Closed mind or open book?

In cross cultural communication words and their meanings can easily be lost

14 June 2020 Tas Walter | Image: Aaron Burden/chuttersnap

What’s in a word? Sometimes a lot, especially when it comes to global communications. In my line of work straddling two cultures, I notice small miscommunications daily. These mistakes are rarely significant enough to warrant serious discussions, yet it is these minor misunderstandings that accumulate and sometimes lead to severe consequences. It is death by a thousand cuts. At the very least, they diminish the goodwill on both sides.

Languages and words are marinated in the complex cultural and historical constructs that give rise to their meaning; sometimes it takes a historian- as well as a skilled (bi)linguist- to fully decipher them. Worse still, people who are confident in their bilingual skills are the ones most likely to commit this ‘crime’. Their confidence invites dangerous complacency.

We have a communication problem. And our biggest obstacle in solving it lies in our oblivion to its very existence.

This communication problem can have far-reaching daily, economic and also political implications. When China implemented its economic opening-up policy in the 1980s, it promoted this idea to its citizens as the country’s great ‘resurrection’.

Resurrecting the old or developing the new?

After enduring decades of wars, famine and political earthquakes, China was ready to embrace a new chapter of growth and prosperity. Legend has it that Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, advised that China applied the word ‘development’ to this new phase in its history.

While ‘development’ sounded neutral and optimistic, ‘resurrection’ carried an air of threat that could ring a lot of people’s alarm bells.

A simple word sometimes has the potential to reshape our world view, political landscape, business trajectory, and even the course of history.

Mindshare, the global media and marketing service firm has a famous motto: everything begins and ends in media. Mass media’s invisible tentacles reach into our culture and reshape our beliefs slowly and quietly, without us even realising it doing so.

Words and language have heightened power in this deeply-connected world: they travel faster, get interpreted or misinterpreted instantly, and can become the un-intended headline in someone else’s newsfeed.

Words matter

The global COVID-19 pandemic that we are living through now provides ample examples of how words matter, and how we label things can quickly colour our judgement of a sensitive situation. A crisis provides the fertile soil in which the seeds of miscommunication and unnecessary conflicts quietly grow.

I remember the world before COVID- 19 was COVID-19. We had called this deadly virus by many names: Wuhan virus, China virus, or the ‘Chinese virus’. The mention of these terms frequently triggered anger in Chinese communities and clogged our airwaves with unnecessary debates. That voice has mostly died down with the introduction of a new universally accepted, more neutral term. You might think this is political correctness to an extreme, and many would agree. But I for one, am glad that we’ve reached this consensus so that our discussion can move on to the more pressing issue of solving this crisis and preventing further deaths.

Words are a uniquely human invention. They can be our friend or foe, our best communication tool or weaponry. Use it wisely, and do not underestimate the power in your words.

*Tas Walter is the pen name of a Chinese-born digital professional who holds degrees in business, economics and marketing from leading universities in the UK and Australia.