Episode 101 – The Costs of Ignoring Language and Culture: Bennett Whitehouse (Risk Analyst)

Episode 101 The Costs of Ignoring Language and Culture (Bennett Whitehouse)
It's About Language, with Norah Jones
It's About Language, with Norah Jones
Episode 101 - The Costs of Ignoring Language and Culture: Bennett Whitehouse (Risk Analyst)

“Language is a key just in coaching people on their interpersonal relationship. So when it comes to workers compensation, especially, you might think that the cost of a medical claim related to a workplace injury would correlate highest with the severity of the injury. The reality is the industries recognize that the highest corollary to the cost of a workers’ compensation claim is actually the quality of the relationship between the injured employee and their direct supervisor.”

Yes, there are costs associated with the level of our knowledge of how language works and of languages themselves, both our own first/native language and of those languages that surround us in our communities, institutions, jobs, and world.

There are costs associated with the level of awareness we have of our own perception of the world and how it works – perception that we inevitably take as the only perspective, the only truth, until we understand the nature of culture. The culture of our families, communities, employment, recreation, worship — all human group interactions – are based on shared perceptions, and in a world filled with peoples of various backgrounds, it is critical we see our perceptions as one way of looking at the world.

Lack of knowledge of language and culture can be costly financially, as you here in this podcast with Bennett Whitehouse. Using language well and understanding a person’s culture literally lead to lower insurance claims. The employee who feels respected — which comes through a manager’s appropriate use of language and awareness of culture — approaches an experience of injury or illness in a less punitive frame of mind.

Lack of knowledge of language and culture can lead to disfunctional teams with lower productivity and higher turnover, as we learned from Steven Sacco, episode 71:

“Sometimes we think that people know our intentions, but they don’t. They only see our behavior. They judge us, they thin slice us from watching our behavior, and then they make a story about us. That story is usually wrong. They don’t really see our deepest desires and beliefs. I work a lot with leaders on communication. How do you share who you are? How do you share what’s important to you? How do you share your values? How do you make sure that the values that you espouse are the values that you live and the values that people see every day in your behavior?…

Lack of knowledge of language and culture can be costly in terms of lives and security, as we learned from Scott Womack, episode 98:

So as a foreign area officer, where I’m dealing at, frankly with kind of diplomatic strategic level things, I need to be quite, if not fluent, extremely proficient in French, an ILR three or four, three plus four, something like that, very proficient. But also, and as much as it’s a diplomatic function, also with the intercultural competence piece. If I can’t see their point of view, if I can’t have some empathy for where my counterpart’s coming from, I will not be able to be effective as a negotiator with them.”

Over the next weeks, we’ll take a look at knowing how language works, knowing languages, knowing what culture is all about and exposing oneself to various cultures with an open perspective.

We’ll see how the payoff for managers, leaders, educators, and everyone who interacts with human beings – yes, all of us! – is huge, in terms of well being, yes, and also literal, monetary gains.

We’ll also see how lack of knowledge of languages, cultures, and how they work impoverish us as individuals, society, and businesses, and can lead to sorrows and even avoidable fatal encounters.

There’s a true cost to now knowing language and culture. And there’s true pay off to knowing.

Enjoy the podcast. 

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Episode 101 Its About Language | Bennett Whitehouse (Risk Analyst) | The Costs of Ignoring Language and Culture

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Thank you for always focusing on the possibilities, opportunities and the power of language and what it can do for us individually - and collectively!

Elizabeth Mack

If you've never done #cliftonstrengths, yourself or with your team, don't wait any longer.  Norah Jones of FLUENCY CONSULTING is the one and only to do it! It's all about your super powers: finding & using them to affect positive change in the world. What's not to love?!

Elizabeth Mack
Founder and CEO / Freestyle Languages


Yes, @NorahLulicJones definitely has the talent of "bringing out" the best in others or allowing them to showcase themselves in the best light! Thank you for directing the spotlight on others who have great stories and talents to share with others. 

Lisa Fore


Your podcasts are exceptionally relevant and applicable, thought-provoking and insightful, easy-to-follow and enjoyable!  

Paul Sandrock
Senior Advisor for Language Learning Initiatives / ACTFL


You have an immense talent to draw the best from your participants. 

Richard Brecht


Norah knows how to LISTEN - she really "hears" the message - and the interview is richer because of it.  New questions come from the hearing. 

Terri Marlow

Want to hear more? Access previous episodes, and get to know the wonderful people I talk with through the It’s About Language page, or by clicking on the Podcast tab above. You can also find this week’s episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter.

As a certified Gallup Strengths coach, I can provide you or your organization personalized coaching to discover and build on your strengths.

I provide workshops, presentations, and talks that inspire and engage through powerful language insights, and I pair those insights with practical applications for the lives of educators, learners, businesses, and faith-centered organizations. I’d love to share ideas with your organization or group, and develop an event tailored to your objectives.

Click here to start a conversation.



0:00:06.8 Norah Jones: Once in a while, you meet fascinating people serendipitously. And today’s guest is one of those, Bennett Whitehouse. I’m looking forward to sharing Bennett Whitehouse with you today. He’s a Risk Management Consultant in the insurance industry. He uses language in a powerful way to make sure that the humanity of each individual is clear, that the persons that are engaged in managerial levels in business and industry are those people that understand the importance of communication and clarity and humanity. And he’s able to connect his understanding of how language affects, how the humanity of language affects the actual cost of doing business, the money spent in doing business.

0:01:04.7 Norah Jones: It’s a wonderful insight into how language as a humane science is also that which makes us the happiest in our work, the most effective in our work and keeps us safest. He’ll give you some wonderful insights into vocabulary and into how to listen well, all of which have had a tremendous effect on his career and his effectiveness as a consultant for the insurance industry and risk management. Enjoy Bennett Whitehouse, he’s a delight, and he also has tremendous insights for us all.


0:01:46.9 Norah Jones: Sometimes folks just walk into your life and that happened with Bennett Whitehouse, my guest today, and I’m excited to share Bennett Whitehouse with you. Hi Bennett.

0:01:56.3 Bennett Whitehouse: Hey, Norah. How are you?

0:02:00.2 Norah Jones: I’m well, thank you. I’m going to jump right into it. Okay. You work at risk management consulting in the insurance industry, and we are talking about language, what is it that brought you right into the middle of the conversation with me about language here, when you’re in the risk management consulting business in insurance?

0:02:25.1 Bennett Whitehouse: Yeah, well, language is a tool, I think both for business and for life, for creating connections, for understanding other people. And ultimately as a consultant, my job is primarily communication. I meet with folks, I talk to them on the phone, I email a lot. And the whole purpose of it is to get ideas and concepts across, either in new ways or in the same way with a slightly different flavor with different people where it can resonate with them and hopefully that they can then apply that to their business and their operations in a way that can create some sort of productive improvement, whether it’s through efficiency or better results in any initiative they’re focusing on. So language is absolutely crucial to me being effective at my job, but also in our personal life too.

0:03:16.2 Norah Jones: Tell us more about what it sounds like when you are working with a client? How is it that you address the language aspect of what you’re doing with them? What are some of the aspects and issues in the language experience?

0:03:32.1 Bennett Whitehouse: Yeah. So I think, maybe to speak in terms of an example, so I work in the commercial property and casualty insurance industry, and a large piece of the claims volume that we see with our clients is workers’ compensation claims, so employee injuries. So that might manifest in my job, in terms of working with HR folks and supervisors and training them on, “Hey, so your employee comes to you and reports an injury, what’s your first question?” And some of them might say, “Did it happen at work?” And I ask them, “Well, how’s the employee going to feel if that’s your first question? They’re going to immediately sense the skepticism in you, and sense that maybe you’re trying to sniff out fraud on their behalf and their behavior.” A better question would be, “Oh my goodness! Are you okay? Tell me what happened.” So language is a key just in coaching people on their interpersonal relationship. So fun fact when it comes to workers compensation, especially, you might think that the cost of a medical claim related to a workplace injury would correlate highest with the severity of the injury. That’d probably be a pretty good assumption.

0:04:52.7 Norah Jones: I would assume that.

0:04:54.4 Bennett Whitehouse: The reality is the industries recognize that the highest corollary to the cost of a workers’ compensation claim is actually the quality of the relationship between the injured employee and their direct supervisor.

0:05:07.9 Norah Jones: Wow!

0:05:11.0 Bennett Whitehouse: [chuckle] Yeah. So how that supervisor treats and communicates with their direct reports can significantly influence all sorts of different things, but generally, just the quality of that relationship and how that plays out across any different type of interaction. And the language they choose to use with those people, whether it’s empathetic, caring and compassionate, or gruff, rough, harsh treatment and everything in between, makes a huge difference in [chuckle] that employee’s quality of life in the workplace.

0:05:48.3 Norah Jones: Bennett you’ve just exploded, I think, a lot of people’s minds. [chuckle] Certainly, I’m sitting over here going, “Oh, my goodness! Language plays a key part in this.” And I know with the skill set that you have and the clear interest that you have, we can’t be talking about one-off things, “Bennett Whitehouse does this, but nobody else does it.” How do you help to train others or raise consciousness about this fact, so that there are others that are aware and can begin to take action? And how do they, once they hear this reality?

0:06:28.0 Bennett Whitehouse: Well, to answer the first question first, the how is frank conversations like this. And typically, it comes down to, first there has to be a motivation to improve on the organization’s part, or the professional representing an organization that I’m working with, and then there has to be an openness to the idea that sometimes you have to do things differently in order to get better results. And when we say, “Hey, look, if you want to improve the cost of your workers compensation claims, you should focus on your supervisor’s management skills and communication skills and their relationship with their employees, and then maybe how you’re recruiting managers, how are you promoting people to be a manager, and does that play out in your process from a personnel standpoint.”

0:07:23.4 Bennett Whitehouse: And so I think, it’s almost a teaching role and just showing, A, here’s something you can consider and then, B, here’s how other clients have done it. And that’s one thing that I’m so blessed with, is I have worked with a lot of really great client organizations and professionals in those organizations, and I can call any one of them up and say, “Hey, I have another client, they’re in your industry, they have similar issues like you did in the past. We’ve been talking about this idea of developing care, compassion and concern in the workplace injury management process or in any of their various different personnel processes. Would you mind hopping on the phone with them or getting on a Zoom and describing how you all did it and what that looked like, how long did it take and setting the expectation that improvements in that world, they’re not quick, they take some time and they take concerted effort and dedication.”

0:08:27.0 Bennett Whitehouse: And so I think being the advisor and being the teacher, but then using other people as influencers and as examples to help get that across, that may be peers or competitors or anything along that spectrum, to help me get that message across show, “Not only do I advise that this is a good route to go, but here’s a couple of examples of where it was actually successful.”

0:08:58.0 Norah Jones: Truly phenomenal. I want to make sure that my listening audience recognizes that what we’re talking about here is a significant money-saving aspect, as well as the humanity that’s engaged with this. We are not going to forget that, but there’s also dollar signs connected with what you are talking about, am I correct?

0:09:19.2 Bennett Whitehouse: That’s absolutely right. So when we talk about workers compensation claims, employers are responsible for the cost of the medical treatment of an employee who’s injured on the job, and on within the course and scope their work. And any injury can be a quality of life changing event, whether that’s a partial amputation, a full amputation, paralyzation, a knee that’s not going to get to full recovery and may plague them the rest of their life and limit their athletic ability, you name it. And that can actually have an even farther extending effect onto anyone who has dependents, if physical capacity is reduced and their ability to care for those dependents or spouses, you name it. It’s really important to understand that aspect of what we do. It’s easy to remove the human element from the conversation and talk about dollar signs, but the reality is that this is a human’s life that’s being influenced at the same time.

0:10:25.2 Bennett Whitehouse: And so when you think of all the fear and uncertainty that’s related to a car wreck… An injury related to a car wreck or a fall or a slip, or anything that can happen in the office, at the job site, or on the road, treatment is scary, and the uncertainty of what the maximum recovery will be is scary. And if they spend any significant amount of time at home, all they’re going to see is horror stories from workers’ comp attorneys on TV commercials talking about, “Hey, you need an advocate, you need a lawyer, you need this, that, and the other,” and that will greatly add expense on top of what can already be quite a bit of medical expense.

0:11:10.3 Bennett Whitehouse: But I think the human aspect is critical, and you’re not treating the injury, you’re treating the injured worker. You’re treating the psychology and the fear behind them. And so making them understand that, “Hey, we’re here to help you. We have your best interest in mind, we want you to get the best treatment we can. Here’s your rights within this process, here’s the next five steps we’re going to go through. Here’s your advocates at our company. Here are all the things that we’re going to do to make sure we get you back to as best health as possible, post-injury.” And when you eliminate the unknown, and you treat the fear and the uncertainty, you can really get a better result from anyone that is part of that process. It’s the same thing doctors and nurses and other folks in the medical treatment world do. The first thing they do is make sure that you’re calm and, “Hey, you’re going to be okay and we got you. We’re going to take care of you.”

0:12:11.6 Norah Jones: Storytell, a little bit, the language that… When you began this, how the correlation between the way that the person feels on a daily basis about their relationship, which is often a language-based experience, can you have a story to share of, say, management that did not understand what you meant about the language that is used and how you help them to understand how to change the way they communicated with their employees?

0:12:50.0 Bennett Whitehouse: Yeah, I think, it’s not necessarily a specific story, but I think one of the biggest challenges we ran into is care, compassion, concern has to be genuine. And you can say all the right words, but if the meaning and the feeling isn’t behind it, people sniff that out really quickly. So I think the challenge that… It goes beyond the… Language is an expression of meaning and intent and even emotion, and if those underlying factors that color the language you use with those feelings, those emotions, if that’s missing, then people understand that, they can figure that out really quickly. You can say, “Hey, Norah I really care about you. Can you make sure you send in an injury report?” [chuckle] Doesn’t sound very compelling, does it?

0:13:46.0 Bennett Whitehouse: So that’s one of the challenges I’ve run into before, it’s just like [chuckle] we’ve got the wrong person in that position to play that role. And that, I think, is absolutely crucial as it takes the right language, but it takes it from the right person saying it with the right intention and the right meaning and saying it genuinely in order for someone to truly believe them and build trust. Because that’s ultimately the biggest piece of my job as a consultant, as leaders in the business, is getting buy-in to anything in cooperation, first starts on a foundation of building a relationship and building trust within that relationship. If it’s an adversarial relationship from the start, nothing’s really going to go too well. [chuckle]

0:14:35.0 Norah Jones: Thank you so much. Now you have two things, that you have shared with me in our previous conversations, that led to this invitation to be my guest today. And one of them is the fact that you have said to me that you speak several professional languages and they are all English. I love that phrase…

0:14:56.1 Bennett Whitehouse: Yes. [chuckle]

0:14:56.7 Norah Jones: And I would love to find out what you mean by that, and also, well, how it is that you listen to determine what people are really saying, So let’s work with those two, several professional languages and they’re all English, and how you listen carefully. Can you address those two please?

0:15:19.7 Bennett Whitehouse: Several professional languages, I was thinking about this from a lingo standpoint. And I’ve kind of reinvented my [chuckle] career a few times. I started out at 16-years-old, as the local outdoor store in Lynchburg, Virginia, Outdoor Trails, hired me on, as a fresh new Eagle scout, to sell outdoor gear and equipment and clothing. And so that was a really good entry into working in the professional world and dealing with all sorts of people, you never know who’s going to walk in the door trying to buy a pair of hiking boots and what preconceived notions they have. So I think maybe that was part of where I learned the listening skills, was trying to figure out what they were saying they need versus what they actually need based on what they’re doing and trying to ask the right questions to get the result where the customer is happy.

0:16:17.1 Bennett Whitehouse: But I went from there and all the lingo around gear and phrases that people use, and fortunately I knew all that stuff ’cause I was… That was an avocation of mine in my free time, so that wasn’t really much of a learning curve, but then I translated, I moved into digital marketing after college. And that was a whole new world of web development, code language and learning site latency, so how quickly your website loads or does not load and how that affects the consumer process and their ability or their likelihood of moving from browsing your website to actually purchasing a product online, for example.

0:17:04.0 Norah Jones: And so you think about there’s HTML, there’s Java Script, there CSS code in there, they’re site latency, and there’s algorithms, and there’s all these terms that come up, and there’s a whole vocabulary around that industry. And then there’s tons of acronyms around the key performance indicators that we use to figure out whether our advertisements and the things that we’re consulting on are driving the results that we want. So [chuckle] if I were to ask you right now, Norah, do you know what the acronym ROAS means?

0:17:37.4 Norah Jones: No. I do not.

0:17:41.2 Bennett Whitehouse: It’s R-O-A-S and you’ll hear people in the advertising industry say it all the time, “What’s the ROAS on this campaigns.” Return On Ads Spend. So most people have no idea what… If I were to say, ROAS, it would go right over their head. And so there’s all the vocabulary related to each industry and even different hobbies and interests. There’s so much that has to do… Where language is specialize based on the niche that you’re working in. And now I work a lot with IT folks, and so there is a cyber security space, doing cyber risk consulting and management with our insurance clients. And I get on calls with IT directors and underwriters and some of my teammates, and it gets technical pretty quickly because we’re talking about SIEMs and SOCs and MFA and Secure Email Gateway and password policies and all this stuff, and we get off the phone and I get a call from one of my coworkers and they’re like, “Thank goodness you were on that call because it sounded like you were speaking Greek to me.”


0:18:50.0 Bennett Whitehouse: So that’s really where I sort of crystallized this idea of I speak several professional languages based on my experience, because I often tell people that I speak IT, I speak insurance and then I speak English. And I can bridge the gap between the IT guys and the insurance people, and translate back and fourth. And it’s all in English, but they’re really two very different languages. So that’s kind of where I got that concept, and it’s been helpful for me to frame it that way in my mind, because then I’m more in tune to listen to the potential intent behind what someone is saying versus what they’re actually saying and understand that what they mean might not be coming out… What they’re saying might not be coming out and actually accurately representing what they mean.

0:19:44.5 Bennett Whitehouse: And meaning and intent is everything, and if you don’t get that right or someone else listening to you doesn’t get it right, well, they’re likely to misunderstand you. And misunderstandings lead to all sorts of different bad results and inefficient communication. So for me, that really helped me to actually answer your second question, listen really clearly to both what’s being said, and then sometimes draw the parallel to what other people have said versus what they’ve meant in a different… Said it a different way and say, “You said this, this and this, but did you mean this other concept, this other idea?” And they’re like, “Yes, that’s exactly what I meant.” And I think that’s a little bit of a natural talent that I’ve had my whole life. And then it’s also kind of been nurtured and developed over time with concerted practice.

0:20:43.4 Norah Jones: That ability to listen carefully and to then take the time to ask, “Is this what you mean?” Or, “When you say this, is this an illustration of it?” That taking of time also sounds to me like it’s part of the language experience, listening and drawing out a communication act in order to make sure that it’s clear and not just done. You say it’s been nurtured also in your life. Do you have any, say, family background that has brought that about or is that part of your studies or?

0:21:20.3 Bennett Whitehouse: Yeah. It’s just something that I think I found I was good at early on. And then I only recently discovered, I was talking to my mom, and she said it was something my grandmother was really good at. So, potentially, it’s genetic inheritance. I was a teenager when my grandparents passed, so I didn’t have the perspective I have now to go back and maybe recognize that in my grandmother, or ask her questions about that. But she often became almost like a personal guidance counselor to people. She was a really good listener and empathetic and a caring person, and I think she was able to connect with people because she had that skill too. But when I realized that it was helpful in my personal life in so many different ways as I often… People just share stuff with me confidentially very early in the relationship, and I just never really understood why.

0:22:21.5 Bennett Whitehouse: And I think being able to listen and care and be discreet and not share secret things, just eventually, some people just kind of see it in you. And then I realized that it’s actually really helpful professionally too, to build that trust because, ultimately, you don’t take advice from someone you don’t trust. And my primary job as a consultant is to advise people so I have to obtain their trust first. And fortunately I’m in an industry where relationships are long term, so I can take the time to not worry about immediate results, and instead focus on the relationship and get to know them and their business and their people. And then when you can do that, it’s way easier to advise them in a way that will resonate with them because you know them. So, yeah, I don’t know if I answered your question there, but that’s kind of where it all formed in my head.

0:23:17.9 Norah Jones: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Bennett. One of the things that you and I experienced when we first had the chance to meet each other was talking about languages, various languages around the world and what languages you may have studied and/or what cultural experiences and travel experiences you’ve had. And talk to us a little bit about what you have experienced in that way and whether that has any impact on how you look at things and what you’ve spoken here about the listening and the communication within the job that you have.

0:24:00.6 Bennett Whitehouse: Yeah. So I honestly, I think it started at EC Glass High School in the middle of Lynchburg, Virginia, because the thing I recognize is that even within one city, there’s so many different cultures represented by the people who live there in ways of speaking and manners of doing things. Some families hold wakes, some families hold traditional funerals, and there’s all sorts of different ways that people live and interact and communicate and how they sound, the different accents. And we have a transient society where it’s not unusual to have a New Yorker living in Virginia or a Californian or anything. And then you expand broader traveling the country. Just in the United States, I had been from Florida to Maine before I was a teenager, I believe. So understanding just how diverse our country is and the world is.

0:25:00.1 Bennett Whitehouse: And then having traveled to Europe, my father used to teach in Austria for a couple weeks every year, in a sort of a block class. He teaches at University of Lynchburg or Lynchburg College, whichever you prefer to use. [chuckle] He’s been there for 40 plus years as an academic, and so we went to Austria a couple times when he was over there teaching and got to see Germany, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Austria and understand sort of the nuances of… Most of them speak German, but they speak it different ways just like we do in the United States. The Southerner sounds way different from a Midwesterner or Northeasterner, and it’s the same over there in Germany. The Swiss sound different from the Germans and the Northern Germans sound different than the Bavarians, and they sound a little bit different than the Austrians.

0:25:53.8 Norah Jones: And that’s influenced by all sorts of different colloquialisms, regional dialects and historical influences. And then having the chance to go to Asia and Canada and all over the place, it opened my eyes to the idea that people can say the same thing and mean the same thing, but say it in so many different ways that if you can hear what they say and establish the true meaning of what they say, whether it’s in English or whether it’s in a foreign language that you do or don’t understand. There are some things that people can say in a language I don’t understand and I know exactly what they mean if I can pick out one word and I can read their body language and their maybe a little bit of sign language and realize exactly what they mean by that. So I think all of those experiences have kind of tuned my ear to… How to listen to language in a way that can be useful to me and the person I’m interacting with.

0:26:58.1 Norah Jones: It’s interesting that you brought up the body language indeed, because so many times, when we talk about language, we can maybe unconsciously limit it to just the word spoken, the sound spoken, and of course that’s obviously a big part of what language can be. But the languages are a complete body experience, and that’s an interesting skillset that you noticed early on, the ability to be paying close attention and pick out what the meaning was, even though you didn’t know maybe even a majority of the words.

0:27:34.2 Bennett Whitehouse: Yeah. Yeah, I think it’s the body language, it’s the any way people are using their hands, and it’s the facial expressions and then the tone and inflection of their voice. You can ask someone, “WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED MAN?” And it’s like you can tell very quickly that they’re angry or you can ask someone, “What the heck happened, man?” And they can tell that you’re being empathetic and that you care about them. It’s the exact same sentence, but the tone, the inflection, your facial expressions when you do it, mean very different things in terms of your intent behind the question. So I think that’s sort of the real… That adds to the nuance of language, is you could ask that question in different… You could use different diction and get to the same basic question, but the tone and how you say it is just as important as what you said.

0:28:30.4 Norah Jones: I’m going to tap on your goldfish memory here again, Bennett. I’m going to have two questions. One has to do with just what you said. Do you ever bring that to the attention of those with whom you are working, when you’re helping to point out the nature of the effect of their language and their connection with the employees? Again, with the outcome of that cost we talked about, of both human suffering and also money expenditure. So keep that in mind, if you ever brought that to other people’s attention, those kinds of intonation things you’ve just talked. And then second is, we’re going to tap on the fact that there are speakers of other languages in the United States, in the city in which you live. And we’ll hop on that one for a little bit, but let’s start with the, how you might express what you just shared here with those who might need it in their work with their employees.

0:29:37.3 Bennett Whitehouse: Absolutely. I do address that with them. I think, sort of what I mentioned earlier, is part of it is, you got to have the right person to say that message because how they say it and the position from which they’re saying it will determine how employees will receive it oftentimes. So the intent, the meaning, the inflection, the body language, everything. If you want to establish trust in what that person is saying, then they have to say it genuinely. So the person that’s trying to drive a new initiative has to be bought into it, or they’re not going to communicate it in a way that’s inciting or inspires buy-in to creating any sort of change. I think oftentimes we’re stuck in our ways and businesses are no different.

0:30:27.1 Bennett Whitehouse: And this is how we’ve always done it. Why would we change it? Nothing bad’s happened so far, [chuckle] even though there’s a lot of potential for something bad to happen, even if it hasn’t yet. Just because you haven’t wrecked your car doesn’t mean you’re a good driver. [chuckle] But the power of no result can really influence you to think that you’re a safe driver, even if you’re not, because you haven’t wrecked your car. I think everyone at some point down the line has caught themselves texting and driving and it’s like, “Were you good or were you lucky?” Because that’s how people crash cars a lot. So that was a bit of a tangent, but, for example, here’s a good example to kind of maybe crystallize it. We sometimes advocate for clients to do employee perception surveys, and sometimes in the, in sort of in the safety perception survey world, when we’re talking about workers’ comp or auto risk.

0:31:27.5 Bennett Whitehouse: We want to learn from them, “Do you feel safe on the job? Are you confident in the safety practices at work? Do you see any opportunities for improvement, etcetera?” Because we believe the people closest to the problem are also closest to the solutions. And that’s generally a concept our team tries to stick to, is learning from the people doing the work. The challenge is if you issue a survey and you solicit someone’s feedback on making improvements or on how, just how you’re doing currently, and you ask them for ideas or solutions, and that feedback comes back and you don’t do anything differently, you don’t change anything and you don’t use any of the information you got from them, they’re going to feel like, “Well, you’re not listening.” And they’re going to feel like, “Well, that was meaningless. Next time they send out that survey, I’m not filling that out. That was a waste of time. They didn’t change anything the last time we did this.”

0:32:27.2 Bennett Whitehouse: And, actually, it was interesting because I went through that in my previous career in digital marketing. Our company would send out employee survey every year, every single year, it was an employee satisfaction survey, and they’d consistently score in the 63-67% employee satisfaction. So you could read that one or two ways, “Oh, two thirds of their employees are happy,” or you could read it as, “One third of their employees are unhappy.” Or you could read that as, “Everyone’s sort of meh, on this company.” [chuckle]

0:33:02.4 Bennett Whitehouse: Well, what was really interesting to see was the CEO get up on a worldwide webinar for all 5,000 employees of this company and say, “Our employee satisfaction survey results came back and we’re really happy to see that we’re above the industry average,” and they might have been five points above the industry average, but they’re above the industry average so, “We’re really happy about that.”

0:33:29.4 Bennett Whitehouse: And then he’ll just move on. Basically he say, “65% satisfaction is great for us because it’s better than other people.” I’m like, “Dude, I think maybe you should just sweep those survey results under the rug, because honestly, that only made people more disgruntled to hear that.” So that’s a story that I like to tell clients and sort of the, “Look, if you do something just for the sake of doing it, people are going to notice eventually. If you do something with real meaning and intent behind it, they’ll notice that too. And it’s all how you do it, how you phrase it, how you sell or try to convince people of the benefits of those actions.” And that all comes back to carefully tuning your language because words matter and they establish the foundation of that trust in that relationship that’s going to lead to something better in the future.

0:34:22.2 Norah Jones: Foundation of trust that’s going to lead to something better in the future, what a huge statement. An investment in the language, no question. Now, the second part that I brought up, briefly, I’ll bring back again then, is we have folks that you work with, I assume, like in many places in the country, where English is their second language or there might be workers that don’t speak English very well and management that doesn’t necessarily speak the language of the workers well. Can you talk a little bit about the nature of language and language difference in that way?

0:35:02.2 Bennett Whitehouse: Yeah. I think that’s a big challenge for, especially, for certain industries, and high risk ones, especially like construction, certain manufacturing industries, etcetera, is people… English is their second language, they know enough to kind of get around, but you wouldn’t really define them as fluent. And managers weren’t hired for their language skills specifically, whether it’s any given foreign language. Or there are parent companies from overseas that own a USA arm, for example. We kind of have it two ways where we’ve got American folks working with people that are higher than them on the org chart, that maybe their primary language is Korean, Chinese, Japanese, German, a lot of our manufacturing and distributing clients. And some things can get lost both in the language differences, but also in the cultural differences. And my key takeaway and advice to clients usually is, “Find the right person that can bridge that gap and use them as a tool in those relationships.”

0:36:12.3 Bennett Whitehouse: And I don’t mean that in a manipulative way, because usually people that have that skill genuinely enjoy the connection between people, interpersonal connection and conversation. And oftentimes they are very helpful types of people. So I just try to tell them, “Look, you don’t need to teach everyone the dominant language if English is the second language for workers. What you need to do is find the right people that can connect with them and then foster that skill and figure out a way to use them as your advocate to people that you don’t necessarily communicate as well with yourself.” Now, I think it’s really important too, to try and build up some skills and bridge that gap. I’m not saying don’t go learn another language, but I think that’s a long… That takes a long time.

0:37:05.4 Bennett Whitehouse: It takes a lot of skill, it takes dedication. And most of the people I work with are stretched so thin as it is to… I could tell ’em all day long, “Hey, you need to go learn Spanish,” or, “You should learn German if you want to communicate with those people better.” But I’ve got to give practical advice too, that’s achievable. So that first step is often, identify that person that you connect with that can also connect with them and use them as your messenger, as your communicator and learn from them too. So they can be your source of intel from people that maybe you don’t communicate as well with, but you value their feedback and their engagement. That’s really critical in the business world.

0:37:47.8 Norah Jones: Therein lies such a humane approach, not assuming that each person has to be responsible for 100%, but providing a bridging, talented in this way, personality that can help to connect folks together, that’s huge. Let me ask you from a risk point of view. I’ve come across both articles and then some research that seems to bring this story into some focus. And I’d love to ask for your response to what I’m sharing.

0:38:23.3 Norah Jones: Periodically, we hear of workers in some industries that are forbidden from speaking with each other even on off-hours or non-working environment, as well as working environment. Forbidden from speaking a common native language that is not English. A punitive approach to their talking in their native language with a colleague. That news comes around periodically. And then a research that seems to demonstrate a higher risk factor in potential injuries for those industries that are requiring 100% English from workers that are working in, say, noisy environments, environments in which they need to communicate quickly if there’s an emergency where their dominant language is not English, but they are punished for speaking anything but English, even in potentially emergency situations. I’ve placed a variety of stories there, and probably somewhat on the fringe in some case, maybe not, but do you have some responses to those two scenarios and what that means for US and other places too, but especially in a multilingual culture that may not… May discern that it wants the dominant language of English to be used?

0:39:55.3 Bennett Whitehouse: Absolutely. I haven’t come across that, fortunately, with any of the companies I work with. But if I heard them say that that’s their policy, my question would be, “Well, how was that working out for you? [chuckle] How’s the compliance with it? Because I guarantee you, when you’re not looking, those people are speaking whatever language is going to make them the most efficient and most effective.” Because, “We ultimately have a job to do, we’re going to get it done, and we’re humans, we’re efficiency machines, we’re going to try and do it the best way possible.” So it sounds all great in the ivory tower to say, “Let’s force everyone to speak English so that then everyone can “understand each other” because we have a standard language but… And maybe that will force some sort of increased competence in speaking the English language.” But I would argue that they’re probably seeing… They’ve probably had some degradation of results if people actually comply with it. And my guess would be it’s most likely that people aren’t consistently complying with that policy either.

0:41:04.1 Bennett Whitehouse: I would also say that for high-risk industries, my goal is not to worry about which language you use to communicate with your employees. My goal is that they understand the safety message, and that they go home with all their fingers and toes, and arms, and legs, and their life at the end of the day, and their eyesight, and their hearing. And I don’t think it shouldn’t matter necessarily what language you use with your employees. If you hire folks that don’t speak English as a primary language, it’s your responsibility for them to understand what they need to do and what protections you have in place to keep them safe at work. And if you can do that more efficiently in their native tongue than enforcing them to speak English, then you’re going to keep your people safe, and then that in itself is an expression of care. That is really important when quality of life is on the line at the end of the day.

0:42:05.5 Norah Jones: Powerfully said. Thank you very much, Bennett. That was such an important answer and I appreciate it very much. Preparation of folks for the business and industry, what do you see that you wish were done better or that you notice that’s being done really well that you’d like to see [chuckle] more widespread? How can people be better prepared to understand and effectively apply what you have seen makes a difference?

0:42:36.3 Bennett Whitehouse: [chuckle] Can I tell you about one of my biggest pet peeves? [laughter] It’s communicating unintentionally. People just shoot out emails as quickly as they can type them out, and they send them off like they’re texting. And oftentimes I get a lot of communications that weren’t clearly thought out and someone didn’t start with, “What’s the message I want to get across and what do I want this person to do with that information.” Which is often how business communication works, it’s like, “Hey, I need to give you some information. I also probably need to ask you to do something.” But oftentimes, it will be a 15 email long chain that someone will forward to you and it just says, “See below.” [chuckle] You’re like, “Okay. So I’m going to read through all of this.” You probably could have summarized it in about two or three sentences, “Here’s what’s happening, here’s what’s going on, here’s what I need you to do about it because you have expertise in this role and you’ve done this for other clients.” What I get is, “See below.” And then I have to read this entire email chain, it takes 30 minutes and then draw my own conclusions as to what I’m supposed to glean from that and then what I’m supposed to do about it.

0:43:57.9 Bennett Whitehouse: When it would be really helpful if someone could take the extra 30 seconds to type out a few sentences of like, “Here is my impression of what’s going on here. Do you agree or disagree? Do you think you could jump in and give this person a call and clear this thing up? Or can you help them with X, Y or Z?” But oftentimes, that gets lost. So my biggest advice to people would be to do things with intent, not just communicate with intent, but do anything with intent. If you’re doing something and you go… And you ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” And you don’t have an answer for it, then there’s… I think that identifies an opportunity for reflection and understanding as to whether you should continue to be doing that thing or whether you should be doing it better, or establish a reason for why you’re doing it. And I think communication and language it’s not excluded from that concept, but that’s what I see so often in the business world, is this very casual way of communicating and it can actually lead to a lot of inefficiency. Whereas if the message has just been conveyed really clearly, concisely and eloquently or articulately from the start, instead of having 15 back and forth emails or three phone calls, we could get it done with one or two and move about our lives.


0:45:30.2 Norah Jones: The efficiencies of communication. Imagine communication in order to accomplish aspects, that would be awesome. [laughter] Appreciate that. Bennett, as we come to a close here, I’m going to give you an opportunity to… As we look at this listening audience, at least verbally, is there anything that you would like to iterate again, to invite folks to do, to exhort them to do, warn them about? Is there anything else that you want to make sure that you say before we finish our conversation today?

0:46:10.3 Bennett Whitehouse: Yeah, I think the most important thing for me to realize in business, in life, in everything related to language and communication, is if you strip away the titles, you strip away the organization behind the action that’s happening, and just… You start to realize we’re all just people and we’re all just trying to get things done, and nobody really has all the answers. And if we can reintroduce that human aspect to what would be otherwise a little bit more formal relationship or a little bit less personal, not everybody has to be best friends, but just realize that we’re all struggling with different things, we’re all working through different things, we’re all trying to achieve results.

0:47:00.5 Bennett Whitehouse: And using language to build relationships and establish trust, even if you don’t want to be someone’s friend can still be a more enriching way of going about life. Whether it’s at work or outside of work, just having respect for other people and using language to show them that you do and that everyone has an opportunity to teach you something, and the only way to learn is to listen, and the only way to listen is to be able to understand what they’re saying and what they mean behind it, and vice versa.


0:47:37.5 Bennett Whitehouse: If you can be clear in your intentions and your meaning and your action and how you convey those to other people verbally or non-verbally then I think life in general is better.


0:47:51.7 Norah Jones: It certainly sounds like it would be a lot calmer as well as more humane. Bennett Whitehouse, thank you so much for sharing your insights today. I know folks have gleaned a lot and I hope that they will take a look at their own communication and especially listening skills and the implications of the vocabulary that they know and all those other things that you tapped on today. Just so much appreciate you sharing your experiences and your insights with us.

0:48:20.7 Bennett Whitehouse: You’re very welcome. And I’m so happy to be on your podcast, so thank you for the invitation.


0:48:30.4 Norah Jones: I hope you enjoyed this podcast, and I hope that you’ll share it with others that have a need, potentially, of understanding the impact of language on employees and upon their organization, their business, their group, their community, even their family. Please check out my website, fluency.consulting for more information about Bennett Whitehouse, and for an opportunity to listen to, download, and enjoy all of my guests. Thank you again and until next time.


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