“Press Two for Hmoob”

Several months ago I was traveling on business with an associate and we were in the Minneapolis airport looking for our terminal.  We stood at a large sign that contained directions with instructions in Chinese, followed by Spanish, French, then Arabic and finally after, perhaps, even Serbian, was English.  My friend was exasperated and turned to me.

“Doesn’t it piss you off that we are in the United States and we can’t find directions in English?”

I quickly responded: “Actually, I love it. I think it’s great that this airport shows that respect.”

Knowing that I was being contrary to his position, I then said: “What did that take us?  All of three extra seconds to find English?  Are we that impatient that we feel inconvenienced because we had to make a tiny effort?”

He got my point.  He may not have agreed with me entirely, but maybe he will have more patience in the future.

Previous to this I had returned from Italy where I was on business with two other American colleagues and on our first evening in Turin we stopped in a little café. It was immediately clear to the Italian staff that we were American as the young hostess approached us.

She said: “I…sorry….My English-a no good.”

Being gracious we replied: “Don’t be sorry, we are in your country, we should speak some Italian.”

She then surprised us by saying: “No. English…is…uni-ver-sal language.  I should know better.”

That hit me like a ton of terracotta tiles.  Is it because our economy has dominated the world for over a century and the dollar is still the standard measure for trade?  Or do we have an arrogant culture that assumes the rest of the world will meet our needs with the least amount of effort from us?  Could it be that our professed exceptionalism can limit our ability to become more worldly?  Or could it be all of the above?

A problem we are facing in American trade liaisons was evidenced by the work that I actually had to do with the Italian company.  While we three Americans spoke, everyone understood what we were saying, but when the Italians spoke, we had no idea what they were sharing.   In a strictly business sense they had the clear upper hand.

At times, the Italians (gracious, by the way) laughed amongst themselves, leaving me and my two associates wondering, with a little bit of insecurity, if we were being laughed at.

Our insecurity was exacerbated when a Chinese business partner joined the group.  The partner from China and the Italians spoke enough Italian or Chinese to communicate clearly, but the three Americans, the professionals putting this project together, were lost in translation.

I asked our Italian cameraman, who was fluent in English how many languages he spoke.  He said, in addition to Italian and English, “Spanish, French, some German.  We are taught all of these in school. Everything is pretty easy because we are so close to these countries, but we are made to learn English because it is so important for business.”

Because it is so important to business…”  Hmmmmm….I had the choice to learn Spanish or French in high school, and my teachers were excellent, but to be honest, there was little to no expectation that we would need to be fluent.

I’ve traveled all over Europe and even though I’m the guy who tries his best to pick up key phrases out of respect for different cultures (and it’s fun), I haven’t had to in order to have my steak sent back or to find the men’s room.  The world came to me; I didn’t really have to come to them.

That is changing every hour of every day as we move into a Global Economy.

The truth is we are a Global Economy already and if the United States is to lead we will have to learn how to come to the rest of the world with as much knowledge as they have coming to us.  Our “We’re Number One” attitude may serve as a barrier that diminishes our ability to compete.

A personal experience comes to mind from many years ago when I lived in Los Angeles.  I was fortunate to have a once a week housekeeper from Mexico who also, occasionally, took care of my young son.  One day, when Chris was only 2, we were in a McDonalds and a little Mexican boy was complaining to his mother in Spanish.  I had no idea what they were saying but Chris turned to me and said: “The little boy is angry because his mommy won’t let him have a Happy Meal.”

My son had picked up enough Spanish from our housekeeper to understand what was going on.  I said to myself: “THIS is the world I want my son to grow up in. This is my vision for America.”  I was emboldened by what my son had done so effortlessly; he inherited an ability to communicate and that can lead to cultural respect.

Americans are the ones who will be at a disadvantage if we don’t, just as I was on an Italian soundstage.  We should (we must) value the diversity for which we claim to stand, and we should (we must) emphasize the need for young Americans to become multi-lingual in a world that is moving forward…

…and will move forward whether we know what they’re talking about or not.

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