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Employers Wake Up: Globalization is Changing Workplace Communication

image of many languages

We think a lot about the mythical need for excellent communication skills that is listed on every job posting ever written. We talk at length about what the term “excellent communication skills” even means in this text-heavy world. If I am a great writer but a terrible one-on-one communicator, do I fit the description if most of my workplace communications will be via email and text?

The water gets even muddier when you step back and consider what globalization is doing to the workforce. As our world shrinks more and more companies are hiring people from around the world who have different native languages. They also have different life experiences, and the richness of culture can be a real boon to workplace creativity and productivity. But it is also doing something interesting to communication within the workplace – something that we find mirrors what many members of our community experience.

Language and Perception of the World

For decades, cognitive scientists have been fascinated with how language changes your worldview. Science Magazine wrote an article describing how:

Another example is the cultural differences between German and English speakers. The German language is more goal oriented, while English is more action oriented. Because of the nature of each language – grammatical structure, word choice – the speaker’s view of how the world works and how they approach it is impacted.

We can’t help but see the synergy between language and how you use it impacts your outlook, and how a speech-language disorder has the same effect. Not all speech-language disorders are the same of course (need info on how a speech disorder impacts your approach to the world), but they do impact communication. Often communication is slower, and the person with the disability must take more time to find the right language… not unlike a second language speaker.

Treatment of People with Accents

Because verbal communication is such a vital part of our workplace experience, bringing in a person who has challenges communicating verbally, or simply communicates ‘differently,’ can be a struggle culturally. People speaking English as a second language, depending upon their level of fluency and time spent speaking it, may speak more slowly, take longer to find the right word, and be confused by certain colloquialisms or turns of phrases. It is not uncommon for someone with a foreign accent to be perceived as ‘slower,’ or ‘less intelligent.

One of our members witnessed a personal experience through one of her students. This student was brilliant and spoke five languages fluently. Yet she struggled to get her first job, getting the interview but never closing the deal. When she pressed the potential employers as to their reasons, she was often met with statements like:

“You seemed to lack spontaneity.”

“We work in a very fast paced environment and we’re concerned you might not fit in.”

Here an incredibly smart woman was shut out of an opportunity, and the company shut out of the richness her experience would bring to their culture, because of misconceived perceptions of how she communicated.

This attitude about language and intelligence includes regional American accents as well. PBS highlighted this in their episode Do You Speak American, where they explored how Americans from certain regions perceive accents from across the country with regards to intelligence. Those with Southern and Northeastern – specifically New York and New Jersey – were seen as of lower intelligence.

Language Should Not Be a Judgement Tool

Members of our community with speech-language disorders are not alone when it comes to how their challenges with language can cause coworkers to perceive them as different than they are, as less intelligent, less spontaneous. This is a real negative not only for individuals seeking employment but for American companies and how the misconceptions of hiring managers and leaders are actually holding them back from developing a truly diverse, engaged workforce.

In an article for The Daily Nebraskan Christi Friedman wrote eloquently about language and perception:

Instead of just using grammar or standardized English to decide if we’re intelligent speakers, we should let words and thoughts speak for themselves. The ability to analyze and to think critically is more important than the rules of our language. We should be teaching these skills at young ages and not punish or laugh at those who speak a little differently than us. We’re all united in one aspect: our unique ideas. We convey them in different ways through language and express ourselves through different channels. Some of us have a Southern accent, others have an edgy New York way of speaking and others might use a Midwestern vocabulary and vowels. There is nothing wrong with any of them, and it’s time we became more accepting.”

We agree with Christi and want to advocate for those responsible for building strong work cultures to take it a step further; simply because one has speech-language challenges does not mean that they cannot be a stellar employee. We all communicate differently, and that very difference is what makes us richer.

Photo credit: mikecogh The Languages of Malaysia via photopin (license).

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Jill Willcox
Jill Willcox has worked in various human resources positions over the past 16 years including as HR Manager, Benefits Consultant at Aon Hewitt and as a Health Service Representative, working with people who had catastrophic work injuries. She is the mother of two children who are talented and contribute to society in a very meaningful way.
Jill Willcox

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