Posted on March 10, 2016
I just returned from a trip to another country where speaking English was not as common a language as to what I am accustom. I wanted to share an adventure that I took, a little adventure to buy a loaf of bread.
My friends and I would be staying in this city for seven days where we would be teaching language clubs and visiting friends. We were staying in a third-floor apartment owned by a family, that we had never met, that had shown remarkable hospitality by leaving their homes in the hands of strangers and going to stay with their relatives in another part of the city.
It was later in the afternoon on the first day that I went out for a walk in this strange but beautiful surroundings. I had two tasks in mind, first to explore and learn about my surroundings and second, to buy a loaf of bread.
As I journeyed out, the first thing that I noticed was that all signs were in the native language, Kazakh. For some people this might be a problem, however for me, this was just what I would consider an obstacle to overcome. I honestly could not tell the difference between a pharmacy or a hardware store; there is nothing about the Kazakh language that remotely resembles the English vocabulary.
My friend and I decided we would just walk into the first building that looked like a store and take our chances. That is when we found ourselves in an office supply store with copiers and fax machines, we quickly exited the store with everyone looking at us.
We decided to take one more chance, and then with a little luck, we were right there in a small convenient store. I could see our prize right on the other side of the counter, a small loaf of bread. Now, all I needed to do was to communicate to the nice man behind the counter what I needed and pay for it then leave. This is where the real problem came to the surface.
After a brief moment of pointing and speaking slower and louder than normal, the man gathered what the foreigners were pointing to and placed the loaf of bread on the counter. He then picked up a small calculator, pressed a few numbers and then turned it around so we could see the screen. The number that I read was “20” which was just as confusing as the signs outside on the buildings.
I reached into my pocket to pull out a US $20 bill, and the man started shaking his head. (Actually, I was concerned that a loaf of bread would cost $20 US.) I also had local currency, so I pulled out the only thing that I had which was a $5000.00 bill. The man shook his head again, but then took my money and started handing me back my change. We left the little market successful, with our loaf of bread, and what I hoped was the correct change. I also got one other valuable thing from that corner market, a very clear leadership lesson.
What I know is that the man behind the counter had a goal, to sell me a loaf of bread. I had an equally important goal, to buy a loaf of bread. The problem, unable to speak with terms that we both could understand. He spoke a foreign language that I could not even remotely understand, and it was the same for him. In leadership, even when the goal is obvious, we need to make sure that we are speaking and communicating in a way that everyone can clearly understand.
There is one other lesson that we can learn from this interaction. That is that when you are adamant about accomplishing a goal, you can overcome the obstacles that are in the way. I was very proud of myself for buying a loaf of bread in a city where I did not know where to look, and I could not speak the language. The goal when I left the apartment was to come back with a loaf of bread. Goal — Accomplished!
On a side note, when paying for the bread, I had given the man the equivalent of nearly $15 US dollars. The price of the loaf of bread was less than .60 cents.
This week’s challenge is to spend some time focusing on communication. Make sure that you are speaking the same language as your team. Don’t assume that words you are speaking are the same words they are hearing.