We are celebrating our 75th anniversary as British Council in the Netherlands in 2020-21 by sharing 75 personal stories from people who have a special connection to both the UK and the Netherlands. Read the 75 NL-UK stories and join us in celebrating our 75th anniversary. Expand the boxes below to read the full stories by Eldridge Labinjo and Abi Daruvalla. New stories will be added in the months to come.
75 UK-NL Stories - Communication
I think many of us will be familiar with the saying ‘there's a good book inside all of us’. That may or may not be true, but in my personal experience what is true, is that we all have a message that at some point needs sharing. The problem is often not being able to, or knowing how, to best share that message.
A few years back while working for a new client, I was asked to have a session with Mike, who drove a London black cab.
Then as now, he had a lot to share, but unfortunately he was having diﬃculties in giving his message a voice, literally. He spoke so softly that it was diﬃcult to understand him.
I asked Mike, “How do you get a pint in the pub” and he replied softly, “yeah, I often don’t get served”. This was not only sad, it’s also not a great excuse when it’s your turn to get the drinks in!
While there was some physical aspects regarding his use of breath and posture, it went deeper than that.
I asked him about the message that he wanted to share. If he thought it was relevant? Was it valuable? Was it important for others to hear?
Considering the questions thoughtfully, he replied in a quiet yet firm voice, “yes”.
I asked him to keep that in mind and said that I was going outside into the corridor and would not come back into the room till I heard him say my name.
While not soundproofed, the room was well insulated and had pretty heavy doors. After they swung shut, the silence felt complete.
I waited and waited, time dragged out behind me like a scene from the film Interstellar. With an acute spike of relief in my chest, I finally heard my name and enthusiastically stepped back inside! However once Mike started talking his volume dropped back to an almost inaudible whisper. Undaunted we doubled down.
Typically for the UK, there was a small tea station outside the room further up the corridor. Before going back outside to make two cups of tea, I reminded Mike of how it was the message that counts.
Click, the boiling kettle stopped and the ferociously bubbling water calmed. Silence. As I stirred the tea, wincing at the clinks the spoon made against the inside of the mug, I contemplated how much sound the added distance, room insulation and heavy doors would be blocking.
Eventually, I heard my name, Eldridge.
Back inside I placed the now tepid mugs of tea on the table and asked Mike to put his hands on his stomach and chest. Then I said;
“Now, use your voice to tell that message Mike, the one you know we need to hear. Remember, that feeling you had when you said my name so loud that I could hear it outside this room. Feel what you felt. Feel what you feel”.
Then with a strong, audible and resolute voice, he began to share his message.
A few weeks later Mike and I had a follow up session. He was happy to tell me that he was getting served in the pub, but more importantly his message was being heard!
I asked Mike what’s changed and with a confident voice that carried to the back of the room he said, “If I have to speak in public or make a presentation, wherever I am, I just imagine that you’re standing behind the door”.
Mike later became the top ranked applicant from around the world for a PhD studentship at the MRC (Medical Research Council) Centre for Environment and Health, a joint collaboration between Imperial College and King's College.
He is currently looking at the medical eﬀects of London Underground air pollution, particularly regarding the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
His willingness to go further, stretching beyond his comfort zone, in service of a message that helps others, is what Mike tapped into.
In some ways it is paradoxically typical and at the same time extraordinary.
Working with people all across the UK, that strong sense of public ethos and service to others, is palpable. It is something that I help others tap into and makes my work even more rewarding.
After all a great presentation is a present, shared and presented in the present, because we need to hear it.
Sometimes when I am training a group of international scientists or face-timing my family in the UK, their faces go blank, usually followed by a silence where there should be a response. What has happened is that I have switched languages from English into Dutch without realising. This usually happens as a result of what I call trigger words, words that are either very difficult to translate, like uitstraling, or represent a very Dutch concept like kennismakingsgesprek.
In fact I speak reasonably good Dutch (please note this phrasing reflects an unmistakeably British penchant for understatement). And of course most Dutch people speak good English - but probably not as well as they would had they lived in the UK for over 40 years. Because even if you are married to a native speaker or work in an international environment, there is no substitute for living in a foreign country surrounded and submerged in its language and culture.
Coming to Amsterdam as a young journalist in 1979, the task of learning to speak Dutch with sufficient proficiency to feel comfortable both professionally and personally seemed insurmountable. I thought it would be easier to fly to the moon. And indeed it took a very long time to achieve any level of competency. What helped were the Dutch people who refused to speak English to me, didn’t constantly correct me and were patient enough to listen to my fumbling attempts to find the right word.
Today it is just irritating when a Dutch person responds with “say it in English” when I can’t find the right word. Because my problem is not a lack of vocabulary, but difficulty with being able to explain something, in any language.
So, what have I learnt from over 40 years in Amsterdam? That at the end of the day, it’s not language that counts, but communication.