In my job at ICANN, I have the privilege of traveling around the world for our thrice-yearly meetings, and year-round I get to meet and work with people from every continent. The biggest barrier is typically and unsurprisingly language -- my three years of high school Spanish don't take me very far even in Los Angeles, let alone China or the Czech Republic.
South Africa, I thought, would be a breeze for communication. Though they have 11 official languages, English is one of them and students learn it in school, along with Afrikaans and Zulu. Great, I thought. Easy understanding. No surreal situations like in Beijing where I produced a video shot and edited by a Chinese-speaking crew shot and the subjects spoke only in Spanish. You can see it here by the way: Rodrigo de la Parra's Conversation on Latin American Strategy.
Anyway, the ICANN meeting in Durban turned out to be a lesson in just how communication takes more time -- or breaks down entirely -- without common cultural references and without good listening skills. It also made me think about how often we talk right past each other even when we come from the same background.
Example: sitting in the meeting control room with about 15 people, I started singing the American folk song "O Susanna!" I cannot actually remember why I was doing this other than probably just being punchy and tired from jet lag, early mornings and long days. The Americans rolled their eyes at me and one sang along as far as "with a banjo on my knee." The South Africans in the room assumed I was singing an 80s UK hit by a Dutch band called the Art Company and then are confused. The Australian AV crew and our Argentinian language services manager pretty much ignored me. I realized that my humor definitely relies heavily on cultural references.
There were lots of other examples I observed. On a van ride, one of my co-workers asked if we could stop for souvenir shopping and the South African driver asked "Now?" but it sounded just like "No" to us. It took time to sort out that he was being accommodating, not un-accommodating. These comms misfires can be quite taxing or time-consuming, particularly if you are feeling impatient or stressed or are prone to taking offense. I'm not proud of it but I had my own experience where I had trouble communicating about wireless service at my hotel and I just gave up without resolution...too tired to deal with it.
Reflecting on those situations, though, I think about how this kind of breakdown happens daily, even between those of us who speak a common language and have common references. Sometimes we don't listen, and sometimes we frankly hear what we want to hear. It's worth slowing down and really listening sometimes so that we can understand better the people around us and avoid the communication breakdown. To quote Led Zeppelin, communication breakdown, it's always the same. (I'd quote more but frankly that song is not about verbal communication.)