Deliberating across language barriers

Group discussion
Group discussion, by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash

It is hard, sometimes, to communicate ideas across language culture boundaries. This is particularly pertinent when conveying divergent viewpoints. How we conduct discourse, weigh one idea against another, come up with workable trade-offs, all that depend on how we perceive and convey ideas.

In a conversational setting, someone with good command of the subject is talking, consider the following situations:

  • A person interjects with Yes, but… or just But, … –  the feeling of not being heard sets in.
  • A person gives their opinion with such authority as if they held some unshakable truth, the exchange then quickly turn into argument
  • Someone gives a resounding Yes to a question, but it’s quite clear that they didn’t actually listen, only pretending.
  • Someone says No, only to come up with arguments that effectively support and enforce what was said  – confusion reigns.
  • A person immediately blurt out defensive arguments, unprompted – in the absence of strong moderation, the conversation may devolve into arguments.

In all of these situations, it can quickly become difficult to stay on point, instead the focus shifts to an argument contest. Unfortunately, this occurs more often than necessary, and the reasons for it could lie in factors that we seldom consciously consider.

Excuse me, are we arguing?

How to conduct discourse varies widely across cultural boundaries, the way we exchange views and alternative ideas to each other. What may look like arguing in one culture, could just be a form of communicating in another. Such cultural walls can be found even within the same spoken language groups from different areas. Ideas, opinions, biases, accepted truths, are often mixed up making it hard for people to reach one another.

In native English speaking communities, yes, but… is how one starts an argument, typically not constructive. I grew up in a French-speaking context, you so frequently hear people say oui, mais… (literally yes, but…) that it may feel like a normal discourse rather than argument unless voices would start raising. When a spoken expression like this is literally translated to other languages, it incidentally carries over unwanted bagage and can contribute to miscommunication.

Not really arguing, in Netherlands

Sometimes a person trying to make a point might feel abruptly interrupted by a Jaaa, maar… retort, which feels a lot like English Yes, but… !  Ja, maar… (Yes, but…) might sometimes feel like a norm in informal settings, as a way of watering down a point of view, bring it down a peg. Sometimes though, Ja, maar… indeed starts to express an objection, to initiate or further a debate. When navigating language and culture boundaries, this can become a constant gymnastic.

In Netherlands, the sense of fairness is such that in fact making highly confident assertions can be applauded and perceived as a sign that someone is open and honest, and competent! People could even feel offended if not given the chance to express their opinion at length, even if that weren’t adding anything new to the conversation. This can be puzzling to a newcomer, sometimes it’s the reason a foreigner would get an impression of arrogance. To be sure some individuals are simply arrogants, and they can be found in every culture and every place in the world. Often case however, this impression may be misleading. People just want to express their views clearly unambiguously, any perception of arrogance be damned.

Now, to group think/design

Communication slights can have significant implications in technology matters. Indeed, there are so many layers to traverse that any slight deviation could get amplified to unpredictably high degrees. When people can’t be sure when and what they agree or disagree on, what they might know with certainty or not, then expectations are all over the place. This can be dangerous, groups might be lead on paths that nobody actually believe in, simply following the loudest person and thus giving a false sense of alignment and commitment. When combined with power and social dynamics, this can sometimes lead to a form of group think, or group design if you will, yielding suboptional solutions with nobody particular committed. Without malice, teams might be oblivious of impactful divergence, until it actually matters that is, then that becomes a surprising revelation. Are teams doing something because they strongly believe in it, or do they simply try to align with the leaders though their hearts and minds are somewhere else? When individually enquired, do they all come up with the same answers, converging answers, complementary answers? It can be trickly to spot misaligned group think in a timely manner. The product or service experience however, tend to expose glaring design flaws that can be traced to such misalignments.

Does the best argument/design win?

It may be wishful thinking that the best design should win, that the most articulated argument would help to bring about sound decisions. Is it so? Aren’t teams/groups often lead by the loudest of the lot? Is this a good thing? Is it possible that a better design/idea gets drowned out? How many chefs does it take to make one decent meal in a given kitchen? In multi-cultural setting, quite the norm nowadays, how do leaders harness the true potential of their teams without falling afoul of the loudest argument?

In Software intensive environments, folkloric hot takes abound, examples that never fail to cause a chuckle: premature optimisation is the root of all evil, or assumptions is the mother of all f**ckups. Such expressions, though in the right context might bring useful hints, often serve to deride a viewpoint, to score a point against a suggestion. How do teams manage to get beyond the folklore, get to the essence of what truly matters and drive to good decisions? Context entails the subject matter, the culture mix, the economic constraints, and the technological constraints. Is the balance in context ripe for decent exchange leading up to good outcomes? Whether in a heteregenous or homogenous spoken language setting, awareness of the loudest idea may also unduly influence the outcome, do teams pay adequate attention to this factor?

These questions, perhaps more than actual problem and technical considerations, often drive complexity in the solutions that get shipped. Isn’t the term complexity itself often defined by the loudest argument?

PS: This post was originally drafted back in 2018, well it’s out now, finally.

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