We could not have been more prepared to close the deal with a new apparel client. The CEO flew in from Paris to see our facility and execute the deal. We were giving him the tour of our warehouse, showing him how we picked and packed orders, and in typical New York fashion, we were speaking a mile a minute.
When I turned around to look at him to see if he had any questions, I was met with a blank stare. My heart sank-we were so excited to show him our process that we glossed over the fact that French, not English, was his first language. When you see a look like that on someone's face you can't help but think, 'I am blowing this.'
Then, like a lightbulb, I realized I too have made that face 100 times. "I'm so sorry," I said, putting my hand on his shoulder. "We're speaking too fast." His shoulders immediately relaxed. I summarized the important points, slowly and clearly.
It was in this moment I realized how the process of learning a new language, Italian, gave me a leg-up in this scenario and has helped my career in the most unexpected ways. Learning a new language offers career opportunities that extend even beyond being able to communicate with more people. Here are some of the unexpected results:
1. You become a more empathetic communicator
Because I had experienced what it was like to be the only English-speaker in a group full of Italians, I was able to immediately empathize with our new client, and in turn, strengthen our connection. Even if your job never requires you to work with a person who does not speak your native language, you must constantly adapt your verbal and nonverbal language to relate to and connect with colleagues, clients, employees or potential employers. Your language barrier might extend from a generation gap, or you might be looking to find a job in a new industry. In both scenarios you need to figure out what language that person is using, and meet them where they are.
2. You establish a deep level of trust with others
When you learn a new language, you show people that you care to understand how they talk, and how they live. When you work in a B2B service-based business like mine, you are learning the language and the culture of different businesses on a daily basis. Their language is their copy and their verbiage, and their company culture is their beliefs and behaviors. I practice learning these two elements with every company or individual I work with (or want to work with), to help them feel understood and validated, and to develop a solid partnership built on trust. Have you ever interviewed someone who knew nothing about your company? Or have you ever gone in for an interview not knowing anything about your potential employer? How did that relationship turn out? I'm going to say it was (at the very least) off to a rocky start. But, I bet if the interviewee in both scenarios took the time to learn the company language and culture, the foundation of that relationship would have been much stronger.
3. You subtly tell others you're a life-long learner
When you take the initiative to teach yourself something as complicated as a new language, it's like sneaking in a compliment to yourself. This was certainly not my intention, but it ended up that way. My partners, employees, friends, and clients are all extremely impressed that I've taken on this new challenge. Aside from it being "so cool" as they say, it also proves that I'm always up for a challenge, and ready to learn something new. As an adult, your opportunity for extracurricular activities dwindles, so being able to add this new skill to your resume or LinkedIn profile could serve you well when you're up for a promotion, or applying for a new job.
4. It becomes easier to network and meet new people
Learning Italian has opened up a whole new world for me. I've made many very close friends who have become like family, just by saying "ciao," telling them I'm from New York, and that I'm trying to learn Italian. This somehow seems easier to do when I don't speak the same language as the person I'm introducing myself to. Now, I try going into new meetings or events with this same naivety. I say "Hi, my name is Maria. I own an e-commerce fulfillment/distribution company." This simple introduction (of course, substitute your own name and profession) can be especially useful for introverts who are typically uncomfortable in a room of people they don't know. Try this at your next networking event. You might have a short interactions with many different people, or you might meet someone who becomes a life-long friend or business partner.
Now I want to hear from you. If you are currently learning a new language, have there been any unexpected benefits? How has this helped your career? Let me know in the comments below.