Language can save lives

I recently wrote this piece for Maersk Line’s internal news site which I’m the editor of. It was published last week and attracted a lot of comments, the large majority of them positive.

Editorial: Language can save lives

20131007_grandma

The image above is a funny example writers use to bring home the point that how you express yourself matters. Of course, nobody of sane mind would consider eating their grandma. Let’s bring it closer to home – to last month’s naming ceremony for the Majestic Mærsk.

Ship namings are also frequently referred to as christenings. Christening translates into the Danish dåb, which covers the meaning of another word in English: baptism. As a Dane, you might be tempted to use the two English words interchangeably. The difference, however, is tangible. Originally a theological discussion point, the act of christening implies the sprinkling of water, while baptism refers to totally submerging a body under water. If you did that to a ship, it would be a disaster.

Understanding your colleagues is important in any business, but even more so in one as culturally and geographically diverse as Maersk Line. With so many people using English as their second or third language, you are bound to occasionally meet quirky examples of ‘Danglish’ which would make a real Londoner squirm. When has it ever been proper English to say so long so good, go in and, both and, or revert (in the meaning: get back to)?

And then there are the ubiquitous bad habits of business language. Is ASAP just a nice way of saying “I didn’t plan ahead in time, and now you have to feel my wrath”? Do you really need those beloved acronyms? Back when we were sending telexes it made sense, because you paid by the character. Wake-up call: emails are not telexes. You are allowed to write proper words to people, and they will most likely get your message better if you do. Of course, you shouldn’t write a full novel, either. But try, just for a second, to imagine yourself as the reader – do you get the message?

Not everyone is an expert on language, nor should they be. I’m not an expert on business strategy or security, or shipping for that matter. But I do need a basic understanding of these fields to perform my job without making a fool of myself, or worse, damage the company. The same goes for language, and communication in general. It is a tool we all use, and as with most tools you don’t think about it until it breaks; in this case when someone misunderstands you. Cultural differences and language barriers can result in tasks not getting done in the desired way, or you coming across as arrogant or non-commited. (Unless you are arrogant, which is a somewhat different issue.)

This is not just about how we act internally. The simple fact is that the way you talk to your colleagues spills over to how we talk to customers. Do we really want to lose out on business because of failing to listen to a customer and talk/write to him in way that makes sense? The newly launched Maersk Line brand puts the customer smack in the centre of who we are as a company; and the accompanying tone of voice is an integral part of how we present ourselves to customers.

We should not let our collective impatience and love of instant messaging tools devolve into a state where we forget to employ constant care, also in the realm of language.

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