I took this picture in Kiev as Ukrainians were celebrating Europe Day on 16 May. Language is key when it comes to building national and regional identity, and it matters enormously in EU and international politics as well as in development. As English is becoming the world’s lingua franca, misunderstandings matter.
So is language a divisive factor or a unifying one? Last week I gave a guest lecture at Salzburg University in which I discussed examples of intercultural (mis)communication in Africa and Asia. In my experience the biggest misunderstandings happen when people are not aware that they operate in different cultures and contexts, i.e. that they need to look through a cultural lens. For example, while Europeans may be alert to cultural differences when doing business in Africa, they often underestimate the influence of culture when working together on common projects within Europe (or, by extension, with other Europeans elsewhere).
Secondly, I find that a common language, such as English – which can be considered the world’s lingua franca – can mislead people to believe they fully understand each other when really they are using the same words, but with very different meanings. When I first arrived in Zambia in Southern Africa (where English is the official national language) after a long flight from Europe I was dropped off at my hotel. When saying goodbye, the driver asked what time I wanted to be “carried” to the office the next day. Only after making it very clear that I did not expect to be ‘carried’ and was quite happy to walk if no car was available did it dawn on me that ‘carrying’ simply meant ‘driving’. While my post-plane fatigue may have extended the time it took me to realise the misunderstanding at play it was certainly my familiarity with the word ‘to carry’ that had fooled me and delayed my putting on those cultural glasses.
While some misunderstandings - like the one in Zambia - are a good laugh at the end, other misunderstandings have a bigger impact. For example, nowadays most people in the business world will claim to understand what ‘sustainability’ and ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) mean. However, individual knowledge and definitions tend to differ widely, which does not stop people from frequently using those terms. Definitions for CSR, for example, range from investing in true corporate responsibility for what goes on in society, to one-off projects far off core business which may have a mild public relations effect but are seen by companies as a cost rather than an investment and barely scratch the surface of any societal issue.
As long as such implicit definitions are not made explicit, there is enormous room for misunderstanding and for miscommunication causing partnerships to fail. This is why when engaging in partnerships, such as public-private partnerships, significant time must be devoted to ensuring all parties are on the same page and that they literally understand each other, from the outset. In other words, partners need to talk about communication before touching the issues at stake.