35. Translators, training and taking action

I just had an communication breakdown experience followed by its reestablishment. I’d just boarded a plane and sat down in my assigned seat; 16D, next to the emergency exits, but with extra legroom. Next to me sat a smiling elderly woman of Asian descent. Since the plane had a large contingent of Asians travelling together, I guessed that she was probably with them. I couldn’t figure where they were from, but my money was on China or Hong Kong.

Not being able to flip off my planning switch (which I have, though it may not always seem that way), I smiled at her and thought “Hmmm… one of the things about sitting by the emergency exits is that you have to be an able-bodied adult. This woman is perhaps in the 60–70 age range and looks more grandmotherly than old-but-powerful. Do I really want her between me and opening that door if things go to hell?”

I have plenty of faith in my own ability to pull and handle and rip out an emergency door if worst comes to worst, and normally I don’t distrust my fellow passengers. Here, I was a bit in doubt. So I did a light test to start out with:

“Hi. Do you speak English?” [big smile]

“Copenhagen!” [answering smile]

“Yes. Do you speak English?” [still smiling]

“Finland!” [smile now accompanied by pointing outside the window, in case my mental faculties were limited]

Ok. Possible problem identified. However, I reasoned that if the shit hit the fan, she wouldn’t get in my way, and it doesn’t require more than one person to open the door in the end.

Then came the stewardess and gave us the mandatory briefing on how to deal with possible emergencies. My companion smiled happily as the question “Do you all know what to do?” was asked and the rest of us answered “Yes”. She was about to continue on when I felt the need to supply some information.

“Sorry. My neighbour doesn’t speak English.”

“Excuse me, mam. Do you speak English?”


“Mam, if you sit here you must be able to understand English.”

[smile, now with less confidence and rising confusion]

“You will have to trade places with the gentleman next to you then.” accompanied by a hand gesture suggesting we switch places.

[now the smiled was forced. No comprehension]

I joined in, still smiling (I do that a lot), and tried to make it clear that we were to change places. She shook her head. She wasn’t buying whatever I was selling, and she wasn’t moving if it could be helped.

The stewardess and I insisted, and in the end she got herself unbuckled (after some difficulty) and we switched places. All good, I thought.

But I’d forgotten something.

When you where we were sitting, you can’t have your (admittedly pretty small) bag in your lap during takeoff and landing. The stewardess tried to get her to understand that the bag had to go in the overhead locker. No luck. The bag was staying where it was. The woman was no longer smiling, but was clearly not satisfied with all the weird demands made of her.

Again, my training took over.

“Can anyone translate here?”

After a little commotion, a translator – a young woman obviosuly from the same group – raised her hand, a few seats down. Explaining to the older woman in rapid fire insert-language-here-Mandarin-maybe? the two traded places. The old woman retreated to a seat with less hassle, and the young one plopped down next to me and commented on the luxury of the extra leg space.

It didn’t take more than 5 minutes or so in total, but I’m sure that both the stewardess and the old woman could have lived without the episode. I have a love for the absurd, and enjoyed it, even though I of course did my best to stay polite and helpful. Also, I lost my nice 16D aisle seat and ended up in a window seat I wasn’t interested in, but such is life. At least my new neighbour had awesome pink-turqouise-yellow shoes which I sneaked a picture of during the flight.

That was the episode. Now for the analysis and what made me write about it.

First off, it was clear that the older woman wasn’t unused to people talking to her in a language she didn’t understand. She made a quick decision on what I was probably asking her and answered to the best of her ability. When I asked whether she spoke English their was no “I don’t understand” in a different language. No hand signs or confused look. She just smiled and told me what I probably needed to know; Copenhagen.

When I repeated the question, she happily told me that we were in Finland. Still no “I don’t understand you” signals of any kind. My assumption is that she and her group had been travelling for some time and were heading home, and she didn’t feel the need to say “I don’t understand” or try to communicate it to me. Copenhagen is more of a travel hub than Helsinki, which led me to think they were coming home via CPH rather than travelling to Denmark via Helsinki. Maybe I was right. Maybe not. The only thing I was sure of was that she didn’t try to tell me that she didn’t understand, but instead gave me city names to chew on.

Second, the stewardess didn’t realise that only 75% of her audience got her message. I get that too. The number of times she’s asked “Do you know what to do?” to passengers near emergency seats is probably quite large. And it’s not like it’s rocket science, after all. So naturally, she didn’t catch the blank smile and see through the friendly nod to her question. After all, my companion had already demonstrated that she wasn’t big on “I don’t know what you’re talking about’ communication.

That’s why I broke in, and brought us to the next stage, where the (somewhat stressed, but still polite and professional) tried to explain the new course of action to my in-flight companion. And that’s where it got interesting. Because here’s where I thought the old lady would make it clear to us – I was on the stewardess’ team in this, and that was pretty obvious by then – that she had no clue what we were saying. Or try to get translation help from a member of her crew. I assumed (rightly, it turned out) that at least one of them spoke English.

The lady did no such thing, however. She just kept clinging to her seat, and later her bag, in what seemed like an attempt at social turtling.

“If I just keep smiling and don’t move, they’ll go away and leave me alone, and maybe we can take off. This is a plane, after all, and not a debate club.”

She stuck to that routine for a surprising length of time. Even after it became clear that the stewardess’ orders were, in fact, orders and not suggestions, she still treated them like suggestions. First with the seat change, then with the bag. It was a bit fascinating.

And then the young translator got involved and eveything changed. The old woman and her had a short, quick conversation, and then they traded places. I don’t know if she grumbled or had an aha-moment, but it seemed more like the latter than the former. She just needed to understand what was going on, and apparently needed to be told by someone who spoke her language. Our gestures had communicated what she needed to do, but it seemed they hadn’t given her the necessary reason for why. Once the whole picture was presented to her, she tottered off and the problem was solved.

And there the story could have ended.

But let’s jump back and look at it from the perspective of the stewardess. That’s also interesting, I think.

To begin with, she didn’t share my train of thought. Either she didn’t notice the somewhat fragile physique of the old woman, or she didn’t think it constituted a problem. She also didn’t consider the possible language difficulty (in some Asian countries, few people that age understand English well, in others it’s a higher percentage), and just launched into her briefing.

Seeing nods from all four of us, she didn’t realise that there was a language barrier while talking. And when I interrupted and told her we had a communications breakdown, she tried to solve it by speaking more English. She didn’t go to gesturing until after I’d done so, and didn’t ask anyone for help, but tried to sort it out on her own. Maybe she would have asked for a translator if I hadn’t. Maybe she’d have gotten more vivid in her gesturing and obvious worried facial expression. We’ll never know.

She picked up on both, though, and fast. She switched from language only to language-and-gesture after I’d started it, and after I’d stood up and asked for a translator, she stated face-scanning and asked again while moving through the rows. She was competent and fast, but it seemed she just hadn’t considered her options. I don’t blame her at all. I was just a passenger who happened to notice something and act on it, while she had responsibility and routines to think of.

I, on the other hand, had no responsibility besides my own understanding of instructions and my own assessment of being capable of opening the door or not, should it come to that.

And then I had something else. I had my vast experience of event running, social navigation and problem solving in general. I’m not sure that I’m better at spotting problems (potential or existing) than most other people, but I’m used to taking action and thinking “This is (also) my problem now.”

Often, because it IS my problem – that goes with being the one in charge – but also because I have a tendency to MAKE things my problem, if I feel I can solve them. If I see no way I can make a difference, I consider myself pretty adept at staying out of it, but it’s rare when I see that I can solve something and then stay out of it. Sometimes I’m wrong, and fuck stuff up. In this case, my intervention made a difference.

I won’t call it my nature, because that’s a tricky word, but I’ll definitely call it my training. It’s what makes me intervene in busses when things get unfriendly, what makes me speak up when there’s fighting in the air, and what makes me end up carrying luggage, strollers and sometimed people at stairs. Some would call it a desire to help and a tradition of doing so, and that’s not wrong, but it’s also not the whole truth.

Most of all, it’s about seeing situations and mentally inserting myself into them and thinking “Will I make a difference here?” and then acting on it. Sometimes I don’t have the necessary energy or presence of mind to see this clearly, and then I do nothing. Sometimes I see what I could do, and choose not to, for some reason or other. Usually because I’m tired, angry, distracted or just low on battery. But since I live a pretty privileged life, I usually have surplus energy to try to make a difference.

On one hand, it’s a sympathetic part of my character, and something I get a lot of positive feedback for. Tired mothers having someone carry their baby carriage up a long flight of stairs are seldom ungrateful. But it’s also a reflection of a kind of basic arrogance and overconfidence I’m not always proud of. Who am I, thinking that I can make things better? Who am I to interpose myself in situations where I have no right or duty?

Most of the time, I don’t even think about. I notice it when my wife points out that it’s one of the traits she likes about me, or when I blame myself for not acting after the situation has passed. And once in a while, situations like this demonstrate to me, that I function in a certain way, and I become hyper-aware of it.

And that means it’s blogging time. :-)

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Director at The College of Extraordinary Experiences, Coach at McKinsey & Founding Partner at The Global Institute For Thought Leadership. Author of 31 books.

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