The Language of Business
One hobby I have (which I have to admit I have not had much time to engage in recently) is browsing through New York book stores looking for books with old Jewish folk tales or stories of Jewish life from the “old country”. While these old folk tales may seem out of place or out of time in our modern world, I find that sometimes they have enduring kernels of wisdom. I occasionally take these old folk tales and translate them into modern organizational terms which I can use in my day-to-day work.
For instance, there is an old folktale that begins with two travelers, strangers, walking down a long dusty road. As they walked, one of the strangers asked the other “What say you, shall I carry you or shall you carry me?” The second traveler ignored the statement for he was not about to carry the other.
Later on the traveler asked a second question as they passed a field of barley, “Has this barley been eaten or not?” Once again the second traveler ignored the first for it was obvious for all to see that the barley was still growing in the field.
Then they passed a funeral procession and the one stranger said to the other “What do you think, is the person in the coffin alive or dead?” The second traveler could no longer contain himself and asked the first why he was asking such ridiculous questions.
The first one said, “When I asked if I should carry you or if you should carry me, what I meant was shall I tell you a story or shall you tell me one to make this long journey easier for us.”
“When I asked about the barley, what I meant was has the growing barley already been sold to a buyer, for if it has already been sold, it is as though it is already eaten for the farmer and his family cannot eat it themselves.”
“And when I asked about the person in the coffin, being alive or dead, what I meant was, do you think the person had descendants, for if they had descendants who will carry on their legacy it is as though they are alive. But if they passed away with no one to remember them and carry on their work they are truly dead.”
Communications between two people, between groups of people, or between organizations who do not know each other well is often very difficult and can be subject to vast misunderstandings, even when they are speaking the same language. And with those misunderstandings sometimes comes suspicion and fear. It is as though the two groups who are communicating, whether they be black and white, Jew or Arab, Israeli or Palestinian, police vs. those being policed, are actually having two completely different conversations with neither group able to translate what the other is saying or have an understanding of their actions.
Even when the communication is clear there can be issues of saliency, the importance given to the words used in the communication between the two parties which causes misunderstandings and what can be interpreted as behavioral anomalies.
One story, that is not quite a folk tale but illustrates the point regarding saliency, is about a method that Jews used to obtain passports to escape the horrors of WWII. Some families, who could not get legitimate documents struggled to obtain fake passports in their attempts to flee. One such story takes place in Poland in the late 1930’s and describes how documents were forged by studying old passports from different countries. Their style and format were then copied, creating new fake passports for those trying to escape.
One day a man, who was part of the Jewish underground, set out to collect old passports through whatever method he could. He was extremely successful and by the end of the day he had collected a large number.
On the way back from his activities he was stopped by the Polish police, was asked for his papers, and then confronted when they discovered the large number of passports he was carrying.
He was sure that they would take him to the police station, torture and then kill him as they tried to learn about the activities of the underground organization collecting the passports.
The man thought about how troubled his family would be if they never saw him again without any explanation. But, it was near the end of the day and the police told the man to go home and then come to the station in the morning for questioning. The man was terrified. The police knew who he was and if he stayed home and did not show up the next day or if he tried to flee that night, they would simply go to his house and kill his family.
If he showed up the next day at the police station he was certain they would torture him to obtain information and then kill him anyway. He did not know what to do. After much deliberation and consultations with his family and Rabbi, he went to the police station the next morning and approached the policeman who had stopped him.
The policeman asked him what he wanted and appeared not to remember the previous day’s incident. The man indicated that he had been stopped and a packet of passports had been taken from him and he was here to collect it. The policeman handed the man the packet of passports and told him to be on his way.
Saliency is a psychological concept which deals with how central an event, object, fact or perception is to you or another person. The amount of saliency an event or communication has is a combination of emotional, motivational and cognitive factors.
To the man with the passports in the story, being stopped by the police was extremely central to his very existence, for it was quite literally life or death. To the policeman, the man was one of hundreds of people that he had stopped and questioned that day.
The man who was stopped and questioned described the incident as a miracle, that his life and those of his family were spared. And from his perspective it certainly was, but what was the underlying mechanism of human perception that allowed that miracle to occur? Saliency. To the policeman the incident was not nearly as salient, not nearly as memorable as it was to the passport procurer.
I have to admit something to you. Not being all that concerned about fashion, I buy irregular jeans. I grew up wearing jeans (one pair to wear while the other pair was being washed) and even today I am most comfortable pulling on a pair. I like to wear jeans. But I don’t like what jeans cost these days. So I go to a manufacturer’s outlet mall near me and I buy irregular blue jeans.
As I pull each pair off the shelf and examine them I am usually hard pressed to determine why they are called irregular. I look for the obvious, for instance, does it have 3 legs? (Well I could always use a spare, in case I get a hole in one knee). And I usually just can’t find anything wrong with them.
When I wear them, at least at first, I wonder if what is not obvious to me, the irregularities, are likely very obvious to those around me. I am sure I can hear people pointing at me and laughing as I walk by. But maybe it is not the pair of jeans that brings on the laughter.
But the reality is no one is looking at my jeans, let alone looking for the defect in my irregulars. I just think they are, at least for a moment, because the issue is more salient to me, until I forget about it.
When a manager makes an off-hand comment to a worker about that worker’s performance or future, what may be perceived by the manager as a minor topic or issue, just above the threshold of consciousness, may be perceived quite differently by the employee.
To the employee that comment might be indicative of whether or not they have a future with the organization, central to their very existence, while the manager might not even remember the comment the next day.
How many cases of miscommunication in the workplace, in politics, in negotiations, or in our everyday lives, are derived from a comment that has very different levels of saliency to the various people who might be listening to it? Managers may use what they perceive as throw away lines, about “future opportunities” or “earnings potential” not really thinking about just how closely the employee is listening or just how salient those message might be to the listener.
And now another aspect of communication that can impact decision-making has been shown to be whether the language you are speaking is your native tongue (Costa et.al., Your Morals Depend on Language, 2014).
A very common problem used to illustrate ethics as it relates to decision-making, is to ask a listener to imagine themselves on a bridge over-looking a trolley car track. There is a trolley car heading down the track that will shortly run into and kill five people, unless a heavy object is placed in its path. What can you do?
There is a very heavy man standing next to you. You are asked to consider pushing the heavy man onto the tracks to save the lives of five people. Sacrifice the one to save the five? Would you do it? Not surprising to those of you whose native tongue is English, is that the vast majority of you would not push the heavy man in front of the trolley. That is reactionary thinking, or in the words of Daniel Kahneman, System 1 thinking.
But if the person you are asking is listening in English, and English is not their native tongue, you get a very different answer. Many would say that they would sacrifice the one to save the five. They need to apply some extra effort, which slows down their thinking and allows System 2 decision-making to kick in, which is not reactionary and allows people to consider more slowly, “is it worth sacrificing one to save five?”
Now take the scenario of having a group of managers in a global corporation sitting around making decisions about the operations of a company. The conversation is happening in English, but about half of the participants are not native English speakers. The two groups sitting around the table, the native vs. non-native English speakers may be coming to different conclusions, due to different decision-making systems that are kicking in as they consider organizational choices.
Language and the ability to use it properly is a critical aspect of good business performance. Yet as you dig into the use of language in business, whether it be definitional issues, saliency, or if you are speaking in your native tongue, the challenges of effective language use in today’s large, complex, global corporations are immense.