Meanings are in people, not in words?

With globalisation and digitalisation, employees of one organisation often come from many places and cultures. They can have the same mentality driven by their company’s goals and values; however, not all of them automatically think, communicate and behave in the same manner due to such diversity.

Culture is knowledge and characteristics of a particular group of people, encompassing language, religion, arts, music, cuisine, and social habits. Although language is often the least difficult issue to confront, it can be a source of misunderstanding and unpleasantness at work.

What and how we speak are developed through cultural values and norms we learn directly and indirectly, which is called socialisation. In my recent English language class, a Polish student mentioned that for them “collaboration” is a negative word, i.e. siding with the Nazis – “the collaborators”. So, I suggested the use of “cooperation” or “working with” to avoid offending them.

An acquaintance gets upset every time she hears her colleagues use the word “execute”. These are the online dictionaries’ explanations of execute:

a) to carry out fully or do what is required,

b) to put to death in compliance with a legal sentence,

c) to perform what is required giving validity to it, and

d) to make or produce something – such as a work of art – by carrying out a plan or design.

Why do they dislike the words “collaborate” and “execute”? They grew up in eastern and central Europe where their relatives and compatriots had been victims of collaboration and execution during the Second World War. Exposure to cultural cues and group narratives have contributed to their communication sensitivity.

We all associate words with various things related to our experience and environment. Unintentionally, we bring these moulds to our meeting rooms, offices and social functions that can make communication challenging or awkward.

How should we deal with misunderstanding due to elements of culture and socialisation? What about adapting our words and actions to these differences? Shall we stick to our patterns of behaviour without conflicting with those different from us? We can avoid miscommunication and ambiguity if we understand our history and culture and those of others.

During our first lesson that included a personal introduction, my student said, “I’m what others call a gipsy, but I prefer to be called a Romany”. (This is also spelt “Romani”). We should ask questions, listen and respect others.

When I was young, my mother used the word “mulatto” to describe those whose one parent is black and the other is white. It was only three decades later that I realised “mulatto” is offensive to some people. Similarly, it is politically incorrect to use “half-breed” and “half-caste” to describe those whose parents have different skin colours and national origins. An acceptable phrase is “person of mixed cultures”.

Ethnicity (Cambridge Dictionary’s definition – “a particular race of people, or the fact of being from a particular race of people”), or its adjective “ethnic”, is quite all right for many people; however, it is often considered derogatory in the UK. Ask the person which term they prefer (some people disapprove the phrase “person of colour”).

I use “foreign” to describe policies, something that comes from another country, or idea that I am not familiar with (strictly for non-human). I frown when a European calls me a “foreigner” because I am not an alien and do not feel and behave as an outsider (have lived longer in France than in my country of origin and been married to a local for nearly four decades).

We have to be open-minded and sensitive in our choice of words. Otherwise, consciously or unconsciously, we make our workplace and global village less desirable.

(This article also appears in my website Rolade Societal Blog -



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