Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Speaking Italian Is Easier in Person Than Over the Phone

by Gilda Bonanno LLC http://www.gildabonanno.com/

I recently returned from Italy where I facilitated training in Rome for a global client – more than 50 employees came from Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Holland and Portugal. I also spent a few days touring and sightseeing.

When I left the U.S., my Italian language skills were okay, but a bit choppy and certainly not fluent. After the first week of almost total immersion (mostly among Italians who spoke very little English), my Italian improved greatly and I was able to speak more fluently. And it helped that most of the locals, even if they spoke excellent English, were very tolerant of people making mistakes when trying to speak Italian. In fact, most were very excited when I spoke Italian with them and they encouraged it.

I noticed, however, that it was much easier for me to speak Italian in person than over the telephone. In person, I could convey meaning by using gestures, facial expressions and movement, almost drawing what I was speaking about with my hands or acting it out.

For example, when the conference room was too hot, I could ask in Italian for the hotel staff to adjust the air conditioning while using gestures - fanning my face with my hand and wiping the sweat from my brow. I also could see how they reacted to my words and whether they looked confused or smiled.

On the phone, however, it was much more difficult to communicate because all I had were my words and my voice – I couldn't use any other non-verbals to help me communicate my message.

The same is true even when you're speaking in English or your native language. In front of a live audience, whether it's one or one hundred, you have all the elements of non-verbal communications – eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, posture, movement and voice – to help you communicate, provided they tell the same story as your words. You can also gauge the reaction of the audience. Over the phone, you have to rely only on your words and your voice.

For example, when I called the hotel front desk in Rome to ask for a replacement of the low battery for the safe in my room, I struggled to form the complete sentence correctly. I couldn't point to the safe, or demonstrate how I unlocked and opened it or see the desk clerk's facial expressions to determine if she understood me. And my voice probably didn't help much – I spoke slowly and I'm sure I sounded confused while also trying to sound polite. Oddly enough, I still gestured, even though no one could see it.

And all of this was complicated by the fact that I didn't know the Italian for "safe" and could only describe it literally as "the thing in my room where I put my passport and money."

It took time for the desk clerk to comprehend my request, but eventually it did work because a few minutes later, someone was at my door to replace the battery.

This episode reminded me that non-verbals matter and they can make communication easier – or harder. And if you're communicating over the phone, your voice and words become even more important.

And by the way, I also learned that the Italian word for safe is "cassaforte."

For photos of my trip to Italy, check out my blog post Gilda's Photos from Rome, Italy

4 comments:

Daphne Steinberg said...

Touche, Gilda. I, too, speak Italian and found myself in much the same situation recently. I was trying to say "cauliflower" (which, btw, is "cavolfiore"). I often joke that without my hands, I can't "speak." In the work I do -- assisting job seekers with resume writing -- I find myself using gestures all the time and they help. Goodness do they help! Great post!

Gilda Bonanno said...

Grazie, Daphne, for your comment. Yes, gestures are very helpful, which is one of the reasons that virtual meetings via teleconference are so challenging.
Btw, mi piace cavolfiore!

louise said...

Hi Gilda,
I enjoy your pieces and have kept several to review including your trip to Italy which is esp. appreciated as we lived in Rome and Milan for 3 yrs. You are right - the Italians are gracious and helpful in helping you to communicate and have mutual understanding. Hand signals play an important part of conversation and without using them it could be termed a "dull conversation". Best regards and thanks! Louise Marasso

Gilda Bonanno said...

Thanks, Louise. Wow, what a great opportunity you had to live in Italy for 3 years!
Yes, no hand signals and gestures would make a dull conversation... and make it much harder to "speak" Italian.