Sunday, May 05, 2013

Speaking Spanish, and the challenge of criticism

It’s tough to serve up criticism in a second language.
Or it is for for me. I spent a day last week working with four other people on a funding proposal for a Honduran NGO. In Spanish. 
Luckily, one woman was making notes on her computer, which were projected on a screen in the meeting room. Instead of struggling to grasp spoken comments, I could read them. My personal effectiveness increased tenfold. (Another occasion to give heartfelt thanks for technology.)
Responding still wasn’t easy. While meetings leave me feeling like my head will explode, there is now a point - maybe 45 minutes in - when something in my brain clicks into Spanish mode. (That fades, like a superpower granted by a genie. By the six-hour mark, the simplest sentences are hard to decode.)
More importantly, I am prepared to sound stupid in order to participate.
That’s probably a triumph of ego. I don’t like to sound dumb in front of other people, or course. But, even more, I can’t resist offering ideas and comments. (The Honduran women from the development agency were encouraging, which helped.)
It’s a weird experience. I was good at meetings in Canada. I had insights, and usually an idea of the optimum outcome. I could help win support for good ideas, and might have even been a little pushy. Here, I am a struggling, well-intentioned amateur.
The hardest thing, I have realized, is to offer criticism. It’s difficult in a first language - look at how useless most managers are at offering guidance to employees on their job performance.
But it’s really challenging in a second language. In the meeting, the group came up with a lamish statement of the objectives for the project. 
In English, I could say ‘what a great start, let’s see what we can do to make it even better.’ 
In Spanish, all I could say was “That’s very general and generic. We need to be more specific about how the project will bring the changes the funder wants.” It sounded judgmental even to me. (I don’t know why I felt the need to criticize the main objective as both general and generic. Either might have sufficed.)
When we offer criticism in our first language, it’s all about tone. We make people think the new ideas are actually their own, or create an imaginary consensus, or make an overwhelming case.
None of that is possible when you’re struggling to come up with a semi-coherent sentence. All subtleties are lost. 
It’s not just a problem in meetings. Our organization uses one taxi driver in Tegucigalpa to keep everyone safe. (We walk in Tegus, in the daytime and carrying nothing that would attract bad guys. But it is a dangerous city.)
He's great. Mostly. But if you call him, he will always say he is 10 minutes away. Then he doesn’t show up for an hour, which can be discouraging at the end of a difficult day.
After two one-hour late pickups at the end of the working day last week, I wanted to complain to him and and the staff who rely on him. I couldn’t judge how harsh I was being in my challenged Spanish - a pushover, or a crabby, time-obsessed gringo?
My Spanish efforts are already producing benefits. Hondurans like it when you can speak their language, even badly. And I’ve seen the weight lift off store staff when they realize I can communicate and they don’t have to launch into a stressful, crazed version of charades with yet another gringo.
I’m sure learning a new language is helping my brain.
I’m also learning a lot about humility and what it’s like to be scrabbling to make your voice heard. And I’m wondering how many great insights have been lost because people haven’t been given the space and time to explain them.