Teryl Schroenn,CEO of Accsys, talks about a little-understood aspect of workplace bullying
The biblical story of the Tower of Babel has always fascinated me. Not least because I have never been good at languages, having struggled with both Afrikaans and Latin at school, even though I come from a multilingual family.
Back to Babel, though, and the story that the people of Shinar built a tower to reach heaven, and the Lord came to earth, and saw that people with one language could be unstoppable in their achievements, both good and bad. And so He “confounded” their language and “scattered” the people.
In South Africa, we have 11 official languages. At Accsys, we have done a rough count and have come to the view that we have around 20 languages either spoken or understood in the company.
When I put out the blog on exclusion being a variation of bullying, I started to receive feedback about people feeling excluded because of language. While a number shared that they didn’t feel it was malicious, just that people are more comfortable talking their mother tongue, the impact is the same, they didn’t feel they were being included.
One of my nieces worked in Hong Kong on a three month business secondment some years ago. Every day, the group she was working with asked her to join them for lunch. Every day, they spoke Chinese. After a week, she stopped going. She said if she was eating in a group, but effectively on her own, she might as well be on her own.
Today, I would give the advice, take the people you are most comfortable with to one side and ask them to join you for an out of work coffee, one on one. Not to complain, but to start building relationships.
When people know you better, and like you, they naturally (sometimes) become more inclusive. There is also no question that it is worth making the effort to try and expand your knowledge of languages other than your own.
It’s not just about the spoken word, those who have hearing difficulties are also excluded by not being able to hear.
Getting back to the story behind Babel, if we ensure that everybody who is with us is able to understand what we are saying, how much more powerful would we be, as individuals, as groups and as companies, if open communication was always a common objective?
There are two sides to this story, as with everything. The question “Why should I have to speak your language, when you haven’t bothered to learn mine?” is a valid one. Another comment is “When you joined us, we were speaking X language, why should we have to change now?” Also valid.
Sometimes being right has to succumb to practicality, though, and kindness.