Language choices at the granular level

Discussions during my trip to Berlin, Germany, a few days ago prompted some thought in my mind about a key element in the overall social media puzzle – people’s behaviours.

Especially from a business communication perspective, social media are tools and channels, no more. Which of them you decide to use, and how you may use them, is influenced by your own behaviour and that of those you wish to engage with.

Such thoughts were prompted partly by thinking about language differences in Europe – a continent comprised of more than 730 million people in over 50 countries speaking languages and dialects that number far more than the official 23 languages of the European Union – and the challenges and pitfalls you face when looking at how to engage online with people across Europe if you don’t consider language and cultural diversity.

This applies both in business and personal settings, although it’s probably more acute from the business perspective as you add to the picture diversity in individual workplaces.

A feature in this week’s Economist on German dialects and migration and how linguistic variations affect where Germans choose to live, from which the map you see is taken, adds a further dimension to what I’ve been thinking about concerning people’s behaviours.

What The Economist’s concise story throws into sharp focus for me is that understanding the nuances of language and dialect differences, literally on a granular level, will make a huge difference to how you go about engaging with people online, the language you use (meaning, your choice of words and phrases), as well as the means with which you actually do engage.

From The Economist’s story:

[…] German dialects, formed by geography and political and religious fragmentation, express deep-seated cultural differences. These persist even though borders between petty princedoms are invisible (and often no longer audible). Even small differences count. Swabians share Baden-Wuettemberg with Badeners. Both spoke Alemannic dialects. But Swabians, who say Haus (house), have a bias against living in the neighbouring old grand duchy, where they say Huus.

Success in your engagement efforts, where what you do and how you do it is gauged on a trust basis (among many other factors), could be marked by something as seemingly simple as knowing how to say “house.”

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Paul Seaman

    Neville, sometimes you speak nonsense. This is one such occasion. Language is not that important when it comes to determining what unites or divides or builds trust between people. The deaf know this well because they rely on signs. I live in a country that has a very strong sense of identity but which speaks French, Italian, German, Swiss German (many different versions of) and Rätoromanisch. The fact that the different groups rarely understand each other’s native tongue does not matter because they share the same values as well as a common identity. Parochialism (which is what you are discussing) is another thing altogether, but that exists everywhere. I’m from East London and there a person’s local accent – however authentic – wouldn’t have saved them from a beating from my mates had they been born on the wrong side of a post code.

    • neville

      Lol, no one would ever accuse you of being polite, Paul, but thanks anyway for your comment.

      Language is a hugely important factor in anyone’s ability to understand other people. I don’t mean purely the obvious – someone speaking Russian, say, to someone who understands only Arabic – but rather the granular differences as my post suggests where the example The Economist illustrates is a good one.

      But your perspective adds a further dimension to the overall picture of effective engagement. If as you say language is not important where you live (Switzerland) then you’d factor that into your thinking when planning your social media activity with people in that country.

      Thanks for adding more to the conversation!

    • Bruno Amaral

      Paul, please accept my apologies but I believe you have missed the point of Neville’s post.

      Allow me to take it from your perspective and begin by talking about Values. If we take Rokeach and Hofstede’s perspective on the definition of values, we need to look at what demonstrates those values in order to identify them. Both authors agree that behaviour plays a huge part in that, Hofstede is specially interesting because he mentions Heroes, Symbols and Rituals as part of culture and as a demonstration of values.

      Language and the choice of words are therefore a demonstration of values. And as David Phillips would explain much better than I can: Relationships are built around values.

      What I believe Neville tried to explain is the role that language plays when our goal is to engage with a specific public. We need to build both trust and a dialogue, and the best way to do that is to match the language, the choice of words and to find other common values with which to build foundations.

      As an example, even though English is not my first language I do find myself reading this and other blogs because from my perspective I share the same values as the authors: the value of an interesting and polite dialogue, the pursuit of contrasting views/perspectives, as well as the importance of taking the time to share ideas and opinions with others. (This is not the best description of those values, but I trust you can easily grasp the idea.)

  2. Sallie Goetsch (rhymes with 'sketch')

    I just can’t seem to restrain my inner pedant today. It can certainly be important to take dialectical differences into account when communicating–I’ve had some famous miscommunications with my Dutch fiance because of connotations that certain prepositions have in Dutch and not in English. It’s obviously easier to converse with people who speak the same dialect you do, but, as Paul points out, by no means guaranteed they will share your values.

    Meanwhile, whatever a nuanced approach to language differences is, it can’t possibly be literally granular, unless it’s made out of sand. Perhaps it’s time to make a linguistic choice to avoid this overused buzzword.

  3. Paul Seaman

    There was me thinking that a picture was worth a thousand words. It is amusing that Bruno took my comment to mean I was advocating speaking Swahili to Germans or vice versa because it does not matter. But the choice of words does not necessarily indicate shared values – any propagandist or advertiser can fake it. Moreover, slipping into another person’s dialect can sound patronizing. I say it is best to maintain one’s authentic voice and to speak clearly where ever one is. BTW Switzerland has more versions of German than Germany probably does, but one language unifies all Germans and that’s High German – whether they live in Austria, Germany or Switzerland. For instance, to somebody from Zurich, Graubünden Deutsch is virtually incomprehensible (like Glaswegian is to me). So what, all newspapers are in High German and so are social media.

  4. Ronna Porter

    As someone who has lived in Germany for the last 10 years, and in french-speaking Switzerland with a Swiss-German partner for three years, and has effectively managed to work on a daily basis with Paul Seaman despite the very strong Glaswegian accent learned at my mother’s knee (no doubt using some of the communications skills to which Neville is referring!), I agree with Neville absolutely.

    Paul, sometimes you speak nonsense. This is one such occasion.

  5. Paul Seaman

    Ronna, you give no evidence in support of your case. Swiss German is a spoken language, not a written one (except for fun and by some poets). Swiss German comes in many different varieties as does High German, but German as a written language is more uniform and rule-bound than is our mother-tongue. And speaking of your English, I’d call it standard English pronounced with a rich melodic regional Glaswegian accent.

    If you are are talking sense, where are all the bloggers and social media German-speaking users writing in their regional vernacular? And even if they were it would be patronizing and inauthentic to emulate them as Neville seems to suggest we should if we wish to connect with them.

  6. Paul Seaman

    When it comes to spoken German in Switzerland the formal language is High German. Swiss state radio uses High German. Swiss-German is reserved for low-level chat shows shows on other channels. Moreover, there has been a recent backlash against Swiss-German’s over use on the radio because French-speaking Swiss who learned High German at school don’t understand what’s being said. The language at school in the Swiss German part of Switzerland is High German (yes, as soon as a kid gets to school he or she has to learn a foreign language). Of course in the office and on the street the vernacular Swiss German is used between colleagues.

    So, yes, the official spoken language of education and business in Switzerland is High German, just as it is in Germany.

    I say, the Swiss are divided by four languages they don’t really share in common and united by values that they do share (very often the only language they all share is English).

  7. neville

    I really appreciate everyone’s points of view; thank you for your comments.

    Maybe I didn’t express my own point clearly enough in the post. What I believe is that if you want to stand a good chance of successfully engaging with people, you need to be sure you fit in with them and their preferences rather than the other way around. The example of haus vs huus cited by The Economist is an excellent one to illustrate this point.

    It means you don’t swing in to a social network and start chatting away in the local vernacular when clearly you’re not local. What it does mean is that you understand some (but probably not all) of the nuances prevalent in a given community because you’ve taken the time and effort to understand those things before you weigh in.

    That’s what listening is about.

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