August 10, 2008 by
Filed under: People, Teamwork 

I asked teams in a workshop this week to come up with issues they faced, and one group identified their biggest issue as a failure to communicate. As they listed their root causes for this extremely broad issue, ESL came up in the list. More importantly, though, came an insight that expands on that theme of using a different language on each other.

Right beside ESL on their list was the term ‘technical jargon’, and that nailed it for me. While we have all suffered challenges in communication when we are speaking with others that do not share our native tongue, I expect that we have also all been victims of conversations where we share the same mother tongue but do not share an understanding of our learned jargon.

We tend to behave in the face of jargon the same way we deal with any language that we are not fluent in. Whether I am ordering a meal with kimchi in Korea or a burger at McDonalds in Montreal, this short term transaction really lowers the bar of my expectations. I don’t expect that we are going to completely understand each other, but if I can get a half-decent meal that won’t affect my allergies, I’m good to go. There might be hand-waving to describe the shape of a cow or pushing up the nose to imitate a pig’s nose, but often we just let a lot of the words that aren’t clear just wash over us.

If I’m in the midst of a one or two day workshop, I take the same approach. Every company develops a shorthand, an extension to their native tongue that they use to abbreviate their rushed communications. While there are some industry-standard acronyms, every project will grow its own as well. I let all this just wash over me in a workshop (though I am usually careful to expose the cost of this loss of communication), but for longer engagements I try harder to really understand what’s going on.

Whether it is someone with a native tongue other than English, or someone that has worked in a small team long enough to develop extensions to their language through acronyms and jargon, it is all the same thing. It all falls into the category of ESL, it is all stuff that limits our ability to share ideas because we are not completely on the same page.

It is important to understand that there are hundreds of variants of ESL. As we travel the world, we are often the person that stands out as the one with ‘deficiencies’, the one not fluent enough to communicate with others. The subtleties of cultural humor in Spain can be lost on us, as is what is really going to happen if we perform a Use Case analysis and support it with some Entity Relationships for the KMDL module of the PREB widget we are building.

For that last phrase, I expect many of you asked yourself “so what’s so confusing about that”? (though some also asked “why bother with all that boring analysis?”). The whole point is that any of this stuff can be confusing if we don’t share the common language. An acronym, a data flow diagram, a plate full of crilladillas can all leave people guessing.

If you are a techie that likes to throw around jargon and acronyms, consider your opinion of non-English fluent people that don’t seem to put up the effort to speak to us properly.

It is all ESL. Be sensitive to the language capabilities of the person you are speaking to, and work to communicate with a common vocabulary. – JB


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