Words that Communicate

July 28, 2010

Don’t all words communicate? you may be thinking.  Well, yes, of course they’re intended to, but we don’t always define and practice ‘communication’ as two ways – a message that is sent, received and understood.  If we focus on our messages being received, and ideally understood in the way we intended, the choice of words matters.  Words mean different things to different people, especially when we cross cultures.  It starts with different usages of English from Australia to Kenya to the UK to the U.S., but it goes deeper than that as we strive to create groups that truly understand each other.

For those of you who have traveled, many examples will come to mind. Here is one that I encountered in working with a multinational Board: “To table” a motion in American English means to set it aside for the time being (or deal with it later)….while in Australian and British English it means to “put forward”, such as in Parliament a bill is “tabled”.  You can see how without clarification, some confusion would arise!

Alison  Rapping  has an excellent post that discusses the varying definitions of “social entrepreneur’ a popular term that often means different things to different people.  When I recently worked with the Affordable Housing Institute on their strategic plan, a working glossary was part of the process.  Of special interest was their unique perspective on the word ‘ecosystem’

There’s an importance balance that needs to be maintained between clarity and semantics (a discussion of word usage that can veer into the technical and seem like a time waster).  I once spent a ½ day working with a multinational group trying to decide if they should refer to their work as international or global.  In the end did it matter which of the two words they chose?  Probably not, but was it worth the time?  The group felt so, as the process of engaging together to understand how different cultures were using the word, and what they wanted to collectively convey, took them forward in significant ways.

Are your words conveying what you intend?