Thursday, February 19, 2004


There are cases of miscommunication that are beyond absurd and deserve a place in history. While reading about arctic exploration last night, one popped up that deserves mention. The book is Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909.

The story concerns the first English explorers sent north along the west coast of Greenland to look for a passage to Russia. They took with them an Eskimo guide who sketched pictures of what he was witnessing. Two ships worked their way through ice floes to the far northern tip of Greenland where they discovered an Eskimo village called Etah. The Eskimos in Etah had never seen white men before nor ships, which they thought were large birds. They had never seen mirrors nor glass nor anything else of England of 1818. A picture of the scene the Eskimo guide drew shows English sailors in cockaded hats, tails and riding boots walking on the ice with the newly discovered Eskimos backing away from them. (No one had thought of sending explorers to the North with cold weather gear.)

Not knowing how to introduce himself to terrified Eskimos, the captain chose a "universal" symbol of peace -- a white flag with a hand holding an olive branch. There were only a few things wrong with this communication. The Eskimos had no idea what a white flag meant. They had never seen an olive branch. In fact, they had never seen a tree because there are none that far north. Fortunately,the captain realized his mistake and offered gifts the Eskimos could understand.

This incident occurred in 1818, but the lesson is relevant. Let's use a too-common example. Every discipline has its own jargon. If you have ever listened to engineers talking to one another, it is almost impossible to understand their shorthand, acronyms and concepts. You are the Greenland Eskimo and they the visiting English.

There isn't a single discipline in business that works differently. The language and concepts of the discipline erect barriers against outsiders. Sometimes this is deliberate. More often than not, it is the result of unintentional veering from common speech. I have written before that PR practitioners are translators between business and target audiences. Frequently, we are translators internally too between disciplines that do not understand each other. As translators we must learn specialized languages and be able to explain ideas simply and clearly in common dialect. This can be hard work.

The amusing part of the 1818 episode is that the English sailed away thinking the Eskimos were ignorant savages. The Eskimos, however, were dressed warmly and had lived for hundreds of years in the deep cold. The English, on the other hand, continued to visit the arctic in normal dress for decades and never learned how to dress for survival. Who was dumber?


Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?