What Language Are You Speaking?

I remember looking for an apartment in a foreign country. At some point, there was a discussion of what the landlord needed to do to meet the housing requirements. His answer came as a sucking in of air across his teeth and saying that it was going to be difficult. Now, I’m no stranger to difficult, so it was only a matter of time and effort until…

…my agent thanked the landlord, stood up, and ushered me out.

What I didn’t understand until we got back in the car was that he’d just said no. I heard a challenge and possibility, but my agent heard the unspoken answer. Even though the words translated into English, the context was different. I think anyone who has lived away from home, either in another country or just another region, has been in the same situation. You know the words, but you don’t understand that the meaning has changed.

Another fun example:

I was once in a course for senior enlisted, and in strolls a guy from another service two minutes before class started. The conversation went something like this:

“Dude, class starts at 8.”
“Yeah, and I’m here at 8.”
“But we expect you here by 7:45.”
“Then why didn’t you say 7:45?”
“That’s not how we do things in the Navy.”
“Well, I’m not in the Navy.”

It all got a bit awkward after that.

Not even everyone in the same organization sees the world the same way. For some, the end of the month means a time to relax, but for those in logistics and accounting, the end of the month is time to buckle down and work long hours to close everything out. If you plan your company party near the end of the month, you may be putting those people in a situation where they can’t participate. When that happens and they don’t show up, we label them as antisocial.

When I want to take a day off for a big cookout and fun day, the guy across the table throws his pen at me. He doesn’t see fun. No matter what schedule we have, the maintenance has to get done, even if that means forcing people to work late to make up for a lost day. In essence, I’m making him the bad guy.

One person speaks in terms of dollars and cents and purchase limits while the guy he’s arguing with wants supplies early enough to get the outside work done before we get into the hot season. If we don’t get paint now, his people will be baking in the Arabian sun next month. The logistics guy has rules that legally prohibit him from saying yes, which causes frustration all around.

You might want to schedule a ceremony that will close your organization down for an afternoon. Your boss sees a drop in appointment slots for the month that are required to be open and available. When there are three different people all requesting to reduce those time slots, the boss has to say no to someone, which isn’t usually what bosses want to do.

Remember, we’re all part of the same organization’s success, but it’s hard to see that sometimes when we don’t see issues the same way or speak in the same terms. And here’s where the contradiction comes in: I want all these people to speak their own languages and see the world in their own way that contributes to our overall success.

If we took a day off every time I wanted, well, not much would get done. I need people to tell me, preferably without throwing things, what impacts an idea can have on each department. I don’t want the logistics guy forgetting the rules that keep us from getting in trouble, or the maintenance guy deciding that we can just make some excuse on paper for why the work isn’t done. If I have a safety officer, I want him thinking in terms of risk, and I want the deck guy with a constant eye to the rising sun and thermometer. Even though I can’t understand a thing they’re saying, I even want the engineers doing everything in their power to keep the ship moving, even though it always involves asking the logistics guy for more money and parts.

If it seems like a breeding ground for conflict, you’re right. It can be. I’ll go so far as to say that you’re lucky, like I am now, when you have each person fighting the good fight to do what’s right by each respective skill set in the organization. It’s beyond the scope of this article to talk about how to facilitate the discussion between two people speaking different languages at work, but often the reminder is enough to get us to relax and think about things from another angle.

Remember, we all want the same organization to be successful, we just have different roles for doing it. At first glance, it might seem like they contradict each other, but that’s not the case. We just have to find that even ground and communicate the best we can without viewing each situation as an argument that must be won.

– What language are you speaking at work? Logistics? Engineering? Accounting? Maintenance or work hours?

– Before you go trying to pitch that new idea or get into some argument, ask yourself what language that other person speaks.

Have a great week out there.

– JT

James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as a Command Master Chief, the highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.