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Breaking Barriers with Common Ground - My Insight From Nulab’s General Meeting 2018
Greetings and salutations! Jean-Pierre here!
We recently had our company-wide General Meeting. It was my third time having the privilege of attending. As usual, it really was a fun time for all involved. I remember from previous General Meetings loving seeing and drinking (too much) with everyone, especially at the event-closing “Nulab Night”. But this time around, things felt different. I tried to pay attention to how people were communicating and how they overcame the obstacles they inevitably encountered. Actually, it was a bit of a revelation.
At the General Meeting, we have everyone from our international offices join us. There are Chinese, Taiwanese, American, French, and even Dutch people in addition to our already diverse group of foreigners who work and live in Japan. This really creates a cultural melting pot, and when crossing so many cultures, challenges emerge. Even if everyone from our Japanese offices could speak English well enough, there would still be accents, dialects, and levels of ability to weed through on `the way to smooth communication. Of course, some people don’t have a very high skill level when it comes to English, and it is of these people that I was most proud.
(Nulabers enjoying the spring sunshine on the roof. We are a diverse group!)
As I live in Japan (going on 4 years now), I’ve done my best to assimilate the language and culture. I have the benefit of a Japanese wife and her supportive family, as well as being assistant to our CEO (Masa) who speaks great English, allowing me to communicate myself well enough most of the time. Either through my own studies and abilities with the Japanese language, or through my peers’ English knowledge, there are not many situations that I cannot overcome at this stage in my life in Japan. To get to this point however, took much work.
Even with all those supports that I had, it can be a daunting task to learn the language, and with that language you must learn the culture. They are intrinsically intertwined. Many of my friends and family from Canada have asked me what it is like to live in Japan. My reply always goes something like this:
It is like being born again. You get off a plane, and suddenly you can’t speak. You can’t read or write. Someone has to show you how to use the toilet, the shower. Every mannerism or motion you make with your hands is confusing or outright wrong. Can you drive? Great! How about on the left side of the road? It is from here, at point zero, that you begin to learn everything anew. And gradually, through trial and error (lots of error) you begin to have successes and new understandings. You build on those successes until you are functional. So when I meet all these nulabers at the General Meeting who feel the way I felt when I first came here, who understand little to nothing, I’m sympathetic.
(David, participating in our workshop on how to make the perfect cup of coffee)
This was illustrated well during the first day of the GM, while I was riding in the elevator with one of our guys from the New York office, David. The elevator made a stop on the 2nd floor where the doors opened to find Angela, our HR director. We spoke for 30 seconds about some meeting and where to find Masa, all the while in Japanese. The doors closed and my ride with David continued. He sat there and politely smiled, and it dawned on me that he had no idea what just happened, or what was said.
I explained to David what we had talked about, realizing that it all had gone over his head, and it reminded me of myself those years ago. Our conversation in Japanese had not been anything high-level, but still there was not a word uttered that he could grasp. I began to feel a little sorry for him and the others who were visiting. Like that they perhaps couldn’t get the most from their trip, or there was something that they would be missing out on because of the communication barrier. I mean, they still had a week to go in Japan. In hindsight, I was very wrong to feel this way.
(Angela teaches a group how to lay down a beat)
David and all of our team from abroad really made me proud. During the week long meeting, workshops were held on everything from technical topics to how to play to the drums. Even skateboarding! Instead of people struggling to communicate, becoming ever-frustrated as I had feared, I saw friendships blossom. I think it really came down to “common-language”. We all had something in common. Whether it was our jobs, a love of Japan, or a fondness for beating on a snare drum. Even people with low English abilities had a lot in common, and as such, a lot to talk about with everyone. Even people with no Japanese ability were eager to learn, practice, and digest everything around them. Common-language had given people a stepping stone to good communication. More important though, it gave them something fun to talk about.
I would have thought that putting so many people from so many backgrounds in a room together would be very challenging. Instead, they surprised me and found common ground. They rose to the challenge, and in true nulab fashion, made it fun. From tea rooms to skateboarding, drums to sake tastings, nulabers from around the globe found ways to connect. These meaningful interactions help us grow together, and keep us working well all year round, regardless of where we work. It was a beautiful thing.
(Reza enjoying the tea room while Shammel hams it up for the camera)
If you are every in a situation where you are working with people on an international team, and you worry about how to get your message across, try finding common ground and build upon it. If you can share your passions, then it makes communication less of a job, and more of a journey. And journeys are always better done together.
(If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. - African Proverb, Masa’s favorite)