Business Must Speak a New Language

(Or Two)

Before my daughter was born, I made a habit of speaking German to her mother’s belly, hoping she would internalize my first language in utero. I rambled aloud about beer festivals and black forest cake, played 99 Luftballons at high volume, read excerpts of Schopenhauer and Goethe, and intonated the longest of the long German nouns (Donauschifffahrtskapitän).

When Haven was born, I stubbornly continued to speak to her exclusively in German.

Haven’s mother is American, and we lived in San Francisco through the early years of our daughter’s life. I remember sitting at a café with Haven on 24th Street when she was about four years old and attracting some unwelcome attention. I was asking her questions in German, while she, tiny and soft-spoken, replied to each in English. People shot accusatory glances my way, as though I were a cruel or oblivious father, forcing my daughter to play an instrument she hated. Still, like a Wagnerian opera, I would not relent.

It wasn’t until Haven turned seven and we moved to Berlin that she began speaking German with me. She never had an accent in her second language and, after a few months in Berlin, sounded like a native, making only the kind of occasional grammatical error that trips up homegrown Germanophones—it is a komplizierte language after all. Like most bilingual children, she often confused the two languages, but this phenomenon, known as “code-switching,” is a feature, not a bug.

Haven is now 14, lives in Atlanta, and can shift seamlessly between English and German, sounding like an all-American girl one minute and a Berlin Göre the next. The degree to which a different language transforms you into a different person has never ceased to fascinate me. In English, she is warm, candid, and talkative; in German, she is savvy, wry, and quirky. These days, when we’re in the U.S. together, her sentiments about which language I speak have changed. Now she demands that I express myself in German, thereby minimizing the potential for embarrassing her in front of her friends.

“When you put one color next to another, you change both.”

The benefits of bilingualism go beyond safeguarding teenagers from embarrassment. Speaking a second language has been associated with advanced executive function, abstraction abilities, memory, visual-spatial skills, and even creativity. Bilingual speakers are also said to exhibit higher metalinguistic awareness, which makes them better listeners, speakers, writers and, perhaps most importantly, thinkers.

Roughly 3.3 billion individuals, or 43% of the world’s population, are bilingual, and 17% percent are multilingual. One of them is my friend Nouha who was born and raised in Tangier, Morocco, a city that was once an “international zone” governed by various colonial powers. Sitting at the northern tip of Africa, beside the strait of Gibraltar and in striking distance from Spain, Tangier has always found itself at the crossroads of various cultural influences. Like most of the city’s residents, Nouha grew up speaking several languages—Moroccan (Darija), Arabic, French, Spanish, and English. Adept at reading both from left to right and right to left, she can literally change the direction of her thinking from one moment to another. She is not only one of the most self-aware people I know, but also one of the funniest. Her humor can be absurd at times, even dark, which a recent study has shown to be an indicator of high intelligence. At the same time, Nouha is genuinely understated and humble. She knows too much, and understands too many different codes, to inflate her own importance. Hyperbole irritates her.

Speaking more than one language fosters humility. You can poke fun at yourself because you can see yourself from a distance. It doesn’t really matter which languages you’re fluent in; it’s the multiplicity that matters. You understand that your truth is not the only one, that your world is not the only one, and that—projecting into the future— another world is always possible.

If empathy means stepping into someone else’s shoes, then true understanding means speaking another person’s language. The German-American artist Josef Albers wrote: “When you put one color next to another, you change both.” People are altered by their proximity to other people’s experiences, and we have greater access to the space between us when we can describe that distance with the same words.

Language is a vital consideration for business, too.

The workplace is dominated by aggressive corporate jargon: we kill pieces, take stabs and best shots, target audiences, defend market positions, execute strategies, and avoid legal minefields. This military-esque lingo is blended with the blandest, lowest-common-denominator American English, making for flat language and harsh imagery. If we want to make the workplace more humane and life-centered, we need to craft a business language that actually reflects how we think and live.

And one language isn’t enough. In these multipolar times, business must be multilingual.

Multipolar times require code-switching

Cultivating multilingualism in the workplace allows for the kind of cognitive and cultural diversity that has proven to lead to increased creativity and innovation. But aside from these practical benefits, there are also more philosophical ones: If we conceive of multilingualism as a metaphor, as a design and behavioral principle, then a multilingual business is much better suited to multi-dimensional times.

Business must be able to switch codes, instantly and seamlessly, between quants and poetry, efficiency and beauty. “Poetry is a form of mathematics, a highly rigorous relationship with words,” the Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun once observed, and this is particularly pertinent to business, especially to business that wants to be beautiful. A business language that is rich and evocative doesn’t have to wax lyrical all the time, but it must understand that reality is as much a web of words as it is a net of numbers.

A multilingual business is more agile, more responsive. Because it masters different languages, it masters different ways of thinking. It can switch seamlessly between different personas and different ways of experiencing, creating, and operating. A multilingual business can thrive through murkiness and uncertainty. It combines the pragmatic with the poetic, the concrete with the elusive, the material with the spiritual.

A multilingual business understands that having many languages—different social, cultural, and organizational personas at its disposal—allows it to shapeshift and adjust to ever-changing times. A multilingual business can improvise and go with the flow. It understands that reality must be created as much as it must be understood, and that creation must draw on numerous sources.

Moreover, a life-centered business must become fluent in “the language of life,” as the biologist and investor Juan Enriquez suggested in an interview with my colleague Hanae Bezad in Davos. Enriquez wants us to rethink our relationship to all living things, embracing our ability to reprogram life based on genetic engineering and other biotechnology. He argues that all life is “imperfectly transmitted code,” which humans are becoming increasingly capable of writing. “We’ll do with bacteria what we do with our pets,” he claims.

AI and VR: The all-too-literal and the illiterate

Another language that business must master is AI. AI is insatiable and speaks a new world into existence through unpredictable configurations. AI’s “hallucinations” are not just inaccurate representations of truth; they are also the origins of new meaning.

The more intelligent AI becomes, the more we humans must speak in various tongues (and senses). Multilingualism enables multi-intelligence, and combining multiple intelligences—cognitive, emotional, somatic, spiritual, and artificial—will remain a distinctively human superpower. Multi-intelligence will allow us to survive (and perhaps even thrive) in an age of multimodal super-intelligence.

And then there’s the language of Virtual Reality (VR). If AI constructs a world that is flat and referential—full of representations in lieu of actual physical things—then VR creates a purely experiential world that uses no language, save for the body-language of gestures. The advent of the Apple Vision Pro headset, despite its premium pricing and elite positioning, is a landmark event that has placed VR back in the headlines after a long lull in development (known as the VR winter). Spring appears to be on the horizon for virtual and mixed reality technology as everyday consumer applications.

Apple goes to great lengths to portray itself as a tech humanizer, taking complex gadgets and gizmos and marketing them as natural accessories that pose zero ontological questions, on par with an innocuous old-fashioned wristwatch or set of headphones. The truth is another story. Product after product, Apple is pushing us toward cyborgism—a man-machine melding in which human control is subordinated to technology. Like the iPhone, the Vision Pro may appear human-friendly, but it will discreetly subvert what it means to be human. We are slowly merging with the machine and becoming techsensual. Escapism may become the norm, but there won’t be anywhere left to escape.

This might be a blessing in disguise. In a recent New Yorker piece, tech observer Jaron Lanier explores the ways that VR can benefit certain sectors of the population. But he insists on the need to preserve the human amid the technology, arguing we must “put people on a pedestal or they will drown.” If we succeed at this, he believes that VR can serve as a “beacon of humanism,” an empathy-enabling device that accentuates our “specialness” rather than eradicating it. He goes so far as to suggest that VR can heighten our perception of the real world, resharpening our experience of it:

“In the nineteen-eighties, we used to try to sneak flowers or pretty crystals in front of people before they would take off their headsets; it was a great joy to see their expressions as they experienced awe. In a sense, this was like the awe someone might experience when appreciating a flower while on a psychedelic drug. But it was actually the opposite of that. They were perceiving the authentic ecstasy of the ordinary, anew.”

Maybe we are more solid than we thought. Maybe our matter matters. Regardless of the degree to which technology makes us feel connected to a collective consciousness or part of something larger than ourselves, it might just be us in the end. We may remove the headset to find our sense of wonder heightened, but our bodies will remain unchanged, our autonomy intact.

In the end, silence

Taking its cues from VR, a multilingual business knows that the most powerful language is silence. In an age when talking is the norm and rudeness seems legitimate, silence is a hugely disruptive activity. When we don’t speak, we can’t hide behind the noise.

Nowadays, especially in business, we often use language to attack or to defend ourselves. We see silence as weakness, as an act of concession. Imagine, if in the process of accusing or being accused, a manager stopped speaking and simply stood still in silence. What would their silence mean? What would it symbolize? What sort of reaction would it produce?

This is exactly the type of experience Esther Blázquez Blanco brings to Fortune 500 companies. A Spanish leadership coach with roots in performance art—people call her “the Marina Abramović of management”—she facilitates silent eye-gazing exercises that participants have found to be profoundly personal experiences. They’ve also proven to be effective in nurturing a culture of trust, emotional intimacy, and psychological safety at the workplace.

At the House of Beautiful Business, we regularly host Silent Dinners with business leaders. These are pretty much exactly what they sound like: a full-course meal with multiple guests in which the only form of communication happens via eye contact or perhaps the odd gestural request to pass the salt. After attending one for the first time, a CEO told me: “This was the first business dinner where I liked everybody at the table.”

I would argue that silence engenders more than just liking; it creates a funny and surprising feeling of tenderness for everyone at the table. In removing the pressure to express ourselves or listen, to speak or respond, we can finally understand and be understood.

Tim Leberecht

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