Imagine you are on a deserted island with another person. To get off the island you must work together to build a boat. Now imagine that person does not speak the same language as you. How do you build the boat?
This may seem like a ridiculous comparison to working in another country, but the main theme is the same: our team and our clients are working toward a common goal and different languages are a barrier to achieving it.
With the end goal in mind, we deploy many tactics to try to understand each other:
- Pictures are the international language. Visuals can help to fill the gaps and clarify ideas. After struggling for a while to understand a complex problem, both my team and the clients were relieved when one of my teammates took to the whiteboard to draw it out.
- Ask, ask, and ask again, then ask in a totally different way. Since there is no way for us to verify if our translated questions were understood as we intended, we will ask multiple people the same question, ask the same question multiple times, or ask the same question in different ways.
- “Let me see if I understand…” This is a statement I make multiple times a day as I work between our translators and our clients. By repeating back what I think I’ve heard, it helps to ensure I’ve heard it correctly.
- “Did you hear that too?” At times, I think I understood a point only to find one of my teammates heard something different. We often check in with each other to reach a common understanding.
- Speak slow and use keywords. My teammates like to tease me about how fast I speak, but when talking to the translator and clients, even they’ll admit that I slow my speech down considerably so it can be more easily digested. I try to highlight keywords by using simple and concise language and by saying things in multiple ways.
- Use your body. Both intentional and unintentional body language can say a lot. I let my inner Italian run free and use my hands to demonstrate what I am saying. However, it is just as important to remember what your body language is saying for you when you don’t realize it. Am I smiling or frowning? Do I seem serious or happy or angry or intimidating? This can be the difference between someone being comfortable enough to talk to you and being too nervous.
Every question we ask must be translated into Vietnamese and then the response translated back into English. Multiply that formula by every follow-up question, every clarification, every change in direction. Meetings take twice the time and you’re never quite sure if your point was understood. Despite these challenges, we still persist, because we’re all in it together. We’re all building the boat.