The other day I was signed up to teach a group of people working in Norway how to make a high-quality presentation in English after learning my tips of the trade about how to perform well in front of a large audience. Or so I thought. When questioned further in an advance e-mail sent out by me as to what they wanted to get out of our daylong course together more specifically, what came out was that they needed to learn how to ‘present’ at meetings with other nationalities present where English was the meeting language. More specifically, they wanted to know how to do this on Skype. What struck me after reading their reasons for this type of teaching is how modern technology is supposed to make our working lives easier and yet in some cases has just become a new source of anxiety concerning our work performance. Another arena in which to be judged – and found wanting? My adult students’ comments included how ‘things used to be easier talking to foreign coworkers and clients because it was on the phone and they didn’t have to see my face’. And ‘I find it hard to have to look cheerful and interested all the time because I know the camera is on me.’ Or ‘I can’t run and I can’t hide by sitting quietly in my chair at the meeting table while letting others do most of the talking.’ Or ‘It’s just weird having to look into a screen all the time, I feel I can’t even look away or will give the wrong impression that I’m not interested in what’s going on.’ Or lastly, ‘Skyping makes me even more nervous and aware of my poor English speaking skills, it’s hard for me to see the person I’m talking with on the other side of the world look like he doesn’t really understand what I’m saying. It makes me say even more mistakes.’
The Skype phenomenon is nothing new, as this digital tool has been around for quite awhile. (Digression: I remember having two business students present it years ago to my class, actually one guy presenting Skype and the other something crazy called ‘Spotify’ – we in the audience said, ‘Are you kidding – all of this is coming our way soon? And just what is ‘streaming’, anyway?) Everyone knew it had come to stay when the cost-saving aspect of being able to hold meetings where you lived instead of being sent across the globe to attend them became a financial fact. But that didn’t necessarily make it easier for the actual employees (Norwegian, in this course’s case) to take part in them. So we talked about their concerns for awhile – English class as group therapy session? Sometimes it does seem that through talking and finding out that you’re not the only one struggling with something you think everyone else finds easy is the way to go. Not always easy to do with a group of strangers, but as one woman told me, ‘For some odd reason I find it easier to open up in English, almost as if I’m a different person when I speak it.’ Apparently many others felt the same way this particular day, as they shared their stories of times when they felt that they didn’t perform well during these meetings and it left them feeling a bit insecure about what they should do the next time they hit their ‘Join meeting’ key.
Interestingly enough, one of the main points coming out of this sharing was how they avoided conflict during their digital meetings because of not knowing quite how to disagree with the person on the other screen. Interesting because of the stereotypical Scandinavian communication style, which includes their usually being rather blunt and to the point. They also didn’t seem to be comfortable with interrupting the other person or what to do if they themselves got interrupted during what had become a more heated debate. And just how did you go about telling a very poorly speaking foreign client/coworker that you were having a really hard time understanding what they were saying when you weren’t in the room with them and therefore couldn’t for example lean a bit forward to show you were concentrating on what they were trying to get across? Their concerns were many – some small and yet big to them. Luckily, because they had told me in advance that these were the things they wanted to solve during our time together, we were able to make a list and solve them one by one together.
So, what they hopefully learned the other day helped them deal with this very modern challenge in the global workplace – at the very least they found out that they weren’t the only ones struggling with Skype performance issues, a comforting thought at the end of a digital day.