Communication has been on my mind a lot recently, and how as people we are able to mold our behavior and assess the situation to evaluate how to best get our ideas across.
I recently returned from a 10-day-long family vacation to Slovenia, the country of all four of my grandparents’ birth. By “family” I mean a whole ton of family. Thirty-seven of us climbed a mountain together, and the trip culminated in a 123-person-sized family reunion at my uncle’s winery.
We visiting Americans encountered these age-old, traditional human barriers to communication, trying to speak to great-aunts and uncles who didn’t necessarily speak English, or successfully speaking with the youngest generation of relatives who all know at least four languages, including English.
Still, there were some humorous moments of miscommunication, even with the young cousins whose English vocabulary is better than most kids in America. As a group of us in our 20s was hiking down the mountain, the topic of massages came up. “I get a thigh massage every year,” a Slovenian cousin said, mispronouncing the word “Thai.” The Americans were confused. “Just one thigh or both?” an American cousin asked.
Coming back to America, I thought a lot about how I connected with my European family through various forms of communication, from humorous moments of getting the wrong word out, to singing over Laško (a Slovenian beer) and accordion music for hours throughout the night, to polka dancing and exchanging smiles with different family members when we switched partners, to receiving a bundle of lavender or some small, thoughtful trinket from a relative.
Meanwhile, back at work, I’ve been assigned a story about communicating with artificial intelligence for Workforce’s sister publication, Talent Economy. This is a very unhuman method of communication. One thing I learned is that on the employee side, there may be some frustration. Employees may want to speak to a real person and not a robot when they’re asking questions or trying to communicate. The thought of conversing with something that doesn’t have the flexibility to answer as humans do can be frustrating.
A couple months back I did an interview with Paul Williams, who worked in Ghana for two weeks in a skills exchange program, and one point he made stood out in my mind.
I asked him about any language barrier he, as an American, might have encountered. Williams explained how not only Americans but employees from all over the world (Russia, Egypt, Turkey, etc.) participated in this program.
We talked about how specific a local language, slang or dialect can be, that even people who live in the same country and technically speak the same language might encounter errors in translation with each other. Williams explained that in the training program, he learned how to communicate by relying on language and words as little as possible.
All these experiences with communication got me thinking about how words are just one part of it. For people uneasy about robots, even if technology wants to take over some aspects of communication, it doesn’t have to take the humanity out of how you communicate with others in the world or at work.
Actions, facial expressions, gift-giving, dancing, shared experiences, singing over beer in a cold mountain hut — all these things and more are also perfectly valid (and perfectly human) ways to communicate with others. As a person who in general is apprehensive about some tech solutions and very certain there should be clear ethical guidelines around technology as it advances, after speaking with sources about communicating with AI, I was left feeling less apprehensive.
How all this relates to the workplace might be a bit rocky. All I mean to say is that, for as much as employers discuss employee communication [Open benefits enrollment is coming up, so we’re probably all expecting to see much more communication content taking over our news feeds!], and what the best communication solutions are, I think one important thing to keep in mind is that communication can come in these many, many forms and your communication skills can reflect that.
It’s not just the words you say or the medium you use to share those words, it’s also the body language you use when your speaking to employees, the acknowledgement of people’s successes through the rewards and recognition, the opportunities you give people to show you see potential in them and more.
Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editor. Comment below or email email@example.com.