Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Building Relationships With Language

I was recently given the opportunity to attend and work a planning exercise at a Combatant Command.  This event involved meeting and collaborating closely with more than 15 partner nations, high majority of which spoke Spanish.  Some of which only spoke Spanish.

And yes, I speak and understand (regardless of (and apologies to) my high school Spanish teacher) practically no Spanish.

And honestly ... I was rather embarrassed.

I worked most closely with a two individuals that spoke broken but very communicable English.  And they both had a more difficult time understanding me (unintentional colloquialisms, slang, fast talking, etc...) than I did in understanding them.  But this was not due to any shortage of efforts on their part.

As the week progressed, our efficiency in communicating increased, their English got better, but my Spanish ... did not.

Sure I picked up a few words along the way and the sheer fact of being in Miami, Florida jarred a few nearly forgotten words from the memory.

At one point in the trip I did find myself in a little Cuban market/restaurant ordering foods I did not recognize much less pronounce and it was by the fortune of a friendly (bi-lingual) lady in line next to me, that I was able to order my weekend lunch.

But it wasn't until the week was about halfway through, after having spent quality time with our foreign friends, that I began to realize my missed opportunity.  Through many conversations, we had the chance to talk with each other about where we came from, what we do in our daily lives, and many of our different experiences.  And all throughout these conversations, I was amazed at their knowledge of not just their country's history, but also of the other countries represented (including other languages they spoke).  And of course, they spoke it all and listened with patience and compassion, in English.

One of the main objectives of a gathering like this exercise should be, and was, to build relationships between the parties present.  Assuming you know with whom you are to meet, it is easy to know a little relevant history and current events.  That should be a minimum.

But what about language?

How grand a show of respect would it be, as the host, to cater to your guest and speak their language?  Even just a little.  How much more comfortable and welcome would it make your guest feel?  How much more productivity could be had due to this comfort level even if the communications were not too far enhanced?

This trip gave me many lessons learned and left an impression on me which I hope does not fade.

I did follow up with a handwritten thank you note to each individual I worked with, translated (decently, hopefully!) into their language, which I hope was realized to be genuine.

Yes the job got done, successfully.  We worked hard, we learned lots, products were built and professional relationships were initiated.  But I am trying my best, taking notes along the way, learning how and where, not to miss an opportunity, to take it one step further.

Image: http://www.ilmkidunya.com/lists/top-ten-challenges-to-students-during-studying-5.aspx


  1. What in particular do you think you should have done differently? Learn the language?

    1. Ideally, yes know the language. Of course that is not necessarily a realistic possibility for all/many situations. As far as language is concerned I think it would've been beneficial to have spent a chunk of time before hand cramming on some key phrases. I think this is one of those cases where there is some logarithmic graph that can demonstrate value versus hours spent. Lots of value up front.