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  January 15th, 2014 | Written by


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Time. Power. Knowledge.” That’s what my first boss at I. S. Joseph, an international trading and shipping company, told me were the keys to successful negotiating. You need all three to be successful. My job was to travel the world and make deals with governments and private companies to set up processing operations. I never knew from one week to the next where I was going, yet I knew I had to hit the ground running when I got to that country. And being able to function somewhat in another language and culture was part of the knowledge edge I was seeking.

Sometimes it would be Jamaica, sometimes Haiti, sometimes Brazil, sometimes Spain, Egypt or Russia. My travel was as bizarre as my first meeting with this man in the Iranian desert.

I developed a habit of finding key words and phrases of a country’s business language that I would interject into a conversation. I was born in Latvia, where by birth one becomes a linguist, as outside of Latvia no one speaks the language—so you have to speak other languages. My mother spoke German, Russian, Yiddish and English. Yet there is no way I could learn Arabic a week before getting on a plane to go there. No amount of classes or listening to tapes was going to help much (as if you had time for them!). So Guerrilla Linguistics was born.

The necessity behind Guerrilla Linguistics is simple: You have to travel to a totally new country in a couple of days, so how do you make a favorable impression or improve your negotiating position? The language establishment of major universities and language schools would say, “No can do. You have to take immersion classes, work in the language lab, listen to tapes and do the homework.” By interjecting a phrase that reflects some understanding of the local business situation, you can keep others unsure of just how much you do or do not know about a language. Knowing the standard phrases doesn’t go far in enhancing your image. All the non-fluent tourists in loud sport shirts know how to say “hello” and “goodbye” and “where’s the bathroom.” So what can you do?

First, you can’t study this skill in a traditional way. Take for example the visitor to Mexico City. In Mexican Spanish there is no better term for describing the way local business practices relate to government rules and officials than “la grilla.” Yet no dictionary or travel guide that I’ve found contains that phrase except pertaining to a barbecue. And every country where they speak Spanish has a different form. Even in Spain the people there don’t say they speak Spanish but rather “Castellano.”

Parisians are not usually impressed with foreigners’ use of the French language, but one group did pay attention when an American business representative uttered, “C’est pas évident,” upon hearing a proposal. This phrase, which is acceptable spoken only in French, cast doubt on the effectiveness of a strategy or the feasibility of a project. It cast this businessperson in a favorable light among skeptical French associates. In Brazil, when someone tells you of an impossible business situation to overcome, you can ask “¿Ha jeito?” (“Is there a way?”).

The technique has been demonstrated in English also. An informal group of Japanese-American language coaches advised the chief of a Japanese-speaking business delegation to say, “That’s in the ballpark” at a key part of a price negotiation. They surprised the Americans present who assumed their Japanese counterparts knew very little English. From that point on they wondered what had been overheard in unguarded corridor conversation.

Guerrilla Linguistics also applies to some cultural considerations. I made a point of learning words and phrases that went to the heart of a country’s culture. Carol Smith, writing in the Los Angeles Times, put it this way: “Speak softly and carry a big phrase book.”

Try it sometimes with your hosts. Just ask an Austrian to explain “gemültlich” or a Greek to explain “glendi” or a Japanese to explain “wa.” Russian is more complicated but what worked for me was to drop “ dengi schet lyubyat” into the conversation which means “money loves to be counted.” Other such sayings in Russian are “money doesn’t smell,” which is roughly the equivalent of “money tells no tales.”

One of the best known uses of Guerrilla Linguistics was by former U.S. Senator from New Jersey and All-American basketball player Bill Bradley, a member of the 1964 U.S. Olympic basketball team.

Bradley is a very prepared man and in studying game films of the Russian team he saw that they always called out their plays verbally. Upon seeing this he went to a professor of Russian and asked him for a selection of nasty phrases in Russian including ”Watch it, jerk.” OK, it was stronger than that, but you get the point.

He used that phrase to an astonished Russian during the game. The Russians immediately stopped calling their plays out loud which totally disrupted their rhythm, and the U.S. went on to win the Olympic gold.

United Airlines is one of several U.S. corporations that have used a form of Guerrilla Linguistics to improve their customer service. A decade ago, United figured only 10 percent of its 25,000 or so flight attendants were fluent in another language, and another 10 percent spoke enough of another language to carry on a conversation. To broaden the number of attendants speaking another language, United introduced what they called “Air Spanish,” “Air Portuguese” and “Air Japanese.”

The object was the same as Guerrilla Linguistics: know enough to make an impression. Air Spanish consists of 40 words which are essential to air travel. (For a sample, see the sidebar “Hooked on Phonetics.”)

The Wall Street Journal wrote this about the airline’s efforts: “United is offering the classes as the entire U.S. airlines industry, facing a more global clientele, turns to language skills as a way to win customer loyalty and to compete with polyglot foreign carriers.”

Language aficionados at airlines created something called The International Airline Language Council (IALCO) to promote usage of passengers’ language by the staff. These language aficionados would never use this shorthand, as even the director of international on-board services admitted the approach was unique: “The linguist would be appalled with what we’ve done with the language.”

How to Learn and Practice Guerrilla Linguistics:

To get maximum effect from the technique, there are a few useful, time-honored rules to follow:

• Have a native person in the target country provide you with a list of key business slang and jargon. And have a second native source corroborate them!

• Pick the terms that would fit the agenda of the business meetings you will attend. So, if you are going to hear a proposal that you expect to be unappealing, learn how to put it in that context in native business terminology.

• Practice the pronunciation and intonation of the phrases you want to use to eliminate stiffness and as much of your own accent as possible.

• Learn the facial and hand gestures that might go along with delivering selected phrases. Do not be caught delivering a skeptical phrase with positive hand gestures and body language.

• Have someone provide a simultaneous interpretation of the meeting so you know where to interject the phrases you’ve learned and can be coached on the spot. Timing is everything.

• Answer the surprised facial gestures that you will get in uttering the well-rehearsed expression with a smile that courteously says, “touché.”

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