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10 February 2023

The price we pay, to play

Written by
Cornelis Tanis

“The trouble starts when the English arrive.” said a Dutch leader, with a smile. I interviewed him  about his experiences with collaborating in English in his European project team. “With 10 nationalities we all tend to speak slower. Having to keep it simple and concrete, I think we get things done more quickly. Once the English join a meeting, we can struggle to keep up the pace. I think it’s a combination of their accent and speed. It also takes time to clarify the words or expressions that they use that we are unfamiliar with.”  

Ah, of course, the English. No wonder, you might think. But hang on, don’t get your hopes up. Replace English for American, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Canadian, Australian or New Zealander and the effect is the same. Something can shift in the dynamic of a collaboration or a meeting because of, what I loosely define as, the difference in English language proficiency. And when ‘the English’ also happens to be a client, board member, or regional president, the power balance may begin to change as well, favoring the proficient, often native speakers. As a result, and usually inadvertently, things can turn more difficult or taxing for the non-native individual, and the collective.

Considering that roughly a quarter of all people in the world that speak English (1.5 billion) don’t have English as their first language, this presents an interesting inquiry. What can we do to lift everybody’s game when ‘the English arrive’?  Over the last half a year I have asked variations of this question to the people I interact with. These conversations have resulted in two general ideas that I will present here, and a collection of practical moves I will share in a next post. 

The price

Engaging effectively in a non-native language can be a tall order, the nature of which can be out of awareness for the native speaker, English or otherwise.   

My Colombian friend has worked as a doctor in Germany for more than 12 years. Trying to explain to his German colleagues what it is like for him to work in German with his German patients, he uses this metaphor. 

When I am watching a film or series on Netflix in my native language Spanish and I am also eating and I am having a side conversation with my wife, I can do all these things and not lose the plot. When I am watching it in English, I need to drop one of the two other tasks in order to follow it. When the film is in German, however, I need to stop the eating and the side-conversation in order to be able to understand and appreciate it.

The persons you work with for whom English is not their best language, may, like my Colombian friend, also have their meals, side conversations, and other parallel tasks going on. Moreover, our meetings or gatherings usually aren’t one-way broadcasts like a Netflix show. There are extra demands. For example, we invite everybody, non-native English speakers included, to engage as fully as they can in conversations, to speak up in the plenary, break outs, or in the chat. Not only that, as team coaches or facilitators we tend to ask powerful questions, designed to even take native English speakers to the edge of their meaning making and their own language. And we ask them to do all of that in front of colleagues, sometimes bosses. And consider this: depending on the proficiency level, an extra workload is trying to translate what is actually being said. One French leader in a US global manufacturing company told me that when she listens to live presentations from US corporate colleagues, she is mainly thinking about how to translate this for her French frontline managers who don’t speak English. 

And yet, in the absence of privilege, many non-native English speakers can experience it as ‘the price I pay, to play’. It was for me anyway. From a young age I saw speaking English a way to leave my Dutch ‘island’ and explore a wider world. I made a conscious effort to realize that. It helped me find my place in Cultivating Leadership, for example. Today this gives me access to interesting colleagues and work in organizations across the world, something that I could not have imagined being younger. Being 53 now, I also notice that the purpose of my ‘efforting’ seems to shift from ‘to play’ to ‘being playful’.

The appreciation

Expressing with nuance what’s really going on for you can be hard in any language. It’s especially difficult in a second language. The same can be true for showing the part of you that likes to make people laugh, or even laughing at something that is being said. A US leader in a big tech company shares what she discovered. 

Once I asked a French colleague about her experience working in an English-first company. She said the part that frustrated her on a daily basis was that no one knew she was funny. She’s known for being witty amongst her French-speaking friends, but when the conversation happens in English she’s not quick enough to jump in with the joke. That 3 second translation delay often meant someone else had already moved the conversation along. That made my heart hurt a bit for her. To have all of that humour trapped inside.

It takes time, practice, and some degree of suffering for someone to build up confidence and fluidity on these fronts in a foreign language. When that is seen and acknowledged, however, it can lift you up. 

I would like to suggest a small move that can make a big difference. If you are hosting a meeting or gathering where many people are speaking English as their second language, try to find a way to appreciate – to put a price to – the extra efforts that are being made. Of course, you don’t want to belittle anyone. “Well, thank you folks for trying so hard to speak English. Well done!” Try something more subtle. If you are a non-native English speaker, you might include words in your opening like: “I would like to welcome all of our beautifully imperfect English, including mine”.  If you are a native English speaker, you could consider a version of what I experienced at the end of a 4-day Immunity to Change training in Cambridge, MA. At the end of the program, the US faculty asked the participants to raise their hand if English was not their native language. Half of the participants’ hands went up and the hosts briefly acknowledged the extra work it may have taken us. Even though I didn’t see myself as someone who struggles with English, I do remember that it made me feel seen. What stood out to me at the time was how exceptional it was to experience this. A story I have around this is that as non-native English speakers we tend to take it for granted (the price I pay, to play) and we don’t want to pat ourselves on the shoulders. I also heard stories that for native English speakers there is unawareness and even some embarrassment for not speaking other languages that may be at play.  I am not suggesting doing this every meeting. What I am bending our attention to is that leaving it unsaid, can leave money on the table. Money that can be used to invest in relational equity. 

Tender laughs

My ongoing conversations about this topic have generated insights, interest, and energy. In a next blog I will share more about what I am learning, including the sensitive matter of privilege. My current thinking is that it can exist both ways: the privilege of speaking English as a first language and the privilege of having had the opportunity to learn more than one language. Expect ideas and practical moves that can elevate inclusive collaboration in English in your international team or organization. 

When interviewing both native and non-native* English speakers, I notice that this topic spurs people to tell a range of stories. It’s a mix of positive and concerned, of tenderness and tension, and often rich with laughter. Please drop me a note or leave a comment if you too have a story you would like  to share. Also get in touch if you are interested in exploring the seriously lighthearted  keynote – work session I use around this topic for an online team event or offsite.

* The distinction between native and non-native speakers can also obscure things. An additional nuance I heard was whether English is or isn’t your best language, for the context.

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