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How language almost starved a 12 year old boy.

When I was a kid I went overnight camping with a group of other boys. We got into normal shenanigans. Lit fires. Chopped down trees. Got into fights. Our leader had enough of us and at one point in frustration he shouted his threat “if you don’t shape up you won’t be getting any mail!”

Strange right?

I did not understand. It was a weekend camping trip. I didn’t expect mail and the threat seemed hollow. Weak. “Who cares about mail!?” I thought. But everyone seemed to calm down in a hurry. In the sudden silence I wondered if I was missing the point.

So I asked him, “What’s a mail”?

My question only seemed to increase his frustration. He grew visibly more upset as I repeated my question. A little louder. A little more forcefully.

“What’s a MAIL?”

I did not help to reduce the tension. If anything his temperature was sky-rocketing. I felt like he was going to lose it on me, and for what, “mail“!?!

Scott Stiller

That was when my friend Scott grabbed my arm and told me to shut up. “Meal! Mark. MEAL! He is telling us we will have to skip a meal if we don’t listen!”

I immediately shut up. Few things matter more to a 12 year old boy than food.

Everyone there thought I was just bring a cheeky little snot and was trying to aggravate him. Fair enough – I often was. But in this case it was an honest mistake. His British accent, although tempered by years spent in Canada, still came on strong. Probably more so when he was sick and tired of playing babysitter to a dozen boys (…looking back – good on you Keith).

You don’t have to speak different languages to require a translator

As I travel I have discovered that people speak differently.  I am not referring to language. I mean that people who share the same language will use it in very different ways.  I may be speaking English to someone, but I need to know the other rules of communication. One key rule, is the difference between direct and indirect speech.

  1. Direct speakers say things like, “What do I think? I disagree. Why don’t you try it this way?”

  2. Indirect speakers say things like, “I love your plan! Have you heard Petra’s idea, what do you think about it?”

Not too complicated, but most cultures have preferences.  Roughly 3.5 billion people on the planet prefer to speak directly; and 3.5 billion people prefer to speak indirectly.

deceptive or unrefined

If you belong to a highly direct culture you will find indirect speech seems evasive and tricky, maybe even a little deceptive. If you belong to a more indirect culture you will find direct speech shockingly abrupt, it seems unrefined and rude. The same sentence will mean very different things.

As a Canadian I tend to speak directly and I wonder if I really understand how indirect communication works.  Maybe as a direct speaker I have some weird unconscious bias against indirect communication. I think it gets in the way of getting things done. Although, I must admit, Japan and India prefer indirect ways of speaking and they sure make things happen. They lead the world in productivity. So I wonder how they are able to get so much done, when it seems like they never directly confront problems? I wonder if I am missing a perspective? Do I have a cultural blind-spot? Understanding this would certainly be a valuable skill if I was working with people who prefer indirect ways of talking – Don’t you think?

Did you see what I did there?

If you followed that last paragraph, then guess what! You understand indirect communication.

A much more direct approach would have been if i had simply stated: Direct communicators, like myself, have an unshakeable and somewhat arrogant belief that we have the right way of communicating. I am wrong.

Although all cultures have preferences about direct and indirect communication, cultures tend to use both. You do better if you know the preference for the place you are travelling.

Have you ever felt like you were communicating clearly, but totally missed the point?

Mark Crocker

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