I was chatting with a colleague a few days ago. He was telling me about the way he likes to scrutinize the numbers every single day and I was telling him how I really don’t. “I’m a mathematician by training”, he offered. “I like numbers.” “I’m a lawyer by background”, I replied. “I like words.” What ensued was one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in a long time.
Ask some executives to describe their business to you and the first thing they do is whip out a report covered in rows and columns of numbers. Those people, as they go through the numbers, see intricate connections – beauty? – and form vivid mental representations that bring their entire business to life. To them, the language of business is numbers and quantitative measures pretty much tell the story.
I’m not one of those people. I tend to look at my business in terms of narratives involving people, relationships, concepts and ideas. When I ask someone to tell me about their business, I want to hear about what’s happening, why and how. I understand the world – including the world of business – through stories told using words. My preferred mode of communication is a narrative with qualitative overtones.
Of course, nobody approaches things in such a clear-cut, binary way. Like anyone who runs a business, I have to understand key metrics – and I do. And my quantitatively driven colleagues all go beyond the numbers to gain a more rounded understanding of the metrics they rely on. But you can clearly detect individual preferences, and organizations themselves have management cultures (and subcultures) that lean towards one or the other.
All this speaks to the language of business. I grew up being told that the international language of business was English. Not that I ever thought, when I was growing up, that I would ever end up “in a business”. But I would hear things in school and elsewhere like “you have to learn English – it will be important one day when you go looking for a job.” Growing up in a French-speaking family in a French-speaking province within a predominantly English-speaking country, the need to master English was, in my youth, a source of mild anxiety.
So I learned English.
French is my mother tongue but I’ve been working in English for most of my professional life and when it comes to my second language, I’m pretty good at blending in.
I would challenge anyone, in a blind test, to pick something I wrote as being written by someone who doesn’t have English as a first language. Spoken English is a little more difficult. I like to think that I speak pretty flawless English with no more than the hint of an accent and some people, out of kindness, occasionally compliment me on this. But I’ve had to pause often enough mid-sentence, trying to think of the right word, to know better.
Business English I find easiest and in a reversal that bothers me greatly, I struggle to have a business conversation in French without sprinkling my sentences with annoying anglicisms and English business terms (what’s the French equivalent of “EBITDA” again?). I find expressions hardest of all and whenever someone uses “former” and “latter” in a sentence, I have to stop and think about which one exactly the person is talking about. I have also committed many faux-pas with expressions over the years that have sent rooms full of people rolling on the floor laughing – many which it would be quite inappropriate to repeat here.
For all of that, I’ve developed, over the decades, the ability to think quickly on my feet in English and can hold my own in any discussion or vigorous debate you may care to have. Thinking, talking and writing in English, under normal circumstances, doesn’t tax my cognitive resources any more than completing similar tasks in French. The main exception to this, as I’ve written about previously, occurs when I’m suffering from a migraine or coming down with one: for some reason or another, I find it extremely difficult to speak English at such times.
You get the picture: For all intents and purposes and with only a few minor caveats already mentioned, I’m completely fluent in English. Ah, but not so fast! There’s one huge exception to this, one that’s given me all sorts of headaches over the years (quite literally): Numbers.
You see, I can’t do any but the simplest of mathematical operations in my mind in English. Three times three? Not a problem. Fifty-six minus thirty-seven? Can’t solve it in English – even with a pen and paper. In fact, whenever I look at rows and columns of numbers – not an unusual occurrence in my line of work – my mind automatically reverts back to French. Back and forth. Back and forth.
Very few things are as mentally draining to me as an hour-long meeting in English to which I have to contribute lots of numerical information on the fly, switching multiple times per minute from the English discussion to the numbers I’m manipulating in my mind in French and back again.
I’m not alone in this and when I started digging, I found that a considerable amount of research has been conducted over the years into the difficulty that bilinguals have solving mathematical equations in their minds in their second language. One such article notes that:
“Taken together these results confirm the implication of language in arithmetic and highlight that arithmetic problems belong to the learned contents that are not transferrable from one language to another without any cognitive costs (Marian & Fausey, 2006; Spelke & Tsivkin, 2001 see also Saalbach et al. 2013; Venkatraman et al. 2006). Most importantly, the current results suggest that this limited transferability of arithmetic knowledge to another language in bilinguals concerns the retrieval of rote-memorized arithmetic contents (i.e., arithmetic facts) but also the implementation of procedural knowledge (i.e. solving processes).”
I would describe the language of business in the company I work for as “English-Quantitative” and my own natural approach to communication as “French-Qualitative”. Over the decades, I’ve mastered the “English” part pretty well and can operate in that language almost as a native speaker. The language of numbers doesn’t come as naturally to me and requires more effort. And numbers in English? One of the biggest cognitive challenges I face on a regular basis at work.
Thankfully, I’m employed by an organisation that makes room for my own way of doing things; an acknowledgement perhaps that the way in which people look at the world and communicate about it is one of the unique gifts they bring to the organizations they work for.