Work-friends. Or: How language can change the way we perceive the world.

September 13, 2017

As a foreigner working and living with his family here in Turkey, it is natural for me to learn to speak Turkish. I have met a couple of expats who have been living here for years and do not even try to learn the language instead trying to get by with English. This approach may work in Istanbul, but you will always remain a mere tourist. There is no way around Turkish to arrive here fully. If you want to begin to understand Turkish culture, language is the key to understanding the mindset of people.

Back in 2007, just before I made my marriage proposal to Burcu, I started studying Turkish. Back then I bought a Langenscheidt self-study course with a book and audio CD and a dictionary. There, in the second chapter, I learned a key sentence in one of the first lessons: Benimle evlenir misin? But this is another story…

9 years later, when I started working here, in my first talk at our all-company cycle meeting, I made a pledge to my co-workers: “Today, I am speaking to you in English. But in one year’s time, when we meet all again, I will be giving my presentations in Turkish.” – I made this commitment publicly maybe more for myself than for my co-workers. And I kept it. And even if my Turkish isn’t perfect and I make a lot of mistakes, speaking to my co-workers in their own language has been the key to success.

Our language is the key to understanding our own thinking and the way that we see and understand the world. Because our thoughts are language. Wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein:

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

The way in which the same state of affairs is expressed in two different languages shows the underlying different understanding in the two cultures.

Here’s a good example from work:

In Germany, we differentiate between relatives, friends and acquaintances, sorted by degree of closeness and familiarity. And then there are the colleagues. Most of them are acquaintances, sometimes they can also become friends.

You can usually choose your friends but not your colleagues. There’s a German proverb to this effect.

A colleague is someone with whom you work together in the same company. Colleagues are acquaintances – people you know – with whom you work in the same department, in the same office or in the same company. You might make friends with some colleagues. Never with others. In any case, they are and remain colleagues. When asked who that person in the photo is, the answer is certain: “A colleague.” Even if it is a “friend” colleague.

And since we Germans also separate work and private life very precisely and consciously, it is the exception rather than the rule that we meet up with colleagues after work, in our free time, on weekends, on vacation … and spend time together. We can see the colleagues at work all day. We work closely with them and actually spend more time with them than with our families and friends. That’s enough…

Here in Turkey, my colleagues are called iş arkadaşları. Work friends. And that actually tells you everything. It’s the default mindset, the definition of the people you work with. They are your friends.

This is how I was received and treated in my new company from the first minute on my first working day. More than just “collegial” and more than just “friendly”. Warm, open, helpful, genuinely interested in me as a person, willing to share private matters and to help in private matters. I am very grateful for that.

As natural work friends, I have also got to know many of my Turkish friends as quite the natural team players. My take on this is that it’s a function of the string “collectivism” culture dimension. Turks find it easy to integrate into groups sharing a common spirit and working towards a common goal – with the right leadership, I should add.

Whereas in Germany, a more individualistic culture, aligning groups of colleagues into a team is much more difficult; again, the German proverb goes like this: TEAM is an acronym for “Toll, ein anderer macht’s.” (Great, someone else will do it.)

Last night I told one of my “work friends” that I am writing this blog. He immediately said that I should also mention him. So here is a selfie of mine with my friend Çağatay. True friend, not just work friend. 🙂

One thought on “Work-friends. Or: How language can change the way we perceive the world.

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