21st Century Alchemy: Communication BREAKdown

21st Century Alchemy is a weekly Q&A column for career-minded professionals, entrepreneurs and small businesses written by David Parkins, a business (re)development specialist, company culture strategist, career coach, and IMCSA speaker (ep3.dk)

Like most internationals, Danish is a challenge for me. Take grammar. Not only can it be vastly different from English grammar, but I can never get a straight answer when I ask a number of well-educated, well-spoken Danes. Instead, after a very loud and heated debate, I get just as many absolutely correct but different answers as there are people at the table.

But my biggest challenge isn’t the grammar. It’s the pronunciation. When I speak, rye becomes red, Saturday becomes Crap-day, kissing becomes, well, I can’t tell you what I actually say, and asking for bread rolls sounds more like I’m propositioning them for sex.

Bads coms, lots of cons
Although humorous, it clearly demonstrates that communicating becomes exponentially more difficult when you don’t speak the same language.
And we’ve all been there. You want to have a real conversation but lack the vocabulary. Or, if you have the vocabulary, you lack the confidence as you constantly wonder: “Did I say that right?” or “Are they only nodding so I don’t feel embarrassed or insulted?”

However, if you don’t take yourself too seriously, your most embarrassing moments can be highly entertaining.

The goat pleasured me
A few years ago, I was invited to a traditional dinner by local tribesmen. As we finished, one of them gestured if I’d enjoyed the food. I tried to answer in their dialect. Blank stares. But after an uncomfortably long silence, hysterical laughter spread contagiously around the fire as one told another that I had said: “The GOAT pleasured me.” How can you not laugh?

Nevertheless, some communication failures can have serious consequences. Take the costly yet hilarious branding disasters of the auto industry. Rolls Royce initially named the Silver Shadow the ‘Silver Mist’ until they learned it meant ‘Silver Shit’ in German.

Then there’s the Ford Pinto (Brazilian slang for ‘tiny penis’), GM Buick’s LaCrosse (Québécois teen-slang for ‘masturbation’, ‘I just got screwed’ or ‘I’ve just been taken’), Chevrolet’s Nova (in Spanish, no va means ‘doesn’t go’), Mitsubishi’s Pajero (Spanish slang for ‘masturbator’), and Toyota’s Fiera (Puerto Rican for ‘ugly old woman’).

COMmonplace & COMplex
Today, communication between cultures and across languages and borders has become so common we barely give it our attention. But as these international channels continue to grow in volume, frequency and impact, successful navigation becomes critical.

And it can be incredibly, and I believe unnecessarily, complex. Traditional linear communication models have been made obsolete and nearly irrelevant by current cultural and emotional intelligence research. Even Top Ten-style lists of tips and tricks from leading cross-cultural, intercultural, or intracultural specialists are rarely consistent with one expert saying do this and another saying do the exact opposite.

Find out more on April 5
But what if there was one simple yet surprisingly effective method to communicate effectively both in writing and speaking regardless of culture or power paradigms?

The Copenhagen Post has invited me to share some communication insights next month. We’ll be throwing out any former rules and expectations and trying something different that is hopefully clearer, easier and more reliable.

And when we’re done, you’ll be able to communicate with any person in any situation at any time, from fishermen in Fujian to contractors in Copenhagen.
It’s called COMMUNEuhK8, it’s taking place at International House on Tuesday April 5 at 5pm; you can register for free at billetto.com (max 40).

Have you run out of ideas? Struggling for inspiration? Need some motivation? Please send your career or company questions to contact@ep3.dk or tweet them @EP3dk.