Announcing the Launch of the Work Literacy Network
Nominations for the Comment Challenge Winners and Announcing Web 2.0 Wednesdays

You Say "Tomato," I Say "Tomahto"

Organic_tomatoes_2 I'm working with the folks over at the e-Learning Guild on a project and had the opportunity yesterday to get a guided tour through their incredibly rich data. One of the practice searches we ran was to look at which online conferencing tools were being adopted in different sectors. What was interesting was that the tools being used by most businesses were NOT the same as the tools being used by education and government. It was like every sector from aerospace to retail was on the same page and then there were the two outliers--the educational community and government agencies.

This got me speculating on not only why this occurs, but, more importantly (to me) how this illustrates a gaping chasm between what happens in business and what's happening in education and government. Now I'm not suggesting that businesses, education and government should all be using the same tools. I recognize that different sectors have different needs and, therefore, might be more likely to use different tools. But what I wonder is if this doesn't contribute to a communication gap? Using the same technology tools tends to give us a common frame of reference. When we don't have that, it becomes more difficult for us to communicate. Might this kind of thing be both a symptom and a cause of communication difficulties between business, education and government?

I suspect that this is on my mind because I've been doing some thinking about something I noticed during the Comment Challenge. Several of the Challenge activities provoked some surprisingly (to me) negative reactions from participants, which, upon further investigation, seemed to indicate that we were having some issues with the language I used.

The first time I noticed this was in the activity where I suggested that people create a comment "policy" for their blogs. Several participants indicated that they didn't like the idea of a "policy" governing comments--they wanted people to be free to say whatever. This caught me off-guard. I personally hate policies (when used in the sense of rules) and I was thinking more along the lines of guidelines when I came up with the activity. But since most people call it a "comment policy" and I knew what I meant, I didn't think twice--just used the commonly referred to concept. That clearly didn't go over well, though.

This happened a few other times, too--on the activity where I asked people to consider how commenting impacting their personal "brand (another word people hated) and the next day when I suggested developing a commenting "strategy."

What I observed in this process was that the people who didn't care for these words tended to come from education, where "policy," "branding" and "strategy" may have some more negative connotations than I intended. It got me to thinking about the issue of culture and communication and how when we don't share a common framework of understanding--when discussions are framed using words that carry powerful positive or negative emotional weight--they can seriously impact communication and trust. (Read George Lakoff's article on framing and politics to see what I'm talking about).

One of the benefits of homophily, of course is that it creates this common cultural language. If I say "brand" to a group of marketers, that's a really positive word--everyone understands and supports the concept. As soon as we start trying to expand beyond our usual circles, though, (like using the word "brand" with educators), issues of language begin to loom larger, even when we think that we all mean the same thing.

All of this has me wondering what we can do to encourage cross-community conversations by being more purposeful in our discussions about language. I can see, for example, that I should have explained in more detail what I meant by some of the words I used during the Challenge activities. This might have prevented some misunderstandings and helped me be clearer myself about what I meant. It also, presumably, would have improved the learning experience for Challenge participants.

It also has me realizing that one of the key work literacy skills we need to cultivate is cultural competence, and not just in the traditional sense of being able to work with people of different racial/ethnic backgrounds or with people from different countries. There are cultures all over the place--in different professions, organizations, and communities. They may or may not give the same emotional weight to certain words that we do. It becomes critical for us to be able to recognize when language is impeding our communications and find other ways to operate within the same frames of reference.

What do you think? How can we address these kinds of issues to improve the quality of our communications with others who may not share our same frames of reference? How can we nurture these skills in cultural competence to improve both our personal learning as well as our interactions and work?


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Hi Michele,
You're right! I just returned from the NAFSA conference in Washington(see a panel in the Wednesday plenary involved a discussion about how to deal with problems in how the USA is seen by other countries these days. One panelist wanted to use a business approach to correct problems with the USA "brand." For another panelist, a self-proclaimed "philosopher" branding had all the worst stereotypical connotations of a dishonest used car salesman, implying all "hype" to get a sale rather than an honest presentation of the USA. He felt talking about the brand was not talking about anything of substance but only of presentation. In substance, it was clear that they agreed on many or even on most points, but in style? Certainly not!

I'm a bit in between here. It DOES seem to me that US business is constantly coming up with new buzz words, and branding is perhaps a more recent way to talking about what might have otherwise been called "reputation" or "good name" except that it branding does include the look and style as important elements. The American business approach also took the form of point by point problem solving, while the "philosopher" approach was one to look more to the structure of the relationships, correcting policies that were abusive, and so on.

Similar buzz word tendancies are of course found in the academic world where ideas are "deconstructed," which is apparently not the same thing as torn down, and concepts are "reified" (removing, I guess, the intangible and dynamic nature of these non-things).

In government I am certain there are many notorious examples beyond the code words used by the right and the left to tarnish each other.

With language use, context is everything.

I too was surprised by some of the reactions by the K-12 education sector of the comment challenge. I found myself feeling out of place, wondering if I could participate from my place as an adult educator. Would the language I use be seen as problematic? After all, it's hard to see outside ourselves to know what might be interpreted differently.

Yes, cultural competence is just as important as web skills to develop for workplace literacy. Can we learn to meet each other with curiosity?

I suspect we see these type of differences in the intercultural world a lot since it is an applied field extending across disciplines. I'm often amazed at how many differences people can tease out of similarity.

Kia Ora Michele

And it's all in the way you hold your mouth :-)

If you haven't already read Bill Bryson's book Mother Tongue, I'd recommend it. There are several chapters where he speaks of the very thing you talk of in your post - about being culturally aware when using words (language). A brilliant read, hilariously funny.

His Short History of Nearly Everything can only match it with the wealth of information that he puts across in so easy-to-read chapters.

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

Betsy, great stories on the branding issue! It's clear that "branding" is one of those buzz words that elicits some really strong reactions from people, which really underscores your point that context is everything. What's interesting is that it takes skill, I think, to be aware of these language differences and to begin trying to pull them apart to understand where people are coming from. Both you and Christine, because of your backgrounds, definitely have a lot to teach the rest of us on this!

Thinking about the Challenge as a learning activity, you bring up an interesting point, Christine, about feeling like an outsider. This is something I'm struggling with a little in wanting to engage with a broader audience, because it feels like there are so many pitfalls terms of how you can inadvertently discourage community through your use of words.

And Ken--thanks for the book recommendation--I love Bill Bryson and "A Short History of Nearly Everything" was a great read. Now I'm going to have to check out Mother Tongue, especially since I also need a good laugh. :-)

Great question, Michele.

It may be tribal or maybe even biological to defend the values in which we have invested time, effort, and action. But to reach beyond our mental neighborhood, we'll have to bridge the divide over connotation ourselves, with or without a cultural competence initiative.

During a recent job interview (training manager role), I asked the panel of interviewers a question the left them a bit flummoxed: "How does, or can, training help you win more research grants?" Seemed to me that was how the role should be measured.

My model of results connoted "measurable and quantitative," "near- to medium-term," "cause-effect." A business perspective. Theirs, I now believe, connoted "indirect influence, qualitative," "long- to very-long term," and "broad support."

My observation, which which should make me a more facile translator in the follow up interviews, is that goals and the words in which they're expressed carry the values of the institutions to which we've committed ourselves. Among educators and public servants, those values are also personal values to a greater degree than among people in business.

I wonder if your education readers would have reacted as strongly to "authentic you" as they did to "personal brand?" And would business people think those terms are synonyms?

BTW, long time lurker and first time commenter. Thanks for keeping the discussion going.

Hi Michele,
Thank you for raising this question.
As @John Roberts just said,the words we use to express our goals carry the values we praise and serve.
Cultural Competence, as a skill, could be a sort of "ethnology",I mean a very specific knowledge about the different "constellation" of values and the particular vocabulary used to express them by the different groups that compose society.
To be culturally competent would mean that we would be able to identify different contexts where the same words may gain positive or negative connotations, according to the "language game" where they may occur.
One could even become a "specialist" in this field and be asked for advice or be consulted to clarify concepts in cases of conflict inside a community - a commercial or an educative institution, for instance - or to build bridges between different communities - as it happened during the Comment Challenge, where our democratic discussion and reciprocal explanation finally solved the issues about polemic expressions such as "policy" or "brand".
Ines Pinto

John, thanks for your thoughtful comment--I think you're right that a term like "authentic you" might have gone over better with an education audience than "branding." Lately, "authentic" seems to be a big brand word, so maybe that would have worked with business people too.

I also think your observation that educators and public servants have personal values that are more aligned with their work is an interesting one. I wonder 1) if it's totally true and 2) if so, why that would be?

And Inpi--I think that there's definitely a place for people who are able to facilitate these kinds of discussions among different cultures. I'd like to see this as a core competency for people, but recognize that we're not very close to that, so having people who keep an eye out for these issues and try to help facilitate the discussions is even more critical.

@Ken and Michele Add Don Watson's (2004) 'Weasel Words: contemporary clichés, cant, and management jargon' to your list of great reads. Watson provides perhaps a little wry insight into why 'academics' get crosser than normal when abominations like 'core-values' are invented by 'marketing executives' and when perfectly good words like 'accountability' and 'branding' are 'massaged' into pretentious and silly usage. Harrumph!

Last summer I wrote a post titled "Knowledge In Translation" (link from my name) that touches on some of these questions. A couple of key points:

"...knowledge work is often an act of translation. Not from one language to another (though that undoubtedly happens, too), but within the native tongue of the knowledge worker. The translation, then, is one of culture not language, but instead of having to translate between British English and American English or Mexican Spanish and Spanish Spanish, knowledge workers have to translate between Engineering and Production or Sales and Human Resources."

"Just because all of your knowledge workers have the same knowledge doesn’t mean they all “know” the same thing."

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