Focus: Language

by Mara Zavagno

I was born in Italy in 1973, in a village called Spilimbergo, which is famous for the Mosaic School of Friuli. My family has a long history of being involved in mosaic art and painting, and I feel art is very much in my blood.

I have a Bachelor’s in Political Science, and I have worked in Human Resources for 23 years. I feel fortunate to do a job that is also my passion. After a long career in international companies in Italy, I moved to Düsseldorf in 2014 for an international assignment and am currently still living in Düsseldorf. I am the Vice President of HR for a business area in Konecranes, a company headquartered in Finland. Most importantly, since 2019, I have been appointed Chief Diversity and Inclusion officer for the company. I feel that it is a privilege to do a job that gives me a great sense of purpose, respecting and valuing people’s differences and uniqueness; it enriches a company. It is also a lever that allows the company to be more agile, innovative, and responsive to customers in these uncertain times. There is an ongoing radical transformation in the job market, in new generations’ expectations, in the social responsibility that we have as individuals and professionals.

Following this calling, since 2019, I have been a Board Member of the International School of Düsseldorf, and I am working closely with younger generations to help them embrace an open, global mindset and be nurtured by innovation, intentional learning, and agility in adapting to changes.

My family is international – my husband is originally from Bangkok – and I believe the future is in internationalism, and in cultural diversity savviness.

Diversity and Inclusion is like the job of an artist: “You have your raw material, beautiful colours and a lot of ideas, but only when you put together these colours and ideas with love and passion, can you create something that is a unique work of art.”

The secret is to love the differences.

Diversity is an asset for a company that is reflected in how we act as a company, in the ability to be a great partner for customers, for employees and for all the stakeholders.

It gives us an opportunity to read market challenges from multiple perspectives, to have a better view of the complexity ahead, and to respond to – or even predict – challenges with the variety of competencies, mindsets and experiences that the diverse teams possess.

However, this does not come about without intense work and effort.

The first step is to understand the language of difference, which is represented by verbal communication, symbols, visual images, behaviours, habits and different ways of connecting.

How many times have we made mistakes in connecting with other people, simply because we didn’t interpret the cultural difference correctly?

Or have we asked ourselves why a very limited range of diverse people respond to our job advertisements?

And how many times have we failed to make the most of opportunities with a customer, not understanding his/her cultural requirements?

Using inclusive language, either gender-neutral, or without the biases that come from cultural differences, observing and listening in depth, this requires moving away from stereotypes, and challenging individual biases, to avoid word choices that may be interpreted as biased, discriminatory or demeaning to people.

This is not an easy path, it requires us to analyse the cultural maps of other people, a culture created by history, habits, social background, religions, and many other influences.

Many of these are visible, but most are invisible boundaries that we must deal with.

Erin Meyer, in her book The Cultural Map, reminds us that behind businesses there are people, who have biases, expectations, and a view of life that drives decisions. Understanding that culture shapes people, who shape business and life interactions, is vital.

Also when we use English as our business language, interpretations and sometimes meanings are different from culture to culture, because they are conditioned by our mental maps.

But what we can do to overcome the possible issues caused by language differences? 

Here are a few tips that may be useful to consider in a business context.

  • Write job advertisements with the contribution of multiple people with diverse backgrounds; even better opportunities are provided by AI, with programmes that help to capture biases in language; 
  • Make it easy: simplify messages that can be understandable to multiple cultures;
  • When you work on projects, make sure that different cultures, genders and backgrounds are involved: the process will take longer, but the quality behind it will be higher because it embraces multiple viewpoints;
  • Ask questions to make sure that you have fully understood the context, and the message that is conveyed;
  • Go to meetings prepared: make checklists and engage in social reflection before approaching a context;
  • Make it easy and visible: create short summary messages or slogans and be visual to ensure that you enlarge mutual understanding: learning involves multiple senses, so we need to reach people’s learning maps; 
  • Be careful to avoid stereotypes;
  • Notice differences in communication and respect others;
  • Nurture an understanding of cultural diversity through intentional learning paths: provide regular opportunities for teams across functions and geographies to gather, collaborate and work on cultural initiatives together;
  • Facilitate discussion on culture and blockers to co-create solutions;
  • Observe your visual tools: do they represent a diverse environment?

The secret is to not be artificial in our actions, but to realise that diversity is not just a slogan but how we live our life and conduct our business. The messages around us must be speaking this language.

 “What you can bet on and be sure of winning even before doing it, is culture, the biggest and never-ending heritage. Culture will enrich us indefinitely and can never be destroyed.” Massimo Theater-Palermo.

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