Lisa Marchese had a hard time finding the joy in Christmas this year, but an expected fall during a morning run reignited her Christmas spirit
(Note: This article initially appeared in KGW, an affiliate TV station of NBC in Portland.)
Photo: Lisa Marchese, who grew up in Seattle but now lives and works in Italy, sits at her computer in her home looking at the current statistics of new cases and watching the Minister of Health’s press conference on TV.
Author: Lisa M. Marchese Published: 10:30 AM PST December 21, 2020 Updated: 10:38 AM PST December 21, 2020
MILAN, Italy — Editors Note: Lisa Marchese is a lawyer from Seattle who moved to Milan, Italy last year before COVID-19 struck. Reporter Pat Dooris knows Lisa from their high school days and began chatting with her on social media as the first wave of the pandemic surged through Italy. She wrote a reflection on that experience here. Now, she finds herself unable to return home for Christmas. This is her story:
For as long as I can remember, Christmas has been my favorite holiday. No matter how bad the year had been personally, professionally, or otherwise, I could set it all aside when the Christmas season began. Once all the lights and decorations went up, smiling became as effortless as breathing. If Christmas was my favorite holiday, the season of Christmas was my most reliable friend.
COVID-19 seems to have changed everything familiar in our lives. It has been the gift that keeps on taking, robbing us of our loved ones and livelihoods. It has isolated us from our family and friends. It has banished us from public and turned our homes into prison cells. So, when COVID-19 cheated me out of spending the holidays with my family I lost it. That is until I found my salvation in a fallen tree branch and a handsome stranger on a foggy winter morning in Milan.
Given my love of Christmas, I should have welcomed the arrival of the season with open arms. Yet when the beautiful lights and decorations went up in the center of Milan a few weeks ago, I hardly noticed. I was still stuck on the image of my computer screen flashing a cancelled flight to Seattle. With a few keystrokes, the Christmas I had known since childhood became a painful memory. As tears streamed down my face, the realization that I would spend Christmas alone hit me like a ton of bricks. That was when I lost my way and was blinded by anger and resentment.
In that moment, I had a new resolve. It wasn’t a healthy one. I wiped away my tears, declared war on Christmas, and became a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge. No tree, no decorations, no presents, no Christmas. I would stay hunkered down in my apartment. Like Scrooge, I would distract myself with work while counting pennies and refusing to turn up the heat. Humbug to it all! Yet even in this blinding rage, I could still see the shadows of what I was becoming, and I didn’t like it at all. ut anger isn’t always a bad thing. It lets you know you are still alive. And sometimes, it leads to your redemption.
Like any big city, Milan has its share of street people and panhandlers. Since moving here over a year ago, I was struck by the generosity of Italians toward these people, so much so that my heart and wallet slowly opened-up to them too. After a while, it became a habit to drop whatever spare change I had into someone’s hand or cup. Neither the pandemic nor the lockdown had changed their reality. They were still on the streets and they still needed help. But in my new Scrooge persona, it was now easy for me to ignore them with disdain. Yet the gratification was temporary and fleeting. The shame I felt was far more powerful than the anger. I was stuck in this awful place with no apparent escape. Then the most amazing thing happened. I wasn’t visited by 3 ghosts or anything that cool. But I was, quite literally knocked to my senses.
I like to run in early the morning while Milan is still sleeping. It lets me enjoy a busy city in solitude before everyone else wakes up. Last Sunday, I was out the door while it was still dark. It was a perfect crisp winter morning that let me relish a rising sun against a vibrant blue sky. I was on my favorite route which takes me through 2 amazing city parks and the ever-scenic Piazza del Duomo. When I reached the first park at Porta Venezia, I remember thinking how relieved I was to be off the streets for a few miles because I was sick of seeing Christmas lights and decorations. I had vowed not to celebrate Christmas, so I didn’t want to be reminded of it. More Humbug. The scenery in the park was instantly better. No lights or ornaments on the trees. Infused with my false sense of empowerment, I decided to pick up the pace a bit. I was lost in thoughts that began with “Me”, “I” or “My”. Those thoughts, however, often lead us down a treacherous path. “Maybe I will run another marathon in the Spring.” That was my last thought before I realized I was face down on the ground, covered in mud, writhing in pain. I was so engrossed in my self-absorbed Scrooge monologue that I wasn’t paying any attention to the trail. I never saw the fallen tree branch that caught my toe and launched me head-first into a pile of rocks and mud. My seething anger at the world may have knocked me to my knees. But it was a loose branch, a few rocks and a little bit of mud that knocked me to my senses. My right knee got the worst of it. But as it turns out, my soul got the best of it.
Tripping on a run isn’t all that uncommon, particularly for a runner like me. I have had a few missteps in my day. Usually, I just get up, dust myself off, take a second to laugh at my own stupidity and then I keep running. Whether a race or a training run, I never quit. However, this time things were different. At first, I didn’t know if couldn’t get up or if I didn’t want to get up. Either way, I stayed on the ground, completely stunned. I couldn’t tell what was worse – the pain in my knee or the pain of embarrassment.
After what felt like an eternity, I saw a figure emerge from the fog on the trail. Before I realized it, a fellow runner appeared, offered me his hand, and helped me to my feet. With genuine concern, he asked me if I was hurt and I assured him that I was okay. Then he wished me a Merry Christmas with an effortless smile, and continued on, leaving me stunned once again. Not from the fact that he was drop dead gorgeous, and I looked like a hot mess caked in mud. Rather, I was the recipient of a simple yet significant act of kindness that I am quite certain I did not deserve. Why do we always wait for the Earth to move when so often our redemption can be found in the little things of our lives?
When the pain subsided to a dull roar, I finished the remaining 3 miles of my run. Like before, I was determined never to quit. But this time, I had a new resolve. The physical pain from the fall made me realize I was still alive and had feelings, no matter how hard I tried to suppress them. Declaring war on Christmas was not a solution. It was a selfish diversion. Christmas didn’t fail me. I failed the spirit of Christmas with my ridiculous Scrooge persona. It takes a lot more effort to be a self-absorbed jerk than to extend a hand of help to a stranger.
Dante got me through the first lockdown and the Inferno helped me climb out of my apartment to see the stars again. Now it was Charles Dickens’ turn to save me. Even though I read “A Christmas Carol” every year, usually on Christmas Eve, I had planned to boycott Dickens too. In the wake of my tripping catharsis, however, that storyline was my one consistent thought.
As I hobbled to finish the run that morning, the Dickens’ prose in my head finally gave way to something Viktor Frankl once wrote. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.” Indeed, COVID-19 has stolen so much from so many. It has inflicted gratuitous pain and misery indiscriminately. Yet in that moment, I realized it can never take away our freedom to decide how we will respond. In anger, I opted to be the worst of Scrooge, the worst of myself. But Like Ebenezer, I can also choose redemption.
It is interesting to reflect upon what the world was like in 1843 when Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol”. Victorian England was a harsh reality for most. Slums and slave labor were the mainstays of the Industrial Revolution. The unsanitary living and working conditions in London and other big cities helped spread many deadly diseases. In the span of Dickens’ lifetime, the world endured at least 6 pandemics including smallpox, scarlet fever and typus, diseases that ravaged the European continent and England. By far, Dickens’ reality was far more brutal than ours. Yet from the cruelty of his world Dickens found inspiration to create a story that we still cling to after nearly 200 years. If Dickens could find hope in the daunting challenges of his day, who am not to look for the hope that exists in ours?
Ever since that Sunday morning, I have been thinking about Ebenezer, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and that wonderful story. I have read and re-read it, letting the words both fill me and haunt me. What draws us to this story, year after year? For starters, Dickens captured the redemptive power of Christmas when he described it as, “the only time. . .in the long calendar year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave.” When my time here is done, what good will the loose change be that stayed in my pocket? Wouldn’t it have been put to better use in the hands of someone in need?
The global pandemic has pushed all of us beyond our limits. In my frustration, I gave in to anger over circumstances that were far beyond my control and it got me nowhere. As I continued to read, I stumbled again. This time on another passage I had read many times but never fully appreciated. “Reflect on your present blessings – of which every man has many – not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” I have so much to be grateful for. My family, my health, my friends, my work, the roof over my head. Every morning that I wake up is a new gift and opportunity for something amazing to happen. How I decide to spend that day is forever my choice. COVID-19 can never take that way from any of us.
Dickens understood the power of smiling in the face of adversity. He could have been describing COVID-19 when he wrote, “While there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing more contagious as laughter and good humor.” When I think back to my fateful Sunday morning, it is easy to laugh at how ridiculous I must have looked in my trendy muddy attire while running through the fashion capital of the world. COVID-19 may have taken away a shared dinner table, but not my ability to laugh with family and friends. We just do it on a video call now. We are as loud and irreverent as ever. Everyone still talks over everyone else and we still need to explain jokes to certain family members repeatedly. After all, “it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.” The imagination of a child is a wonderful thing.
The truth is, we need the spirit of Christmas in our lives, now more than ever. Not just on December 25th, but every day. As we try to be better, we will see our reflections in the humility of Bob Cratchit, the enthusiasm of Fred or the generosity of Tiny Tim. We will also stumble and fall when our hearts turn cold and miserly. But like Scrooge, we can be redeemed. The choice is always ours to make. I like to think that a loose tree branch, a little bit of mud and a handsome stranger helped me make the better choice to honor the spirit of Christmas once again.
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.
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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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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).”
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.
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.
the U.S. for Italy
‘Italy, home to La Dolce Vita‘
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
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.
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.
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.
beginning of the outbreak
‘Sudden and unexpected silence‘
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
‘My apartment feels like a crypt‘
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘Everyone has disengaged‘
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘I, too, want to see the stars again’
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Do English idioms make you ill
at ease?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
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
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
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.
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”).
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.
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
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. English is also the most studied language in the world It is also the formal language in 70 countries worldwide.
English is the universal language of the international business world. 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. 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. Roughly 56% of all websites are in English. It is also the medium for 80% of the information stored on the world’s computers. 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.
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.
 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.
Bozena. “Which countries study which
languages and what can we learn from it?”
Duolingo, May 5, 2016.
UK. (November 2018). Why Is English Considered a Global Language? Retrieved
“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.
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 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.
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
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.