As a youngster I worked on AS/400 systems. One day I needed
to go from our U.S. corporate headquarters to our manufacturing facility in
Tijuana, Mexico, to help install some dumb terminals and printers. I'd fly from
Phoenix to San Diego and then walk across the border, where I was picked up by
the manufacturing guys. Border crossings were more manageable in those days,
since you could get over and back with only a driver's license.
Being raised in the southwestern U.S., I've been around Spanish-speaking people my whole life. Despite this -- and the Spanish classes I took in high school -- I never really picked up the language. So when I go south of the border, I have to hope I run into English-speakers.
On this particular trip I remember trying to communicate with the crew I was working with. Only the office manager spoke English; the others at the plant did not. Somehow we got everything to work, but the language barrier made for a long and occasionally exasperating day.
I still run into some of the same thing with international teams. When I worked at IBM I remember a project where the developers were in Germany writing code, while the servers and the administrators (including me) were in the U.S. Although their English was good (certainly much better than my non-existent German), we still had to overcome time zone differences and other little misunderstandings along the way.
Interacting with others around the world, I can tell you that language barriers can be quite frustrating. Over the years I've had numerous discussions that bordered on games of charades (or perhaps, Pictionary) -- different groups of people diagramming, pantomiming or simply guessing at what the other side was saying. Honestly, during those moments it's tempting to view those who don't speak your language as less intelligent. I suppose others could have looked at me that way, too -- particularly since so many people in other countries at least have a grasp of English, whereas I don't speak any foreign language. Sometimes in these situations the written word is more easily understood than the spoken word. After all, there are no accents in email or instant messaging communications.
Despite some difficulties here and there, I have mostly fond
memories of these interactions. For instance the engagement with the Germans
ended well. The German team came over for the go-live, and I got to play tour
guide. During some down days we went sightseeing around Colorado. I still
remember driving the car out of the Rocky Mountain National Park while a
baseball game was in progress on the radio. It was fun to try to explain a game
they had never seen based on solely on the announcer's descriptions of the
I've been on the other side of this, too. A few years ago I was in South Africa visiting family when the South Africans were taking on Australia in cricket. This was a big deal there. TV broadcasts trumpeted the big "five-day test." What I remember is that after the five days, the thing somehow ended in a tie. The locals tried to explain it to me, but I never did quite get what the fuss was all about. Of course, back home, the NFL postseason was going on, and I could never get the South Africans to understand either the game of American football in general or why I was so interested in those playoff scores.
Do you interact with friends, family or coworkers from other countries? What methods do you use to help make sense of one another?