My second language experiences were somewhat trying, to say the least. At age 11, at the start of secondary school, I started to learn French. Instruction was incredibly grammar-based and either I wasn’t pay attention, or I had gone through primary education at a time when English grammar wasn’t being taught. I had not the first clue what the teachers were on about when they talked about past participles and irregular verbs. The whole experience, up to O Level at age 16 and a scraped grade C, was dismal.

I envy people who speak more than one language. Being a native English speaker makes me lazy. Where ever I am in the world I can probably get by with the few words that others have of my mother tongue, gesticulation and patience. The experience of O Level French makes me embarrassed to even try, for fear of offending, for fear of being understood and then not understanding the reply, and for the fear of looking like an arse.

It’s in that context that I listened to the recent Freakonomics podcast on the subject of the value of second languages last week.  The spoiler – the straight economic benefits of a second language are a bit marginal.

But there was an interesting cul de sac that the team went down about how when people are thinking in a foreign language it can reduce decision biases – you can find the full research here. The short version was that we don’t have the same emotional attachment to words that aren’t in our first language. If you are an English first-language speaker you have a stronger emotional reaction to the word Love than you do to the word “aime”, “amo”, or “liebe”.

The net result is that we are less susceptible to subconscious psychological and emotional biases when thinking and talking in a second language. This can be good; it can also lead to a lack of empathy.

That latter idea got me thinking about two very different cases:

Firstly, that the agglomeration of technology folk in California from around the world all speaking English runs the risk of becoming an extreme no-empathy zone. As I’ve been arguing recently, there is a distinct lack of certain traits in the tech industry, and this might form a further ratcheting of low emotional intelligence. As the industry increasingly acts as a conduit for how we communicate with each other, this should be of great concern.

Secondly, that the world of customer engagement, where off-shoring to foreign climes is common, might be facing additional problems because of using second-language speakers. To provide great service, you generally need to provide great empathy. If you can’t be as empathetic in a second language, what does that do to service?

Now I don’t have the language skills to assess any of that – I’m borderline deaf/mute when dealing with anything but my mother tongue.  But the impact of language on cognition and decision making is a really interesting aspect to how multinational companies are operating, and to maybe how they are becoming (it seems) increasingly without feeling.

One thought on “Languages and empathy

  1. Hi Matt! Quite interesting this. I reckon it’s down to personality types. I expect people who are not normally overly concerned with how they come across, to appear even less empathic when speaking in another language. People who are normally concerned with how things are received/communicated, may on the other hand be even more aware of the potential pitfalls when communicating in their second language and as a result work much harder at avoiding appearing blunt.

    On the issue of multi-ethnic work scenarios, my general experience since being back working in DK is that both native english speakers and non-native english speakers accept their business partners’ rather varying degrees of spoken/written english skills, and instead seek to focus on the business opportunity at hand.

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