Lost in Translation


It’s not a secret that the English language is hard to grasp. There are grammar rules that differ from the other Latin languages, idioms, cultural variances, and top of all that, there are words with multiple meanings. Right after the attacks of 9/11, my poor father received a notice on his email that it had been monitored and that he needed to explain what his involvement was in a “plot in Pakistan to bring money over to the United States to fund the three in his charge.” Sounds incredibly suspicious doesn’t it?

My dad didn’t know if he should get mad or laugh. The word “PLOT” can have multiple meanings. One is to scheme or plan as in “a plot to topple the king,” which even the Merriam Webster online dictionary doesn’t even use. Another is used by farmers to designate parcels of land for a purpose. Third is used by authors to design a series of events that are critical to their writing, such as the main plot of a book. Fourth is to chart lines, as in plotting a course or to plot coordinates for a straight line. Last is to designate a parcel of land for usage as a unit, usually for real estate purpose. It was this last definition he was using in his e-mail. He had purchased a plot of land a long time ago in Pakistan that had three sections as an investment for his three daughters. These are the three in his charge.

I don’t disagree that it was probably not the best time to leave out details of the “three in his charge” or to use the word “plot” instead of land, but one can easily see how our communication can easily take a wrong turn, especially during emotionally charged situations. The word “run” is similar in its multiple meanings, except that instead of four or five meanings, it has a whopping 177 definitions!

When I teach business communication, it is usually to native English speakers. English was my second, almost third language (I was taught Arabic, English and Urdu almost simultaneously when I was little, living in Saudi Arabia). I try to stress the importance of why we have issues in talking with one another especially in culturally diverse settings. If you add non-verbal (body language), tone, inflection, listening, written (e-mails, text, Instant Messaging), and slang or jargon into the mix, it is an absolute wonder we can understand one another at all!

With the English language changing all the time, communication becomes more difficult even for native speakers. Consider for example, the new speak that the Millennials and Generation Z (yes, we are on the last letter of the alphabet now) are using in texting. If you don’t know what “totes” means (no, not the ones you store or carry stuff in), then you might not understand some of the messages that are being thrown around out there on social media (like, totes cray). There is an article by the Washington Post that just came out in January that addresses the new way to speak. You might want to check it out if you are over the age of 40 – no offense, but just want everyone to be on fleek (yes, that’s a new word too – just not in the dictionary yet).

To help foster good communication, whether it’s with your spouse, teenager or co-worker, we have to start somewhere. Here are a few things to consider from the authors of Crucial Conversations on Stereotypes, Distrust & Bias:

Focus on the Facts. We tend to jump in with an emotional appeal and don’t look critically at the facts surrounding the situation.

Examine the Story. Re-examine the conclusions drawn from the facts. Again, emotions can color the situation and make it seem amplified when it’s really a small issue or something that was overlooked by the other party.

Visibility and Exposure. Reconsider your initial views, and to be open to new information.

Own the Problem. No blaming. Taking accountability for actions is critical for both sides

Follow Up. Sometimes we walk away, thinking things are resolved, but it may just be the other person agreeing to something so the situation will just go away. It is important to follow-up not just for clarity in communication, but also to review and reinforce the relationship.

By doing the suggestions above, we will not only clarify misunderstandings but will be able to lead by example to make a foundation of trust with the other person. Misunderstandings can get cleared up in a new way, with new information that you may not have known about that individual’s background or a different way of speaking.

As for my dad, he is still plotting the course with consideration to the sale of his plot so he can plot another chapter of language communication issues with e-mails…



One thought on “Lost in Translation

  1. Pingback: Lost in Translation~A New Christian | Mona Earnest

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