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A reminder that even when we speak the same language, communication gaps exist

Nancy Napier
Nancy Napier

Even when we speak the same language, we may not understand each other. I found that out again recently.

This past summer, I was fortunate to conduct a workshop with some coaches at the West Coast Eagles professional Australian Rules Football team in Perth.

The 20-some coaches and assistants were good sports, willing to take part in a creativity exercise, getting into the discussion and paying attention to a person who was so different from them in many ways. I’m not much of a sports person, and come from a (not quite as) remote part of the U.S. Indeed, Perth has to take honors as THE most remote city of any size in the world. But I do research on how leaders think, especially about creativity — and my research group over the years has included some remarkable coaches. I thought perhaps some of their ideas might help the Perth coaches.

I thought the workshop went well. The coaches were engaged and had fun, we cracked a few jokes, and when we finished, they didn’t fight to get to the door.

But then, the letdown.

The coach who had organized the session stood up and turned to the group.

“OK, mates. Let’s take a yawn and then we might ask Nancy a few questions.”

A yawn?

“What? Was I that boring?” I was on the verge of being upset that I’d read the crowd so wrong.

“No, no,” he said, “we’re just taking a yawn.”

“But a yawn?” By now I’m sure I sounded a bit shrill.

“Spell it!” yelled one of his colleagues.

“Yawn,” he said, “Y-A-R-N. As in, have a chat.”

“Ahhhhhh. Yarn,” I said.

“Right. Yawn.”

And so it goes. English isn’t always the English we think we know. My lesson — make no assumptions, even when you think you know.

Nancy Napier is a distinguished professor at Boise State University.

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