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Learning a language without culture is like learning how to drive only in a parking lot…easy to crash when it gets real…

When you were a kid and your father taught you how to drive in the backyard or on a field, you didn’t feel like a NASCAR driver? I did…let’s get to the main road, where shall I take you guys now??? And then my father woke me up with his dry and utterly demotivating comment: “Calm down my son, you know nothing, this is only a fraction of what you need to know. I let you know when you are ready!”

Learning a language without culture is like learning how to drive only in a parking lot...easy to crash when it gets real...

Oh…it felt pretty bad that time, but I had to realise he was right…I experienced it when we hit the road…it was in a small town but I got so stressed…cars everywhere, they do not even follow the high-way code…they change their mind anytime, cyclists forget to indicate or stop, quick decisions, what a mess! What was the point in learning the rules if real life is different?? 

That time I did not admit it, but now I am grateful for the guidance in the beginning…we do not notice this until we get into difficult situations. The same happens when we learn a language…we think speak it well and then life slaps us in the face…Before I came to the UK I had the highest level of language exam I could have by the age of 17…but what I experienced already on the ferry on the way to Dover, I never forget. I was standing next to a group of young guys listening to what they were talking about…at least that was the plan. That was certainly not the Queen’s English! What happened to the end of the words? What do you mean by ‘innit’? In what?

That experience broke my confidence which did not get any better when I arrived even though people seemed to be so nice…they immediately asked me how I was…and then they walked off! Oh, how rude is that?! If you are not interested, do not ask me! Wait, I am rude because I do not ask how you are? If I tell you what problems I have you look surprised? But then what is the point in talking if it is so superficial?

This is a journey which is beyond language learning. The biggest mistake is to assume that we understood what was said and they understood what we said.

     The single biggest mistake in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. George Bernard Shaw

This situation is even more important if you are a top executive or leader whose success depends on delivering the right message efficiently and building relationships. Knowing and using the right words is important, but the assumption that it is enough can seriously backfire.

You can never be ready for everything, just like accidents can happen on the road independent on how experienced you are, but your chances are much better if you are prepared by professionals.

Learning a language by adding intercultural elements to it, especially in business environment, can mean the competitive edge you need as a successful leader and manager. Mastering these skills is not optional in today’s fast-paced life where you are the branding of your own company and your employees represent your business.

Time is money…very true. Mastering a skill can take up to 10,000 hours according to research, however if you have access to the right material you can be really good at it in 20 hours. There is a certain methodology to it and you need the right material to develop skills rather than gaining temporary knowledge you cannot implement. That 20 hours can save you a lot of money, time and frustration.

I do believe that if you understand the opposites of  cultural dimensions, then it is much easier to accept and respect them. Until that point we just feel emotional as cultural issues are very emotional! Now I can accept that asking somebody how he is is a polite way of saying hi and it feels better than listening to grumpy people. This is how we can make the most of the situation, we learn from each other by building a common ground to learn how to use our differences…is that a set of skills a top executive, a leader or manager could use to become even better? 

Csaba Toth
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Csaba Toth

Managing Partner at ICQ Consulting
International Culture expert and researcher. Developer of the Intercultural DISC (IDISC) assessment of human behavior and interaction.
Csaba Toth
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