Normally, I make it a personal principle to not blog about my job. However this job brings me to many different places in all different countries and one of these trips – the most recent one – nurtured my wish to share a few thoughts about national pride:
This week I had the questionable pleasure to visit France once again. I’ve only been there for a little more than 24 hours, spending a good 10 of them in business meetings of all kind (Dinners with business partners, technical meetings and the like).
And guess what? A good 95% of all communication was done in French. Of course. I do understand this to a degree – at least we are in France – but even though I made it crystal clear that I simply can’t speak let alone understand this language to a degree I’d call acceptable, nobody even tried to integrate me into a longer conversation. Of course, there were some small talk tries in English, but they faded away once we were 5 minutes into a discussion.
On the other hand, I’ve been to e.g. Russia, Belarus, Jordan, India, Italy and Slovenia on business trips; countries where I feared greater language related problems. But, to my surprise, most of those countries seem to host a great deal of language wizards; in Slovenia for example to my surprise most people working in the service industry were fluent in at least two foreign Languages, English and German. And most of them also claimed to be able to speak a good bit of Italian on the side.
But, it seems that there is not a big deal of English spoken in France and even if the people get along with the language, they feel that it’s unnecessary to switch to a language everybody in the room can understand.
This is of course not so much the case in multi-national companies, but there is also the tendency to fall back to your local language.
I myself also feel more comfortable in speaking German among Germans, especially when being in Germany – but within our company, where English is the official company language despite the fact that we are a German company, we even hold meetings with 40+ participant in English if there are only one or two non-Germans in them. So I know both sides, the one that prefers the native language, the other one that doesn’t want to exclude somebody from the discussion.
Maybe it’s arrogant to go to a foreign country and expect to come along with English and German only, maybe it’s something you should be able to expect – I can’t tell. But, it seems that countries with better language skills can take part in the Global knowledge transfer; countries with little foreign language knowledge – e.g. China – on the other hand, seem to be cut out.
I wonder how you would react if you had a guest from abroad in a meeting. Would you carry on with your native language? Would you try and switch the whole meeting to English? Is it okay to hold a meeting in English, if you have 40 participants and two of them can’t speak the local language? Is it on the other hand maybe even necessary?
How much national pride is too much pride?
I’m really interested in your thoughts about that. And thank all the French people I’ve met along the way who took the extra effort to communicate in English – especially Gwenael, whom I haven’t met for a way too long time.