Mind your language: when yes means no!

A few weeks back I was in Maastricht, a town synonymous with a 1991 EU treaty I’d point to as the beginning of the movement to take the UK out of the European Union by those on the right of the Conservative Party led by Prime Minister John Major. This observation, from Elisabeth Hill-Scott, a political commentator, struck home:

Major was also able to argue that the Maastricht principle of ‘subsidiarity’ meant that more decisions could be devolved to the national level

I vividly remember the fractuous nature of the ensuing debate resulting in the eventual resignation of Prime Minister Major. I mention that example to emphasise how words (and places) shape our perception and how ambiguity, while useful in getting political treaties over the line can be destructive in a business environment where a second language is the vehicle of communication.

Back to July 2022. We were in Maastricht for my birthday to attend a twice postponed (due to Covid-19) concert by local boy made good Andre Rieu. Each year Andre and his orchestra occupy the town square in July for a series of open air dinner concerts. The audience is diverse, smart and multicultural. The lingua franca is English!

That we chose to travel via Le Shuttle on the day schools broke up for the summer term was poor planning though in mitigation when we originally booked the dates did not coincide. The additional presence of my 94 year old mother added to the sense of anxiety when, arriving on time for check in, we were told departures were being delayed by 3 hours! Our sense of frustration was exacerbated by the blame game that ensued with the UK Home Office castigating the French for the lack of border officials to check passports and the French opining it wasn’t them that changed the European travel rules. The truth, revealed by a Eurotunnel official, they were surprised by the demand and unprepared for the rush.

A gulf in perception

Apart from my wife Ana (who is Portuguese) and mother (who isn’t) we were joined by a Dutch friend Annette who lives and works in Germany and her German friend Gaby. The event was to prove a great backdrop to a series of conversations about perceptions, cultural nuances and miscommunication.

I’ll begin on the evening of the concert. Since my mother is no longer fleet of foot we needed to park as close to the main square as possible. An early arrival ensured we found an off road parking space. With no barriers, cameras or ticket machines, I was intrigued as to how parking fees were collected and non payment avoided. I was told people just come in and pay out of a sense of obligation.

A day later and the five of us are exploring Maastricht and surrounds. We noticed how the people who served us were smart, engaging and seemingly proud of their roles; and how respectful the clients were of them. Throughout our time there, eating or drinking proved to be a collaborative experience where the ‘server’ took pleasure in your pleasure.

There are staff shortages mainly due to Covid not a lack of interest. Being in hospitality is viewed as a career and not looked down on and seen as a retrograde step for those unable to get a real job!

Linguistic & cultural nuances

This got us onto the use of language. Surrounded by 3 people whose linguistic capabilities put mine to shame we discussed how the English tend to thrive on ambiguity (see Treaty of Maastricht interpretation above).

I shared my experience of managing the intergration of Dutch, German, US and English companies; how the word interesting is interpreted as a positive word by non English when it is quite likely to be a way of saying “not on my watch”.

Another word often used by native English speakers that can cause offence is tolerant. When describing how accomodating ‘we’ can be, I said we are tolerant. “You tolerate me?” was the sharp response! As a result I no longer use that phrase.

I first came across the phrase “Goat mouth” while conducting an interview with a President while on a Knowledge Management assignment in the Caribbean.

Slang expression for someone that has the ability to predict future outcomes (particularly unfavorable future outcomes that causes misfortunes)


Had I understood it at the time it would have put much of the remaining conversation into context. NB it showed the value of capturing (with the interviewees consent) the conversation and having it transcribed!

Finally, going back a decade, I am working on a project to improve collaboration and team working across a global organisation. Having surfaced a number of stories of behaviours and cultural nuances that separate and unite we create a “What makes us tick?” booklet that serves as a critical friend aimed at getting the team to reflect first and speak / write second.

And finally

You might be aware one of my prime interests is Bees Homes who sells beautiful homes.

The process of selling and buying a property in the UK is convoluted and alien to the majority of the rest of the world. Solicitors / Conveyancers are at the centre of the English process and their interpretation can derail a transaction especially when each has a different take of property & boundary law. When structural surveyors are instructed as they tend to be on older property purchases there is a need for careful interpretation of what their words really mean.

Here’s a true story:

A couple of friends were buying a wonderful but run down property commanding a magnificent view over Friston Forest. When they received the surveyor’s report they questioned whether they should go ahead with the purchase as it contained many comments of concern. Our friends who are practical business people decide to cut throught the caveats and legalese and ask a straight question:

“Are you aware the property has been empty for 4 years? If so would you buy it?”

The response: “No we weren’t. In that case in a heartbeat, all it needs is a little TLC”

Imagine then, selling a historic property to an overseas buyer who works for a parastatal organisation and prone to forensic interpretation of words. The propensity for misunderstanding and mistrust is great and requires the patience of Job. Phrases and words of professionals can be confusing to overseas clients and result in intransigent positions being adopted.

I suggest the English speaking world is privileged but lazy. Few of us speak another language yet we get offended when non native English speakers don’t grasp what we say or mean.

Here’s a mantra I developed many years ago to mitigate this issue. Taken from a post I wrote while helping a new multicultural management team come together:

Perhaps the most revealing was that nobody had English as his or her first language. We adopted this mantra as a way of overcoming potential misunderstanding:

‘I heard you to say…. and I understood you to mean….’

Further we agreed that whenever anyone did not understand a phrase or word they would seek clarification and record it on a white board along with a glossary of terms.

Thanks for reading

How to begin a project in a new business: collaboration, communication and a dash of KM

A week back someone asked me for a bit of advice about getting projects off the ground so I thought I’d share this with her (and you). At the request of the Executive Chairman I’m doing a really interesting piece of work at the moment with a new management team. If we pull it off it will be a great example of how to embed Knowledge Management principles into a business with the aim of speeding up development and learning as we go.

theoretical and practical underpinnings
Successful project management is dependent in no small part on collaborative team working. Learning Before, Learning During and Learning After (core foundations of what is often called Knowledge Management) can transform the way project and management teams work and how they collaborate. Simple techniques associated with each step will ensure that what we learn as we progress is fed back into the way we work in the future. The techniques associated with each step are tried and tested across a variety of industries and cultures. We are going to begin by creating an environment and way of working that encourages collaboration and openness: where we all share in success and are able to identify and rectify potential failure.

the brief

The funding clock is ticking and ‘product’ (a prototype) has to be at an advanced
stage if not already delivered for Q3 2015.
In short, the new team has to ‘hit the ground running’ from January and rapidly
establish a modus operandi in the first 90 days to ensure:

  • all issues around obstacles to delivery are capable of being surfaced in an open
    and supportive manner;
  • a set of core behavioural norms including communication and a technical
    collaborative infrastructure are established by the team for the team;
  • everyone understands their responsibilities, role and deliverables and is aware
    of the strengths of the rest of the team; and
  • everyone celebrates successes and takes ownership of potential failure

My initial brief was along these lines:

…help create a collaborative team environment with a shared understanding of what needs to be done and by whom…

the backdrop

Without naming the client (I will call them Polyglot)) I can tell you:

  • it’s space age stuff involving energy retention (so green and renewable)
  • it’s a multicultural environment and none of the 6 ‘man’ team has English as a first language
  • none of the team have worked on a project together
  • they have ambitious targets to develop a working prototype

Each was chosen because of a specialism – PhD’s abound – and an ability to go beyond what’s conventional.  But they have different backgrounds, cultures, outlooks and personal value sets. They are hungry and excited about the prospect of creating a product that can change the way we look at energy retention.

Ahead of the meeting I sent them an outline of the session and opened as follows:

You face a tremendously exciting and challenging 2015. A
new company, a new multinational team and a project that
has the potential to change the way energy is consumed,
stored and saved. Few organizations and the people who
work for them can look forward to the coming year with
such anticipation.

Project Mobilisation Meeting #1

Its Day Four and most of the team arrived on Day One. We’ve assembled at their new offices which is appropriately housed on a reseach park. In advance I asked each of the team to be thinking about a proud moment when they had enjoyed working in a team.

The aims of the half day session were:

  1. Begin building a Polyglot culture based on collaborative team working.
  2. Understand the respective strengths of the team members and Polyglot.
  3. Help kick off the ‘project’ with a shared understanding of the obstacles, deliverables and timing.

The agenda I worked up for the half day kick off session is below. What I can share is how the opening went (taken from the write up I produced):

Everyone had a really interesting story to tell about him or herself and an astonishing array of experiences. Perhaps the most revealing was that nobody had English as his or her first language. We adopted this mantra as a way of overcoming potential misunderstanding:
‘I heard you to say…. and I understood you to mean….’
Further we agreed that whenever anyone did not understand a phrase or word they would seek clarification and record it on a white board along with a glossary of terms.

item who comments
Introductions Ask people to introduce themselves with their name and an interesting/unusual fact. Scene setting: why are we here, what the session is all about.give some examples of good (and bad) experiences
Hopes & Fears Exercise In 2 parts. Each person to write down on Postit notes:Why I joined? To plenary and call out.Then 3 hope and 3 fears and put up on the wall.
‘when you look at things differently’ An exercise designed to get people thinking about different perspectives.Split into 3 teams and give each a paper with one of 3 ‘professions’. Ask them to jot down notes about the room through that ‘lens’. Back to plenary for call out and learning’s.
My proudest team moment PC to ask each person to tell his or her story. JM to note down words for each person that sum up emotions, skills & knowledge, outcomes, behaviours.
How can we ensure the project fails? This exercise (a Reverse Brainstorm) will surface barriers/obstacles and solutions. Split into two teams; ask them what can they do to make sure we fail to meet the deadlines and quality standards.
What would you tell your Dad? Ask each person to write down a response to this ‘over dinner question’: So tell me what is it you are doing?Then get everyone to come and put his or her ‘offerings’ onto the wall. In plenary for discussion and agreement.
And finally: ‘Homework’ set the task: present an outline project plan on Friday 16th January. NB We will decide the composition of the teams in advance. There will be no guidance.