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Sure, you can walk in someone’s shoes, but why not learn to speak their language?

“Lost in Translation” by Ella Frances Sanders inspired Business Insider creativity columnist Nancy Napier to think about how language changes perspectives.
“Lost in Translation” by Ella Frances Sanders inspired Business Insider creativity columnist Nancy Napier to think about how language changes perspectives. Ten Speed Press

What do you call the sunlight that passes through the leaves of a tree? Or the long reflection the moon casts on a lake that looks like a pathway?

If you want to understand another person, goes the advice, learn her language. I usually think of that advice in terms of a foreign language but it applies in our own as well. So, let’s start with foreign language and ease into English.

I recently received a marvelous gift — a book called “Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World” (Ella Frances Sanders, Ten Speed Press). The author offers up words from over 30 languages that convey concepts that have no good English word as an equivalent. The woman who gave me the book pointed out her favorite: the Japanese word “komorebi.” It means the “sunlight that filters through the leaves of a tree.” Don’t we all see, relish, and love that light? But do we have a good English word for it? Or, do we have a word for the blank spaces between leaves that allow the light to come through?

Ella Frances Sanders Ten Speed Press

One of my favorites is “mangata,” Swedish for the road-like reflection of the moon on the water.” I’ve seen that, marveled at it, but never had such a concise word for it, at least in English.

These words and concepts are intriguing partly because of their beauty but also because they provide a glimpse into another culture.

Nancy Napier

The Japanese value beautiful landscapes and trees, whether cherry blossoms or Japanese maples, especially during spring and fall. “Komorebi” makes good sense when I understand that love of nature. Likewise, many Swedes live near water and doubtless see many moonlit nights. So I can well imagine them nudging friends to say, “Did you see that mangata last night?”

Learning “language” as a way to understand others is common in organizations as well, especially when it comes to figuring out culture and the ways people relate to one another. In the military, the notion of “duty, honor, country,” carries very strong meaning about how people act toward each other and toward their duties. In my field, we talk about “student-centered learning,” which has clear implications about how we design and deliver courses, and how we facilitate student progress and learning. In the tech industry, the words “nerd” and “geek” may reflect what people expect in the way a colleague will do the work and interact (or not) with others.

Words carry heft and meaning. When we shift cultures, we shift languages, even when we stay inside our own countries. For leaders, in particular, the ability to be aware of language shifts and to be versatile and respectful enough to make those changes says a lot about the desire to connect.

I suppose good leaders also have “nunchi,” Korean meaning “the subtle, often unnoticed, art of listening and gauging another’s mood.” Maybe we all need to develop a bit more “nunchi.”

Nancy Napier is distinguished professor in the College of Business and Economics at Boise State University.