Watch Your Language

Good evening, fellow Toastmasters and honored guests! In the summer of 2001, I had the opportunity to go to Europe for the first time with my husband. We were on our honeymoon and spent three weeks traveling through a few different countries.

photo by eqqman via PhotoRee

We were nearing the end of our trip and were in Lille, a city about 2 hours north of Paris. We were walking around town one day when we decided to find a place to eat. We happened on a Thai restaurant. Now, I have to tell you, Steve and I love Thai food and we were thrilled to find it in France. He had learned to speak Thai in college while managing a Thai restaurant in Seattle and had even lived in Bangkok for a while. We decided it sounded good.

We got into the restaurant and took a look at the menu. Now, neither of us spoke much French. My husband knew how to pronounce a few words here and there, and all I knew how to say in French is – and who knows whether I’m pronouncing this correctly – “Je suis desolee; je nais pas parle francais”, which means “I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t speak French”.

The fact that he and I both were, at the time, mostly vegetarian and that the menu consisted of items from a Southeast Asian country added layers of complexity. I latched onto the word ‘champignons’ and I remember leaning over and saying to him “I think that means ‘mushrooms’!” The rest of the menu we weren’t quite sure about.

Just then, my husband turned to our server, who we figured out later was a French citizen but originally from China, and said “Parlez-vous thai?

That was apparently NOT the correct way to ask her whether she spoke Thai. She ran into the back of the restaurant and for the next several minutes, we could hear her screaming at someone who was back there “Parlez-vous thai?? Parlez-vous thai?!?“ Turned out she didn’t speak English. My best guess is that we offended her, by asking her what we asked her, in the way that we asked her. To put it simply, we used the wrong words.

Fellow Toastmasters, last week, my colleague Chris spoke about how only 7% of communication consists of the words we say. I don’t disagree with that; in fact, I agree completely. But I will tell you that words matter.

One of my favorite portions of Toastmasters is the Word of the Day, and I relish the opportunity to learn words that not only stretch my vocabulary but that may be better suited for the point I’m trying to get across. Yes, you should always use the shortest word possible to convey your meaning. Why say ‘diminuitive’ when ‘small’ will do? But on the other hand, why say ‘small’ when ‘petite’ is a more descriptive, more interesting word? While we were in France, my husband and I saw artwork produced by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. He was one of the most important artists of the Impressionist period, and depending upon who you ask, he was also somewhere between 4’11” and 5’1”. Given his enormous contribution to the art world, would you describe him as “small” or “petite”? Words matter.

Words are powerful when it comes to relationships. Remember the old saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me?” Nothing could be farther from the truth. There is an old Chinese proverb, which says “Kind words can warm for three winters, while harsh words can chill even in the heat of summer.” Ask anyone whose been called a name or a racial epithet. Or cursed at in the heat of anger.

On the topic of swearing, statistics report – and I can personally attest – that cursing at work is common. That said, a survey conducted by theladders.com, an online marketplace for executive job opportunites, lists swearing as the most common fireable, etiquette-related workplace offense, beating out excessive gossip, too many personal phone calls and even drinking on the job. In fact, more than 80% of the managers and supervisors responding to the survey find using foul language at work to be unprofessional. They can and do discipline their employees for using at work, and, according to the same survey, 6% of them have terminated over it. A couple of weeks ago, I spoke about bullying in the workplace and, in fact, directing such language at a direct report is considered hostile and a sign that you are a bully. To me, personally, it also shows a lack of respect and a narrow vocabulary. Think of a different way to vent your frustrations and retain your professional composure. Words matter.

As long as written language has been around, the words we use and the way in which we use them is of utmost importance. Without facial expressions, vocal inflections or body language available to someone reading a scroll or – in today’s world – an email, all meaning must be inferred from the words the author used. I am reminded of this whenever I send out an email at work that informs the organization of an issue on our systems. If I use the wrong words, I risk confusing everyone, from a call center representative right on up to the CEO, and service takes a hit. Words matter.

If I had the chance to revisit that Thai restaurant in Lille, knowing what I know now, I would go back. Armed with the knowledge I now have that “Avez-vous parler le thaï” is probably a better way to ask the question we tried to ask, I suspect things would go a lot more smoothly and I’d be happily devouring my pad thai with a minimum of hassle.

Words matter.

Madam Toastmaster…

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One Response to Watch Your Language

  1. I enjoyed this. Good Job.

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