Opinion: American Cultural Intelligence is Needed Now More Than Ever (Puget Sound Business Journal, 24/11/20)

Our world can seem to be spinning out of control. For months, the Covid-19 pandemic has shut down most of the country and drastically altered the lives of every American. The tragic death of George Floyd set off a tsunami of protests and unrest. Monuments to both Confederate soldiers and heroes such as Abraham Lincoln have been vandalized by angry mobs.

Click below link to read the full article.

https://www.bizjournals.com/seattle/news/2020/11/24/dont-cancel-american-cultural-intelligence.html

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FORTUNE FAVORS THE BOLD.

Covid-19 changed the fabric of Italian life. But it couldn’t stop the courage and determination of Italians to come together to fight for each other.

Our business community is no different. While challenges remain, businesses and all hardworking Italians across the country are bravely fighting to get back to normality and beyond.

It’s exactly in times like these that we need to look to the future and embrace the opportunities it holds for those of us brave enough to make bold decisions. Italian businesses can and must thrive in this new reality. It must take the lead and take advantage of the possibilities.

Invest in your people. Invest in your future.

The need to communicate with others around the world is more important than ever before. This is the time to invest in the future of your company and the country by investing in your people.

Our commitment

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M-POWER Virtual Aperitivo with Special Guest, Kim Tran, Senior Attorney, Global Workplace Investigations, Microsoft

M-POWER is pleased to welcome Kim Tran as our special guest speaker to Virtual Aperitivo to share with us her experiences of how COVID-19 has impacted daily working life at Microsoft. She will share with us the experiences of her team in adapting daily and strategic working activities to a virtual platform. In particular, she will discuss how her team has conducted key interviews and confidential communications to the virtual space. Kim will offer recommended best practices for engaging in strategic communications across the virtual platform based on the experiences of her team at Microsoft. Kim will offer invaluable insights and recommendations to business professionals who are adapting their critical and daily tasks to the virtual platform.

When
6:30-7:30pm, May 18, 2020

6:30-6:40pm   Introductions & Welcome to Kim and participants
6:40-7:00pm   Presentation by Kim Tran
7:00-7:20pm   Discussion with Q & A
7:20-7:30pm   Wrap up & conclusion

Who

Kim Tran

Kim is the Senior Attorney on the Global Workplace Investigations Team at Microsoft.  She is a highly respected attorney and multi-cultural community leader.  Kim has provided advice and counseling on employment-related issues and strategic decision-making to HR managers and business leaders throughout the world for over 20 years.  In her current role at Microsoft, Kim conducts and oversees all internal and strategic corporate investigations. She helps implement global programs, drive solutions to address compliance and build a diverse and inclusive workplace. She conducts many strategic internal investigations for Microsoft throughout the world. Kim is also a highly regarded national leader on community justice issues. Currently, she serves as Secretary to Advancing Asians Justice Center, a national non-profit based in Washington, DC that advocates for civil rights and equal justice for Asian Americans.

Where
Online via the Zoom platform.
STEP 1: Sign up for a Zoom account and download app (www.zoom.us/signup).
STEP 2: Go to https://zoom.us/j/3124511372 (meeting ID: 312 451 1372).

How
Space is limited to the first 10 who sign up. Fill in the form below to confirm your participation.

By clicking “Submit”, you authorize M-POWER to process your personal data for the purpose of managing M-POWER’s Virtual Aperitivo Special Events.

For more information, contact either Raj@m-power.it or Lisa@m-power.it.

Learn more about our newest online initiative M: Virtual Bar.

M-POWER Virtual Aperitivo with Special Guest, Lee Keller, Founder & CEO of International PR Firm, The Keller Group

Click image to view Lee’s presentation.

M-POWER is pleased to welcome Lee Keller as our special guest speaker to Virtual Aperitivo to share with us some of the challenges her clients have experienced in responding to COVID-19. She’ll also offer some suggestions and recommended best practices for companies in developing and communicating public responses to challenges presented by coronavirus.

When
6:30-7:30pm, April 20, 2020

6:30-6:40pm   Introductions & Welcome to Lee and participants
6:40-7:00pm   Presentation by Lee Keller
7:00-7:20pm   Discussion with Q & A
7:20-7:30pm   Wrap up & conclusion

Who

Lee Keller

Lee is the Founder and CEO of the Keller Group, an international public relations firm who has represented Fortune 100 companies and C-Suite executives throughout the United States. Lee has extensive experience in media and strategic communications as well as crisis management. She has worked in the U.S. Senate in Washington, DC as the Press Secretary to Senator Daniel J. Evans. Lee also worked very closely with Microsoft Co-founder Paul Allen, having managed the strategic planning and external communications of his parent company, Vulcan Inc. Currently, Lee is helping clients with strategic communications and crisis management in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lee is based in Seattle, Washington which was the first City in the U.S. to experience COVID-19 cases.  Washington State has been one of the areas hit the hardest by coronavirus.

Where
Online via the Zoom platform.
STEP 1: Sign up for a Zoom account and download app (www.zoom.us/signup).
STEP 2: Go to https://zoom.us/j/3124511372 (meeting ID: 312 451 1372).

How
Space is limited to the first 10 who sign up. Fill in the form below to confirm your participation.

By clicking “Submit”, you authorize M-POWER to process your personal data for the purpose of managing M-POWER’s Virtual Aperitivo Special Events.

For more information, contact either Raj@m-power.it or Lisa@m-power.it.

Learn more about our newest online initiative M: Virtual Bar.

‘I choose hope’: Reflections from a Seattle native living in Italy

Lisa Marchese grew up in Seattle but now lives and works in Italy. She agreed to share some reflections about living through the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy.
(Note: This article initially appeared in KGW, an affiliate TV station of NBC in Seattle.)

Photo: Lisa Marchese
Published: 2:52 PM PDT March 24, 2020
Updated: 3:19 PM PDT March 24, 2020

CHAPTER 1 Leaving the U.S. for Italy
CHAPTER 2 The beginning of the outbreak
CHAPTER 3 Death and restrictions
CHAPTER 4 A different Italy
CHAPTER 5 Dante’s Inferno

MILANO, Italy — Editor’s note: Lisa Marchese is single. “I married my job several years ago,” she jokes. She is a recovering litigator who had a thriving law practice in the Northwest until one day she discovered she was burned out and wanted a change. She grew up in Seattle and attended Blanchet High School. That’s where she and KGW reporter Pat Dooris met. Recently, during social media discussions about their upcoming 40th high school reunion, Lisa mentioned she now lives and works in Italy. Pat asked if she would share some reflections about life there with the Coronavirus. This is the result.

Are you sick? Can you go outside? Are people singing from the balconies on your street? Do you have enough food? These are just some of the many questions I get now almost daily from family and friends back home.

I don’t mind the questions at all. In fact, they are comforting because I know they come from people who love and care about me. During these extraordinary times that is about the best gift anyone could receive.

I am an expatriate from Seattle, working in Italy. With a population of over 60 million, Italy is now the world’s epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. Italy’s northern region of Lombardia, with over 10 million inhabitants, has been hit the hardest, by far. I live in Milano, the capital of Lombardia. I go to sleep every night at ground zero. Three weeks ago, I was upset that my gym had closed. Now I get up every morning and celebrate another day without flu-like symptoms.  

These days, I, too, ask myself a lot of questions. Usually, they are the same ones and they pound at me all day long. What the f__ has happened? Why did this happen? What if I get sick? What if someone in my family gets sick back home? Will I ever go home again? What will it be like when this all ends? And the most difficult one of all: What happens when the person you are today leaves this world and meets the person you could have become? So far, I really do not like my answer to that question. Just as the world was not ready for the coronavirus pandemic, I am not ready for that imagined encounter.

Lisa Marchese grew up in Seattle but now lives and works in Italy. She agreed to share with KGW some of her experiences about living through the outbreak of COVID-19 in Italy.

As for the efficacy of all these questions and answers (the tools of my trade as a recovering trial lawyer), there is something else that bothers me too. It is hard to give honest answers to the people you love about what things are really like here at the epicenter. If I really told the truth about everything I have seen, experienced and how I feel about all of this, they would worry — especially my parents. I was raised in a traditional Italian Catholic family with a strong work ethic and an even stronger belief that you stand tall in the face of adversity. Above all, you protect your family and loved ones without condition, so much so that love and loyalty often get lost in each other. If you find yourself living in a hot war zone during the middle of a global pandemic, you tell them everything is just fine, even when it is not. Why upset people when you should protect them? Can I really protect them? Should I try? These questions race through my mind daily and they are exhausting. Cross examining adverse witnesses was a whole lot easier than this kind of self/cross examination.

I believe everything in our lives happens for a reason. Our challenge is to make sense of these events when they occur. I embrace my Catholic faith, even though I have many faults and failings. Like most everyone else these days, I pray. I ask for strength. I ask for healing. I ask for help. But I also I have a lot of anger and other destructive emotions that need an outlet, or they will continue to eat away at me from the inside out like acid. Then, somewhat out of the blue, an old high school friend contacted me and asked if I would write about my experiences. At first, I wasn’t very enthusiastic. Then, I thought about it a little more. Maybe the universe is inviting me to vent in a constructive way. After all, my red wine stash will only last so long.

Better still, maybe I have the chance to find the good in all of this and share a message of hope. It will be a challenge because what is happening in Italy is catastrophic, cataclysmic and unparalleled with anything I have ever experienced in my lifetime. None of us will ever go back to the lives we had before. We will all live in a new normal when it is over. But the tragedies we endure in our lives will either define us or destroy us. The choice is ours to make. I choose the former. I choose hope. Although this pandemic is life-changing for us all, I firmly believe in the end, “andrà tutto bene (everything will be alright).”

Having committed to tell the story, the undertaking gets a little harder. How do you describe the indescribable? History has recorded many devastating pandemics. It would certainly be easy to wax poetic about the Spanish Flu of 1918 which originated in Europe and wiped out about one-third of the world’s population. But the world was a different place then. There was no internet or 24-hour news cycle complete with social media generated hysteria. The world was far less connected and people were far more self-sufficient. For one thing, they didn’t feel the need to panic buy all the toilet paper in their local markets to ensure their survival.

While there are no shortages of historical parallels, our experiences with this pandemic are very different. We are much more technologically advanced. However, we are more interdependent and far more vulnerable. It is one thing to study the affairs of history. It is quite another to live through the events that become our history. The experience of living through this period is the story that should be told. Natalia Ginzburg, one of the greatest Italian authors of 20th Century once observed, “I think of a writer as a river. You reflect what passes before you.” As one of my favorite writers, I feel it is appropriate to draw upon Ginzburg’s wisdom now as I try to share my reflections from ground zero in Milano.

Chapter 1

Leaving the U.S. for Italy

Italy, home to La Dolce Vita

In 2018, I left my law practice in Seattle to pursue a lifelong dream to live and work in Italy. I married my career years ago which means I am single. I had a fantastic career as a trial lawyer with a large client portfolio and a good reputation in the Northwest. I was a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine. But by the end of 2017, I was feeling burned out by too much work and not enough adventure.

I remember one morning in late 2017, after a week of travel that included DC, Anchorage and back to Seattle, I woke up and for the first 3 minutes or so, I honestly did not know where I was. That really concerned me. So, I thought long and hard about what would make me happy and I have always been connected to Italy through my family. I always wanted to live and work here so I took the plunge and left my practice. Basically, I decided it was time for a divorce from life as a practicing commercial litigator. We still remain friends though. I had a great career — and now I am trying to build an even better one here with my consulting work.

At the time, many people thought I was crazy. After all, I am a creature of habit and generally I don’t like change. I am a to-do list kind of gal and I find disarray painful. I remember being traumatized as a child when I read “The Cat in the Hat.” I found the antics of Thing One and Thing Two to be vile, not funny. Moreover, I thought Dr. Seuss was gratuitously cruel for making us wait until the end before we learned that the mess in Sally’s house was finally cleaned up. I like to plan and I always look two weeks ahead on my work calendar. I am at the airport early for my flight and if we have a 9 a.m. meeting, I will arrive by 8:55.

2020 was off to a great start. Despite the change of scenery and my neurotic tendencies, I was really settling into life here with a joy I hadn’t felt for a long time. There were challenges but I could handle them in stride. Italy, home to “La Dolce Vita,” is known for many wonderful things. Order and organization, however, are not on the list. I didn’t mind because I was developing this amazing thing they call patience, which is a great coping mechanism, particularly for “Italian time.” Translated loosely, that means meetings don’t start here until at least 15 to 30 minutes after the time they are scheduled. I have a great job and I have fallen in love with my work and in Milano. It was nice to smile again.

Chapter 2

The beginning of the outbreak

Sudden and unexpected silence

Up until about a month ago, the coronavirus outbreak in China was a blip on my radar screen. I saw the occasional news report of the horrific ground conditions in Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province. To be honest, however, I didn’t think a whole lot more about it other than it was tragic. It was something happening far away from my world. My daily routine went on. I got up early, went to the gym, went to work and hung out with my friends. I was preoccupied with business projects, the weather forecast, my weekend plans, and when I would be able to leave for Puglia to spend Easter vacation with my family. If it was a sunny day, I could go for a run or take a walk. If I didn’t feel like cooking (which is most of the time), I could go out to eat. I had all the freedom I could ever want, yet I had no real appreciation of it.

Milano is a vibrant city and there is always something happening. You hear the most wonderful music and laughter when you walk through the heart of town. It is a collective and harmonious sound reminding you that people are alive and connected to each other in the moments of their lives. I didn’t quite appreciate how much of a comfort those sounds were until they were replaced with sudden and unexpected silence a few weeks ago. Now we are surrounded with a lot of silence here, so much so it is deafening.

There is one loud and persistent noise we hear every day with increasing frequency: ambulances. I never really paid much attention to ambulances before unless I was crossing the street they were on. Before, the sound of the sirens was just part of the city’s ambient static. Not anymore. I cant even begin to describe how unnerving it is to hear them now day in and day out. You know someone with coronavirus is in trouble. You know the health care system and its workers are stretched beyond capacity. You know the number of new infections and deaths are spiking daily. You try to determine if the ambulance is on a call near your home. Every blaring siren makes you feel like you are waiting in the wings with everyone else, wondering whether someday there will be a knock on your door because you have a date with the executioner.

Coronavirus struck Italy with a vengeance, seemingly out of nowhere. It first hit northern Italy and before we knew it, the entire region of Lombardia and 15 surrounding provinces — about one quarter of Italy’s population — were placed into lockdown. With limited exceptions, no could travel into or out of those areas. Within a matter of days, the entire country was shut down. The only stores that remain open are supermarkets, pharmacies and a limited list of essential businesses. Both actions were announced by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in press conferences that occurred at 2 a.m. local time. On each occasion, family or friends at home learned of the quarantines before I did since it was 5 p.m. back in Seattle when the stories broke.

I remember a painful conversation with my mother the morning Italy was shut down completely. Like a good Italian mom, she has no respect for time zones or her daughter’s love of sleeping in on the weekends, particularly when she needs to ask me something. When I answered the phone that Sunday morning, the first thing my mom wanted to know was whether I had enough food in my apartment (of course that is the first thing). Then, she was insistent that I stay inside. At first, I was a little irritated by these seemingly ridiculous questions. The conversation got worse before it got better. After a few rounds of our usual verbal jousting, I figured out what had occurred, apologized profusely for my congenital “bad attitude” and we declared a truce. I still find it odd, though, that my mother in Seattle, over 5,000 miles away, knew what was happening in my own neighborhood before I did. There isn’t much that is familiar anymore.

At the start of the quarantine, things were manageable. With the internet, a cell phone and videoconferencing, I could work from home. I could take a break midday and go outside for a run or take a walk. We just had to make sure we maintained a minimum distance of one meter from others in public. We could go to the supermarket to get food and essentials. It was a little over a week ago when I convinced myself that this new routine was only temporary and everything would be okay. Unfortunately, that thought didn’t age well.

Chapter 3

Death and restrictions

My apartment feels like a crypt

Despite the government’s nationwide containment restrictions, the number of new infections and deaths has continued to rise at an alarming rate, with the bulk of them in Lombardia. With 5,000 deaths, Italy has the most coronavirus related fatalities in the world (editor’s note: the number is now above 6,000). Almost 65% of them have been in Lombardia. The town of Bergamo has the greatest number of reported cases, as well as the highest death toll. They have been using churches as temporary mortuaries. Burials occur every 30 minutes, with no funerals, ceremonies or loved ones in attendance to say goodbye. Yesterday, the military had to transport almost 100 bodies from Bergamo because they ran out of space.

When I think about the loved ones I have lost in my life, I remember how important their funerals and memorial services were. These events let us honor their lives and they gave us the opportunity to say goodbye. I was very close to my aunt who died of cancer several years ago. Although it was one of the worst things I have ever seen, I am so grateful that I was there to hold her hand when she passed. Now, my heart breaks into a million pieces for the families and the loved ones of those who have died. Their pain must be unbearable. Not only has coronavirus murdered innocent victims with impunity; it has also robbed their loved ones of the opportunity to say goodbye. All of this is happening in a town about 36 miles away from where I live.

This week the government issued yet another round of restrictions to keep people from leaving their homes for almost any reason. Under the first set of emergency rules, you could leave your home freely to take a walk, go for a run or go to the store, provided you were maintaining one meter of distance from others in public. If you needed to travel a greater distance, for example, to see a doctor or go to work, you had to fill out a self-authorization form indicating the purpose of your trip, where you lived and when you would return.

Now, there is a new authorization form and you need to have it on your person anytime you go outside, regardless of the reason. The form also requires you to affirm you have not tested positive for COVID-19 and you are not currently in a 14-day quarantine. Anyone stopped without this form faces stiff fines and penalties. We have a pretty significant police presence in the streets to enforce these rules. Quite frankly, the thought of walking out my front door to get food has me a little stressed out, even though the grocery store is only about 200 meters away. I spend entire days at home without leaving, so much so that my apartment feels like a crypt.

The isolation that comes with life in quarantine is a challenge. When this is all over, I need to do two things without fail. First, I have got to paint the walls a different color. Next, I need to figure out how to take a vacation from myself. We have spent far too much time with each other. I really need a break.

Chapter 4

A different Italy

Everyone has disengaged

Through this isolation, I have realized that one of the things I love most about Italy is how kind and welcoming the people are. They greet one another with a smile that fills you up with a warmth that is indescribable. Whether out for a run, a walk or in the store, I really enjoyed the greetings and the smiles. It made me feel connected to a world that I love. Sadly, like so many other things, I didn’t really appreciate how wonderful this was until it stopped.

Everything is different. When we are out in public now, everyone avoids one another as much as possible. People run to opposite ends of an empty street in desperation as they pass each other. I understand the reason, but it is unsettling, nonetheless. Instead of that wonderful sense of connection, everyone has disengaged. People are even afraid to make eye contact, as though the virus will be spread by a mere glance of fear or anxiety.

In the grocery stores, there are markings on the floor to help you comply with the one meter of distance rule. The concept is a good one; however, some people’s reaction to it is not. About a week ago, before the latest restrictions were imposed, I was standing in line to pay for my groceries. The woman in front of me realized she needed an item on a shelf next to where I was standing. She instinctively took a step toward me to reach for the item. Then, she stopped suddenly and snapped into hysteria, apologizing profusely for encroaching into my space. I handed her the item and assured her that everything was OK, and “ce la faremo” (everything will be alright), a viral phrase we are all clinging to like a life preserver. It seems like a trivial incident, but I cannot get the look of terror that was in her eyes out of my mind.

Italians are kind, generous and resilient. They sing from balconies and they look out for their neighbors. I have seen countless acts of kindness and selflessness from so many Italians during this crisis. It makes me so very proud, especially as an Italian American. But the truth is, we are all scared and it is the kind of fear that can be paralyzing.

My new daily routine isn’t one I like very much. I try to work. I try to exercise. I try to connect with my family and friends at home to let them know I am OK. Then I battle the demons that come with fear and isolation. Truth be told, I think about giving up every day and that thought alone scares me even more.

Don’t worry, I don’t mean anything drastic like suicide. I mean giving up as in letting go of hope and resigning myself to a fate that this will end badly and it is just a matter of time. Giving up as in not trying, letting go of the little things that keep me connected to everyday life like cleaning my apartment, doing laundry, doing a 30-minute workout. Giving up the fight to make the best of a bad situation. I know once I give up that fight, I give up hope.

At 6 p.m. every night there is a dreaded ritual. That is when the Minister of Health holds his nightly press conference to announce the numbers. He announces the number of new cases, the number of newly deceased, the number of patients who are hospitalized and in intensive care and the number who have recovered. It is chilling and disheartening but for some reason I can’t stop myself from watching. I listen for good news, but I come away even more depressed.

The numbers are staggering. I don’t know what I will do if I get sick. The hospitals are beyond capacity and the health care system is on the brink of collapse. I am on my own if the worst happens and I live with that reality every day. The anxiety these thoughts generate is gut wrenching and it drives me to my knees at least a dozen times a day. But I refuse to give up.

Chapter 5

Dante’s Inferno

‘I, too, want to see the stars again’

It is curious that the coronavirus outbreak in Italy has coincided with Lent. Churches here have been closed since the week of Ash Wednesday. There are no masses, something I find a bit disheartening. Mass in Italian is beautiful, and I enjoy going each week, especially during Lent, the one season in the Liturgical calendar that you really shouldn’t screw up being Catholic. The significance of Lent during this extraordinary time is not lost on me. It is a time of preparation, penance and self-sacrifice. Above all, it is a time of hope.

Lent is a time I like to re-read one of the greatest epic poems ever written, Dante’s Inferno. It has special meaning during this time period because Dante’s allegorical journey into Hell began on Holy Thursday and ended when he emerged the morning of Easter Sunday. Many critics reduce the Inferno to a brutal story of harsh biblical justice. I suppose that is one way to look at it; however, I see things differently.

As Dante descends through the nine circles of Hell, he describes his encounters with those he meets by their sins in life and their corresponding punishments in Hell. This concept, known as “contrapasso” means that the nature of a person’s sin in life dictates his punishment in Hell. As I watch news of all the panic buying and fighting back home, I am reminded of Dante’s encounter with the sinners in the 4th Circle, home to the spenders and hoarders.

The spenders are forced to carry enormous weight and hoarders have nothing. Each wants what the other has but will never get it. In life, spenders never valued what they had so they just kept buying more and more. Now they are stuck with the eternal burden of carrying that weight. Hoarders always wanted more in life but in Hell, they will never have anything again. Maybe those among us today who feel compelled to fight for every last roll of toilet paper or case of bottled water should think long and hard about what they have and what they truly need. We are all in this together and we need to take care of each other.

The point of the Inferno is one of hope, not despair. Contrapasso gives us an opportunity to understand the consequences of our conduct while we are still living. It gives us the opportunity to choose a better path. It encourages us to change for the better. That is how I read the Inferno. It is how I choose to view this pandemic and all its horrors as it envelops our world here at ground zero.

I have gone on my own allegorical journey of sorts within the confines of my small one-bedroom apartment in quarantine. What have I really done with my life that matters? I am not talking about money or career success. Have I told the people in my life I care about that I love them? Have I given more to the world than I ever took? How many times did I look the other way when someone needed help? Have I apologized for all the hurtful things I have said to people in anger? Have I forgiven those who have wronged me? These have been very difficult questions for me. But every morning that I wake up is one more day, one more opportunity to find better answers. In the end, I hope this experience will make me a better daughter, sister, aunt, cousin, colleague, friend and neighbor. I hope it inspires an end to the hateful, destructive rhetoric that divides us all.

Someday, hopefully soon, this pandemic will subside. We will return to our offices, our gyms, our favorite stores and restaurants. We will go out with our friends and attend parties. We will hear laughter and music again. As for me, I will still live by my calendar, arrive to meetings early and hold steadfast to the belief that “The Cat in the Hat” is a book unsuitable for children. But I hope I will have a deeper love for the world I live in, a better understanding of the needs of my neighbors, family and friends. I hope I will have a more profound appreciation of both the goodness and fragility of life.

At the end of the Inferno, Dante and his guide Virgilio climb out of the darkness of Hell and return to a world illuminated by God’s light and love: “And so we emerged — once more — to see the stars.” [Inf., 34.139]. I, too, want to see the stars again.

English Idioms are Hard. Just Ask Joe Biden.

Joe Biden

Do English idioms make you ill at ease? [1]  Does the thought of having to use them cramp your style or cause your heart to miss a beat?  Are you afraid you will look like a fool if you use an expression incorrectly?  Idioms trip up native and non-native speakers alike, including our business and political leaders.  Just ask Vice President Joe Biden, also a 2020 presidential candidate.

Fondly known as America’s favorite gaffe machine, Joe Biden has long been famous for his spoken blunders and miscues.  In a recent campaign speech, Vice President Biden sought to sway potential voters with a passionate proclamation of his fundamental political beliefs.  With confidence and enthusiasm, he declared, “we believe in truth over facts.”  A collective groan could be heard across America by the crowd in attendance, along with the question, come again?’   Speaking of rhetorical questions – here is a useful idiomatic practice tip, compliments of Joe Biden.  If someone asks you a question with the phrase, Come again?”, “Are you kidding me?”, or even WTF?”, chances are pretty good that you have misused an English idiom. 

This was not a one-off misstep for Vice President Biden.  While campaigning in Iowa back in August, 2019, he told a reporter that there were “at least three” genders.  When asked to name all three in a follow up question, Vice President Biden became a little hot under the collar and refused to respond further.

WTF are Idioms. Why Should Business Leaders Care?

Using idiomatic expressions and turning phrases are the essential tools of persuasion for those who must speak English, the international language of business and diplomacy throughout the world.  However, the complexities and challenges of communication in the modern world require business leaders to have more than just a fluency with English.  They must know how to communicate on a deeper level if they want to do so effectively and persuasively.  What does that mean exactly?

To answer this question, we draw upon our collective professional experiences.  We have worked and represented clients across many industries and cultures over many, many years.  We have negotiated mega business deals and multi-million-dollar settlements of commercial disputes with counterparts who spoke English as a second language.  Many spoke English fluently but were not particularly effective in negotiations.  They could discuss basic facts and details but could not communicate on a deeper, more convincing level.  However, those that spoke English with the ability to use idiomatic expressions were able to level the playing field by earning a deeper respect from their native English-speaking counterparts.  In fact, they often wielded a distinct tactical advantage because their ability to use idioms in their communications gave them a powerful tool of persuasion and a psychological advantage over their native speaking counterparts who were confronted with the reality that using English did not give them the upper hand in negotiations.  At the end of the day, no one can speak English persuasively without the ability to use idiomatic expressions effectively. 

The English language is permeated with idiomatic expressions at every level.  Native English speakers use idioms daily, whether communicating at home, at work, in public or with friends.  Multi-media, whether in the form of news or advertising rely heavily on idioms as a means of persuasive communication.  Idioms are viewed as powerful rhetorical devices, routinely used by politicians and business leaders in speeches and presentations.  With over 25,000 idiomatic expressions in the modern English language, the proper use of these phrases can be challenging for native and non-native speakers alike.      

What are idioms and why are they so challenging for second language learners?  In its most basic form, an idiom is a group of words with two defining characteristics: 1) a figurative or metaphorical meaning that is particular to a specific language; and 2) a literal translation that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.  Idioms are difficult because they are phrases that evolve directly from a people’s history, heritage and culture.  Learning the correct use of idioms, therefore, requires a deeper understanding of the language beyond vocabulary and grammar.

Fluency Doesn’t Cut It. Just Ask Greta. . .

To anyone under the false impression that using English idioms are a piece of cake or no big deal, Greta Thunberg would be delighted to offer you a different perspective.  The 16-year-old global climate change activist recently experienced the consequences of murderingan English idiom on a world stage.  This event is particularly interesting considering that Thunberg’s English skills are excellent, and she routinely gives speeches and interviews in English throughout the world.

Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg, photo by European Parliament from EU – Greta Thunberg at the Parliament, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81699733

While speaking at a rally in Torino, Italy last December, the 16-year old caused quite a stir in the English-speaking world with her ill-fated use of an old idiomatic expression.  During her speech, she tried to make the point that politicians should be held collectively responsible for taking action to combat climate change.  Specifically, the young activist vowed to put world leaders “against the wall” if they fail to address climate change.  The English idiom of putting someone against the wall; however, is a phrase associated with firing squads and assassinations of political leaders.  As a result, Thunberg’s intended message was lost in the ensuing sea of criticism caused by her idiomatic gaffe.  Instead of making a passionate and persuasive plea, Thunberg created a cringeworthy moment that left the rest of the English-speaking world wondering whether she really was calling for violence to fight climate change. 

While Thunberg’s embarrassing mistake was unfortunate, it provides an important teachable moment.  To her credit, Thunberg quickly apologized for her error as she was not intending to incite violence with her speech in Torino.  In her apology, Thunberg explained that in her native Swedish language, an expression with words akin to the English idiom merely means to hold someone responsible. Her English fluency skills were not the problem.  Rather, her mistake was in assuming that the Swedish meaning of an idiom was the same in English.  Thunberg learned the hard way that idioms and expressions rarely are universal across languages.  Their meanings are particular to a given language and derive from unique cultural experiences, attitudes and values.

Idioms are Equal Opportunity Challengers      

Greta Thunberg’s recent gaffe was not the first public misuse of an English idiom and it most certainly will not be the last.  That list is far too long to repeat here.  Nevertheless, one of those experiences is worth a mention for its educational, if not its entertainment value. 

Electrolux is a European appliance manufacturer that makes vacuums. In the early 1970s, Electrolux sought to enter the US market by launching a massive ad campaign.  In promoting its line of vacuum cleaners, Electrolux boasted about the quality of their products with the slogan, “Nothing sucks like Electrolux!” While there is no question that at least 9 out of 10 Americans want their vacuums to have good suction, it is also true that 10 out of 10 Americans really don’t want to buy products that suck.        

We can’t just pick on the Europeans when it comes to idiomatic gaffes.  The British – and even the Americans are guilty of misunderstanding and misusing expressions in the common language they share.  In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that English is the common language that divides the British and Americans.  Idioms are often the source of division as they mean different things to Americans and the British, two people that have different historical and cultural experiences, despite a shared language.  This dynamic has posed communication obstacles at the highest levels.  For example, American and British diplomats have grappled with the challenges of using a common language.  In one diplomatic session, American negotiators wanted to table the discussion of a topic.  Although the British voiced their agreement with the request, there was no actual agreement because the subject expression meant something different to each party.  By ‘tabling the discussion,’ the Americans wanted to postpone consideration of the topic.  To the British, however, ‘tabling the discussion’ had the exact opposite meaning and the Americans became quite agitated when the British persisted in discussing a topic they were done with.   

Americans can be the worst offenders as they often butcher the idioms of their native language.  That said, we should all be grateful to the many American politicians from both sides of the aisle that have so generously provided the rest of us with innumerable teachable moments.  A few notable examples from the highlight reel are worth mentioning. 

President Gerald Ford spent just over two years in the Oval Office from 1974 to 1977.  During that short time, he earned a reputation for putting his foot in his mouth when giving speeches. One of his notable gaffes occurred during a speech given at a public celebration of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.  First, a bit of background on the idiom he attempted to use.  When English speakers want to voice their own displeasure of or opposition to a certain event or situation, they use an expression that invokes the memory of a deceased love one or famous person.  Here, we say that this person would ‘turn over in his/her grave’ if he/she knew about a current event or situation.  President Ford, unfortunately, missed the mark when he said that, “if [President] Lincoln were alive today, he’d be turning over in his grave.”  Serious question:  if you were alive, would you want to turn over in your grave?  Most Americans agreed with you and elected Jimmy Carter President in 1978.     

Arnold Schwarzenegger, famous bodybuilder, turned famous actor, turned politician, became the Governor of California in 2003.  During his tenure, he announced his support for same sex marriage.  When asked by the media about his support for sex marriage, Governor Schwarzenegger confidently responded, “I think gay marriage is something that should be between a man and a woman.”  (As we write this, we hear C + C Music Factory blaring in our ears, “Things that make you go Hmmmm”).

Arnold Schwarzenegger, photo by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80653226

Last but not least, who could forget President George W. Bush’s effort to speak idiomatic Italian at the G 8 in 2008?  To get then Prime Minister Berlusconi’s attention, President Bush yelled across a crowded room, “hey Amigo, Amigo!”  It is anyone’s guess what President Bush was thinking when he broke out his best Spanglish for the occasion.  Perhaps he was using a lesser known Italo-Texan dialect?  Chissà?

Recommended Best Practices & Concluding Thoughts   

Learning how to use English expressions is admittedly difficult, but not impossible.  In closing, therefore, we offer you a few recommended best practices for mastering English idioms. 

First and foremost, there must be a recognition that idioms are derived directly from a people’s history and culture.  As such, you need to step out of your own experiences and into a different cultural paradigm to learn the proper use of idioms.  You cannot assume that an expression in your native language has the same meaning in English.  It probably doesn’t.  Just ask Greta. 

Second, understanding the context is critical.  Idioms are generally used to express a person’s opinions, emotions, feelings or attitudes.  Thus, you should identify the typical situation in which the idiom is normally used.  Did someone make a big mistake?  Did someone misunderstand a situation?  Did someone underestimate his competition?  Is someone seeking to express contrary opinions?   These are some typical situations in which specific idioms are commonly used to express attitudes and opinions.   

Third, you should identify an idiom by its theme.  For example, is this expression being used to persuade, express anger, criticism, disagreement or humor?  Remembering idioms by theme is invaluable for retention, comprehension and ultimately, for proper usage. 

Fourth, music and literature are excellent language tutors when it comes to idioms.  It is easy for most of us to remember the lyrics to our favorite songs and lyrics are often written with idiomatic expressions. Reading is also a great learning tool as novelists routinely use idioms in storytelling.  Reading also has the added benefit of allowing you to control the pace of the lesson.

Lastly, if you need to learn the idiomatic expressions and jargon used in certain business or professional industries, the traditional methods of language instruction by language teachers will be of no use.  The modern communications paradigm requires you to learn from industry experts who are also trained as language teachers.  That is because modern communication occurs on a deeper, more complex and more nuanced level.  Accordingly, an innovative learning approach is needed to equip today’s business leaders with the skills necessary to use idiomatic expressions as powerful rhetorical tools of English persuasion.

In summary, learning how to use English idioms properly is both difficult and challenging.  But it is not impossible.  In that spirit, we leave you with some encouragement from Audrey Hepburn, a famed and beloved actress who mastered English as a second language: “Nothing is impossible.  The word itself, says ‘I’m possible ‘!”  Like Audrey Hepburn, if you put your mind to ityou can conquer English idioms.


[1] For definitions of all idioms used in this article (in bold & italics), check out our Urban Idiom Glossary at the end of the article. 

URBAN GLOSSARY OF IDIOMATIC EXPRESSIONS

Ill at ease: To be uncomfortable in a situation or circumstance

Cramp one’s style: Something that inhibits, interferes or prevents you from doing your best

Cause one’s heart to skip a beat: Phrase used to describe a feeling of fear, apprehension or excitement

To look like a fool: To appear or come across as dumb or unintelligent

To trip up: Phrase used to describe when someone or something causes another to make an error or blunder  

Come again? Phrase used to ask someone to repeat what was just said; also, used to express anger or disagreement with someone

Are you kidding me? Phrase used to express surprise, disbelief, anger or disagreement with someone or something

WTF? Slang expression (somewhat vulgar) used more in written than spoken communication to express annoyance, disbelief or surprise at someone or something

One off: Phrase used to describe a situation or event that has occurred or will occur only one time and has or will never be repeated

Hot under the collar: To be intensely angry or upset

To turn a phrase: To use words and idiomatic expressions in a distinctive and persuasive way

To level the playing field: To take action to ensure that the competition or interaction between two or more parties is fair to all

To have the upper hand: To have the dominate or controlling position; to have the advantage in a situation

At the end of the day: A summary phrase meaning, ‘in conclusion, in summary, after everything is considered’

To cut it: To have the qualities to cope with or meet the needs of a given situation or undertaking

Piece of cake: A task or undertaking that is very easy to do or accomplish

No big deal: A phrase used to describe something that is of little importance; also, an informal

To murder something: To harm or destroy something; to make an egregious error

To cause a stir: To create something that creates alarm, excitement, or agitation in others (can be positive or negative)

To put someone against the wall: To put someone in front of a firing squad; to assassinate political enemies

To do something the hard way: To choose the most difficult or challenging means to do something (usually negative)

Equal opportunity: When used as part of an idiomatic expression, it describes a situation or circumstance that impacts everyone in the same way, regardless of background, ability, etc.  

9 out of 10. . .: An expression used to help express the opinion that something will or will not occur with certainty or near certainty (e.g. “He is late 9 out of 10 times for our weekly team meeting” 

To suck: Someone or something that is very bad or poor quality, talent or ability

To pick on: To criticize, treat badly, bully or tease

To table something (AmE): To postpone or defer discussion of a topic or subject

To table something (BrE): To bring up or proceed with discussion of a topic or subject

To butcher something: To botch or commit an egregious error

Both sides of the aisle: Phrase derived from the physical walkway the House of Representatives and Senate that separates the Democrats seats from the Republicans. As an idiom, it refers to both American political parties or both sides of a dispute

The highlight reel: A collection of the best parts, occurrences of an event or subject

To put one’s foot in one’s mouth: To say or do something inappropriate or embarrassing

To miss the mark: To make a mistake or error

To turn over in one’s grave: To be very upset about a situation; expression uses the memory of a deceased person to indicate that he/she would be extremely unhappy about an event if that person were alive today

Last but not least: A concluding phrase indicating a topic that is discussed last in the sequence but that is just as important as the previous topics discussed

Amigo: American slang word derived from Spanish used to address or refer to a good friend  

Anyone’s guess: A phrase used to describe a situation in which it is impossible to know what is true or what will happen

To break out [something]: To begin using or doing something

Chissà?: Alternative expression for ‘who knows’?

To put your mind to it: To give something one’s complete attention, effort or determination

The Essential Partnership of Knowledge & Communication (Part 2): The Solution

This is the second in a 2-part series where M-POWER Senior Partners, Lisa M. Marchese and Raj Panday explore how “the art of communication is the language of leadership” (James Hume). In Part 1, the authors identify the characteristics of what makes a great communicator and highlight the challenges for today’s international business leaders. Read Part 1 here.

The Solution: A New Approach

English is the official language of the global business world.  For today’s professionals, however, the objective should not be to learn English.  Rather, the goal must be to develop the skills to communicate with a purpose and with persuasion.  This approach is aimed directly at the acquisition of communication fluency.

To better understand why a new approach is needed, we must return to our ever expanding and ever connecting commercial world.  The international marketplace continues to create new growth opportunities across diverse geographical platforms.  Success in this environment requires business leaders to form alliances with companies from different cultures, with different values and who speak different languages.  They must use a common language to communicate – even if that language is not their mother tongue.  When those company leaders sit across tables in boardrooms, conference rooms and dinner tables to explore commercial opportunities, they need to use a common language to communicate.  That language likely will be English, the most spoken language in the world with nearly 1.5 billion speakers.[1]  English is also the most studied language in the world[2]  It is also the formal language in 70 countries worldwide.[3]

Sawe, Benjamin Elisha. “What is the Most Spoken Language in the World?” WorldAtlas, Jun. 7, 2019, worldatlas.com/articles/most-popular-languages-in-the-world.html.

English is the universal language of the international business world.[4]  The world’s major financial centers such as the New York Stock Exchange, the NASDAQ, the London Stock Exchange, the Toronto Stock Exchange, the Australian Securities and Exchange and the Hong Kong Stock Exchange all conduct business in English.  The official language of the World Bank and the working language of the United Nations is English.  Multinational companies such as Airbus, Samsung, Microsoft, SAP and Renault all have designated English their official corporate language.[5]  By this action, they seek to facilitate communication and strategic growth across the diverse geographical reaches of the global marketplace.   English is also the most used language on the internet.[6]  Roughly 56% of all websites are in English.[7]  It is also the medium for 80% of the information stored on the world’s computers.[8]  The presence and prevalence of English in the commercial world is a growing trend that continues today.

That business professionals must now speak English is a given.  To become successful leaders, however, they must acquire communication fluency.  Development of this skill requires a new and innovative learning approach – well beyond traditional methods.

When considered against the demands of the contemporary business world, traditional methods of language instruction are a recipe for failure – particularly when it comes to English.  These outdated techniques seek to teach new vocabulary, basic grammar rules, listening and conversation skills.  The goal is to enable students to use words and phrases to speak English – or any other second language.  However, learning how to speak with persuasion and effectiveness are well beyond the traditional language curriculum.  In this context, speaking persuasively and effectively are merely aspirational concepts left for the student to figure out on his own.  Here, we have arrived at the source of the breakdown of the conventional approach.  If we cannot communicate persuasively in a language – we do not know that language.  When it comes to English, business professionals must have the ability to use it as a means of persuasion and production in a competitive global environment where opportunity courts risk daily.

The acquisition of communication fluency requires a multi-faceted approach that begins with an essential partnership between learning and teaching.  Teachers must first understand the specific duties, responsibilities and needs of their students.  Then, they must customize their curriculum to meet those needs by conveying essential knowledge well beyond vocabulary, grammar and conversation skills.  The traditional “one size fits all” approach is no longer viable.  The goal is to enable students to develop skills of persuasion beyond the mere use of a language.  This type of contextual communication fluency requires a profound understanding of cultural habits and practices as well as specific business and industry practices.

Knowledge of business culture and specific industry rules and practices are at the core of this new approach.  An expansive English vocabulary and impressive command of grammar, alone, won’t enable us to communicate with fluency.  With that as the source of our knowledge, how would we know if English speakers typically say what they mean in certain situations?  Is it their practice to be direct when an issue or problem arises?  How about interruptions and aggressiveness?  In what situations are these behaviors acceptable or expected?  In what circumstances would they be deemed offensive, and perhaps destructive to the business relationship?  What about common idioms and expressions?  If we don’t understand the meanings behind these cultural and practical nuances, we will miss important details that could “make or break” our next great business opportunity.  If we do not understand the business situation or syntax, we are likely to misinterpret the words of our peers or professional counterparts.

In general, a company’s commercial risk tolerance represents a combination of its cultural attitudes, practices and values.  Armed with this knowledge, a professional can formulate strategies to pursue commercial opportunities with an awareness of the motivations and preferences of his counterpart.  Without this knowledge, a professional is likely to draw inaccurate conclusions based on incorrect assumptions or incomplete information.  Understanding business risk and motivation, therefore, are also crucial for communication fluency.

In summary, business leaders need to learn how to communicate, not how to use English with fluency.  This solution requires an innovative partnership between teaching and learning.  This approach must encompass a broad and strategic view that leads to knowledge of culture, business and industry practices.       

Photo by Samuel Pereira on Unsplash

Conclusion

To become business leaders, professionals must be effective persuaders.  Like all great leaders from history, their tools of persuasion are comprised of the words from the language they use.  Our global commercial world has connected diverse companies and cultures across sweeping geographical platforms.  English is firmly established as the official language of international business.  Business professionals must do far more than speak English – they must communicate with fluency.  Those that learn how to communicate effectively and persuasively are the ones who know English.  They are tomorrow’s leaders and the next great success stories of the international business world.


[1] Sawe, Benjamin Elisha.  “What is the Most Spoken Language in the World?”  WorldAtlas, Jun. 7, 2019, worldatlas.com/articles/most-popular-languages-in-the-world.html.

[2] Pajak, Bozena.  “Which countries study which languages and what can we learn from it?”  Duolingo, May 5, 2016.

[3] Essays, UK. (November 2018). Why Is English Considered a Global Language? Retrieved from https://www.ukessays.com/essays/linguistics/why-is-english-considered-a-global.php?vref=1

[4] Ibid. 

[5] Neeley, Tsedal.  “Global Business Speaks English: Why You Need a Language Strategy Now”.  Harvard Business Review; 90, n. 5 (May 2012): 116-124.

[6] “Top 10 Languages Used in the Web”.  Internet World Stats, April 30, 2019, www.internetworldstats.com/stats7.htm.

[7] “Usage of content languages for websites”.  W³Techs, November 26, 2019, w3techs.com/technologies/overview/content_language.

[8] “English Language Statistics”.  English Language Guide, englishlanguageguide.com/facts/stats.

The Essential Partnership of Knowledge & Communication (Part 1): The Problem

“The art of communication is the language of leadership” (James Hume)

Every notable achievement the world has ever known was the result of great leadership.  First born of an idea, then put into action by a leader with the ability to recreate his vision in the minds of others and inspire action.  Words are what give every vision, every inspiration life.  But the inspiration to act comes only from those who are fluent in using a language purposefully and persuasively.  This ability is “communication fluency” and it has been – and will forever be – the one true language of leadership.    

Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

When we speak of history’s most revered leaders and personalities, we measure their importance first and foremost by their accomplishments.   Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela each inspired their countries to confront painful histories, cultural norms and oppressive laws that perpetuated racism and inequality.  Winston Churchill stood up to Hitler at a time when most western leaders willingly turned a blind eye to the atrocities of Nazi Germany and readily embraced a policy of appeasement. Churchill demonstrated great courage and leadership that inspired the resolve of his people and helped lead the Allies to victory in World War II.  In 1928, an obscure and diminutive Catholic nun went to Calcutta to work as a teacher in a small school.  She later moved to the slums to start the Missionaries of Charity, an order dedicated to serving the poorest and neediest members of society.  She became famous throughout the world for her boundless generosity and selfless service to the neediest among us.  She remains a timeless source of inspiration for all of humanity. 

For every person revered by history, the first thing we often remember is what they did – not what they said.  We see this tendency reflected in the time-honored English maxim, “actions speak louder than words.”  Yet, there is a basic irony in this conventional wisdom.  Every one of these historical figures were first and foremost – great communicators.  Their words are what inspired action.  Absent that, we never would have known who these famous leaders were.  Their monumental visions of change would have lived and died as merely unrealized thoughts.

Indeed, the world’s greatest triumphs all began as nothing more than ideas – raw and unrefined at their inception.  One’s ability to explain that great idea to others and translate it into action can only be done with powerful communication.  Great leaders all have insight.  They can see beyond what is – and envision what is possible.  Winston Churchill was a great leader because he was a great orator.  Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech rallied a nation to confront its painful history of racial discrimination.  Mother Teresa’s simple, powerful devotionals and daily meditations continue to inspire future generations to charity and service.

Like their predecessors from history, today’s great leaders can only truly lead with the skills of “communication fluency”.  This capability is what allows them to build bridges between cultures, resolve conflicts and inspire progress.  Leaders who communicate with fluency can also create successful business ventures that generate wealth, improve living standards in underserved populations and lift many out of poverty.  Learning communication fluency has two basic requirements:  first, we must recognize the problems and shortcomings with our conventional wisdom and methods.  Second, we need to embrace a new approach to language use and communication.

The Problem

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” (George Bernard Shaw)

In our world today, global communication is on life-support, a fact that most do not acknowledge or fully understand.  Why are our communication skills in such rapid decline and on the verge of an unceremonious demise?   The problem is rooted in our conventional wisdom which has no regard for the true essence of communication fluency.  This deficit is compounded by technology.  While our means of communication have become more sophisticated – and purportedly more convenient – technology makes us less effective in our interactions with others.  The first crucial step on the road to communication fluency, therefore, requires an understanding and acceptance of the root cause of our predicament.  Beyond any doubt, the culprit hides in our conventional wisdom.

George Bernard Shaw in 1914, aged 57, PD-US-unpublished

‘Conventional Wisdom’

Conventional wisdom is the notion that certain ideas or beliefs are so generally accepted, they must never be challenged.  While often anchored in truth, conventional wisdom is routinely wrong as evidenced by the fact that science once believed the world was flat.  The same body of scientific thought – or conventional wisdom – later contended that Earth was the center of the Universe.  It was a good thing for all of us that some had the courage and conviction to challenge those commonly held beliefs.

When it comes to understanding global communication skills, today’s conventional wisdom rivals the belief that the world was flat.  We have a distorted and incomplete view of the essence and efficacy of effective and persuasive communication.  As a starting point, we think of communication as a skill that is tangential or peripheral to actual knowledge.  However, knowledge and communication each are inseparable parts of the other.  One cannot function without the other because we cannot effectively communicate what we do not know.  Knowledge, therefore, is at the heart of communication fluency.

One of the biggest fallacies of conventional wisdom is that those who speak a common language understand each other.  The ability of two or more people to use a common vocabulary and the same grammar rules does not necessarily lead to a mutual understanding.  Ordering a meal or asking for directions in a foreign country is one thing.  Simple, basic and factual.  It is relatively easy to communicate and be understood in these situations.  The margin for error is small and any mistake usually can be overcome with ease.  The more complex the situation, however, the more likely it is that a misunderstanding will occur.  These complexities are routinely encountered by business professionals.  For example, negotiating a business deal, making a presentation or counseling a client are events that require us to express our opinions, attitudes, beliefs, perceptions or preferences.  Here, we must use language to persuade within a specific cultural paradigm.  It is in these challenging circumstances that we most often confront the problems and obstacles that separate us from communication fluency.    

The ability to speak a common language is not synonymous with the ability to communicate effectively.  Yet, we instinctively – and mistakenly assume we share the same cultural values of our target audience when we use a common language.  We tend to mirror image our own values on others, assuming our general knowledge, motivations and methods are equivalent to those with whom we seek to communicate.  When communications breakdown we are at a loss to understand why.  The failure wasn’t caused by our foreign accent, mispronunciations or even our grammatical errors – even though they are the first things we tend to blame.  The truth is that our communication failed for lack of knowledge.  We lacked essential knowledge of different business practices, cultures, etiquettes, habits and attitudes.  These are the core elements of a cultural paradigm within which all communications must occur – regardless of language.  Imagine how different our communication would be if instead we consciously reflected a sensitivity and understanding of these diverse factors when we used our second language.  For example, instead of searching for words to describe our position in a negotiation, we first considered the cultural and industry particularities of our negotiating partner.  Then, we formulated a strategic response that conveyed this understanding.  In any language, that is the approach of persuasion.  Yet without demonstrating this understanding to those we seek to influence, we cannot persuade.  This is because we cannot communicate what we do not know.  Communication fluency, therefore, requires knowledge.

Technology 

Our “problem” with communication fluency is further exacerbated by technology.  Indeed, we have become victims of our own success.  Thanks to technological advancements, we now live in a highly connected global environment.  The internet, cell phones and social media allow us access to one another in real time across continents and time zones.  Our linked world has created new and lucrative commercial opportunities for international businesses.  Despite these great achievements, our collective ability to communicate has not improved.  Rather, it has become much worse.    

The world is now addicted to social media and other virtual methods of communication.  These tools allow us to connect with others quickly and efficiently – often at the expense of accuracy and comprehension.  This addiction has destroyed our attention spans and patience.  We now expect to be informed and to understand things at the speed of light – well beyond what is otherwise reasonable.  Likewise, our patience for listening to others continues to grow shorter with every new app or method of virtual communication.    

The Perils of Multi-Tasking

The practice of “multi-tasking” has become a common – and even admired practice amongst busy professionals.  Current conventional wisdom is that multi-taskers are more efficient because they can double their efficiency by doing several tasks at once.  In truth, however, this habit is much more a vice than virtue as it often leads to many unforced errors and self-inflicted wounds.  Recent studies have found that when a person “multi-tasks” or seeks to do two or more things at the same time, he becomes less efficient every time he switches his attention between tasks.  In a study published by Stanford University in 2018, researchers found an interesting – and perhaps ominous paradox between heavy and occasional multi-taskers.  Although more practiced at the undertaking, heavy multi-taskers were found to be much worse at switching between tasks than light multi-taskers.  Heavy multi-taskers also were more easily distracted by irrelevant external cues.  Further, their memory and recall were poor, and they had difficulty filtering out environmental distractions.[1]  These are consequences that make it difficult, if not impossible to learn a second language – let alone anything of substance.

Today’s business professionals are heavy multi-taskers – often not by choice but by necessity.  The demands of clients, managerial duties and other essential job responsibilities require that they remain available and connected during work and after hours.  As a result, it is common to see working professionals routinely check emails or texts during important meetings, conference calls or networking events.  The issue isn’t that professionals’ multi-task.  Rather, the problem is that professionals have become addicted to a practice that they abuse – instead of using it as a tool of necessity.  Every time we try to read an email or text while doing something else – we divide our attention and set ourselves up for failure.  Our multi-tasking becomes nothing more than a distraction.  When we are distracted, we become passive, not active listeners.  As passive listeners, we will miss crucial information which limits our understanding and knowledge of a given situation.  Passive listeners do not lead.  Passive listeners fail because they do not fully understand the dynamics of a given situation.  Passive listeners never communicate with fluency.  Don’t be a passive listener.

Email communication is perhaps one of the greatest sources of misunderstanding, miscommunication and risk in our contemporary business world.  This is because most of today’s business professionals over-rely on email as the preferred and primary means of business communication.  By this choice, they put themselves at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to communication fluency.  They deprive themselves of the opportunity to hear the tone of someone’s voice or inflection that they would hear on the telephone or in person.  While necessary in our global business world, email is a very limited form of communication.  It does not allow us to observe facial expressions, tone of voice, demeanor, reactions and all other essential dimensions of communication.  Because it is a limited form of communication, email should supplement, not supplant strategic and important business communications.  The misuse and overreliance on email is a universal problem as it causes misunderstandings between two native speakers of the same language.  When over-relied upon by professionals using a second language, the problem of email miscommunication is significantly compounded.             

These commonly accepted workplace practices hinder our ability to communicate with fluency.  Compromised or ineffective communications often result in fractured business relationships and/or lost commercial opportunities.  The negative communication consequences of social media are also universal as they occur with similar frequency between native speakers of the same mother tongue.  It is not hard to imagine the significant additional challenges that ensue when professionals of different companies attempt to communicate in a language that is the second language of one or both speakers.  Yet that very scenario is now a reality in the international commercial world.  We must challenge our conventional wisdom by accepting that knowledge is at the center of, and inseparable from effective communication.  We must also accept the limits of email and social media as communication methods and modify our behavior accordingly.  Once we have taken these two steps, we have embraced the problem.  Only then, are we ready to navigate the road leading to communication fluency.

In Part 2 of “The Essential Partnership of Knowledge & Communication,” the authors provide specific solutions and new approaches to helping international business leaders become great communicators.


[1] Media multi-tasking, mind and brain; Melinda R. Uncapher, Anthony D. Wagner, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Oct 2018, 115 (40) 9899-9896; DOI: 10.1073/pnas. 1611612115.

Representing Asian Clients in High Stakes US Jury Trials

When it comes to trial practice, there are no short cuts to success. High risk trials are not won by the best trial lawyer in the courtroom, but rather by the lawyer who is best prepared. A successful strategy for trial preparation in a complex case is multi-faceted. When representing an Asian company or firm at trial in the United States, special considerations should be factored into the strategic plan to ensure a successful result. The attached article provides a conceptual framework and basic considerations for doing so.

This article was written by M-POWER Senior Partner Lisa Marchese, and first appeared in the June 2008 edition of IPBA Journal, the official publication of the Inter-Pacific Bar Association, published by LexisNexis.

Email Best Practices for Legal Security

This slideshow emphasizes the importance of using business email communications wisely and sparingly, especially when discussing sensitive matters.

Email records from business leaders have been subpoenaed and used to prove a leader’s knowledge and/or direction of company activities that were misleading, questionable, or illegal, and cost the company millions (or led to the company’s downfall), or exposed personal activities or viewpoints that cost the executive their career and reputation.

M-POWER partner Lisa Marchese developed this presentation to outline key legal examples and offer practical guidelines for using email to discuss sensitive corporate matters and personal affairs.