Don't We All Speak English?

By Wayne Rawcliffe on 2014-08-21

I lived in the UK for a while and grew up in an "English" family. I remain amazed at the differences between the two languages, North American English and British English, spelling notwithstanding. One wit, attributed to various authors said, that we were two nations separated by a common language. Last year, I was teaching a management course and we were discussing the challenges of video conference meetings across timelines. Certainly, many of us are familiar with the cultural differences in how time in understood. In this case, it was common phrases understood differently between management from two English speaking countries. In this case, the video conference was between Canada and the United Kingdom.

The meeting went along quite well until the team go bogged down on an item that was important but outside of the agenda of the meeting. One of the Canadian managers suggested that the meeting be 'tabled'. The British managers agreed, and continued to discuss the issue. After a while, the Canadian managers again said that they agreed that the issue was important and that it would best be 'tabled'. A bit confused but undaunted, the British managers again agreed and continued to discuss the issue. It was at this point that the confusion on the part of the British managers shifted to frustration and anger on the part of the Canadian managers.

What was the problem?

the problem was a lack of common understanding of the term 'tabled'. As is often the case in business meetings, the focus is on the decisions and outcomes of the meeting rather than the process of the decision making within the context of a particular meeting. Once the meeting started to shift in tone and emotion, it would have been timely for the moderator to stop the discussion and explore the assumptions that the managers were making. In this case, the assumption was about the meaning and use of the term 'tabled'. It is pretty common business language in Canada to table issues that are outside of a meeting agenda which means to continue with the agenda and put the item on the agenda for another time. To table an item is a good way to keep the momentum of the meeting and stop side issues from highjacking decisions. From a facilitator's point of view, this is almost as useful as the parking lot flip chart.

The problem, was a simple one. In England the term 'table' means to keep on the table and discuss. The issue being discussed is important enough to be put into the agenda or table, and continue being discussed. You can see the problem. The two sides thought that they were agreeing to an action when in fact they were agreeing to opposite actions.

And they both spoke English. If this confusion can happen between parties of the same language, imagine the subtleties between different languages that can lead to misunderstanding?

Pay attention in meetings and observe not just the content being discussed but the process and manner in which the discussion is happening. Observe and notice when language is causing confusion and confusion is leading to emotion, emotion which may not be helpful. Strong emotion reduces our ability to listen to and pay attention to what is going on around us.

And I thought were were all speaking English.

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