Same Language…Different Meaning

I have a pile of airplane tickets sitting on my desk. Not tickets actually, but the confirmation sheets with the itinerary for each trip. As I was looking through them and realizing that I already have four trips booked over the next month covering Seattle/Vancouver, El Paso/Juarez, Boston, Chicago/Detroit and am looking at Holland, England, several African countries, and perhaps UAE and Chile in the coming months as well as a few more North American trips, it occurred to me how many places I go where the language people speak to me is English but the meaning is not. I include my visits around America when I talk about lack of common meaning.

Meaning is fully wrapped up in culture and culture varies not only from country to country but often just as much from place to place within a country. Too often we hear the words and assume a common meaning without noticing that the person we’re speaking with shares no common background or understanding with us, and thus…no basis for a common meaning.  It’s even worse when people express completely different cultural ideas by using the same words.

I used to go to Japan quite a bit. I still have a semi-partner there that I do some things with occasionally.  My travels there first got me interested in this phenomenon of completely different experiences and ways of thinking described using exactly the same words…and with the expectation that the other knew exactly what you expected as a response.

The words “I’m sorry” exemplify this well. In America these words are generally associated with culpability since Americans have a tendency to think that everything that happens is someone’s fault. Apologies often establish personal blame. 

In Japan the thinking is quite different. They have a much more group oriented culture. Apologies are  more about the unfortunate thing that happened rather than an acceptance of personal blame.  Even the famous examples of the CEO of a large corporation accepting blame for some disaster that occurred, think Fukushima, are more about apologizing for the group…the company…than accepting personal blame for the event.

It’s why we find Japanese executives apologizing all the time while American executives have to be dragged to the podium or before a Congressional Committee before speaking those dreaded words of apology that imply it was their fault. We live in different worlds while attempting to express ourselves using the same words for quite different experiences.

You always hear that traveling widely helps open the mind to these differences, but it’s not true. It’s not the travel that opens the mind but actually paying close attention with an inquiring mind to what you see while traveling that expands your understanding. The nice thing about this is you don’t have to travel far to take advantage of opportunities to grow your understanding. Difference is everywhere if you keep your eyes and mind open.

I find the concept of American Exceptionalism to be the antithesis of this willingness to understand the rest of the world. This is not to say that I don’t think that America is a great country with great people that has done and will continue to do great things. Rather I find this concept leads to a closed mind assuming that all else is inferior without noticing that many good things happen everywhere, even in the most desperate places.  It causes people to lose their ability to keep their eyes open and their minds searching. It blocks communication and learning and leads to divisiveness and less successful outcomes.

I mention this because all too often leaders of organizations practice their own form of Exceptionalism, the Exceptionalism of those in charge.  The result is the same: closed eyes and mind leading perhaps to some temporary personal gain but to a lesser result for the company and community at large.

Ultimately we all are bound together. Greater success comes from expanded understanding and learning how to take the best from each to build a better whole for all.

Open your eyes, free your mind, enter their world, and accept that good ideas and wisdom are everywhere. Practice paying attention and understanding what you see. Put yourself in their culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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