behavior (won’t list them here, believe me they were tots legitimate). Looking back at it now I know better.
I was in a hurry to get home (I wasn’t supposed to use excuses!) when a woman who spoke Swedish poorly needed my help. I tried two times unsuccessfully. The third time she said something which I misunderstood and as a result I said something to the affect of “if it doesn’t please you then feel free to get out of my face.”
Wow, should NOT have said that. She laid into me about being an inconciderate prick when all she wanted was to explain. When I realized that I’d misread her use of words I promptly apologized and understood what she wanted.
I should’ve done one of two things. I should’ve taken my time and asked her to show me what she meant since the use of language apparently was a hinderance of me understanding her. The other thing? I should’ve respected my own needs and clearly stated that I was in a hurry, apologized and moved on.
Then again, thinking about what I should have done is of little use. What we should focus on in these cases is what we can learn from it. You can’t really change the past (although the mind races to “Back To The Future” and “A Sound Of Thunder”) all you can do is to make better decisions in the future.
Tim Doner – Breaking the Language Barrier