Imagine working within the tech industry using your third language only. Yes, you heard me: not your mother tongue or English, but whichever language you master after those.
Welcome to my daily life!
When I started at my current workplace I was not only new to the company, I was also new to the role, new to the industry, relatively new to Stockholm and quite new to the language. And there I was, working 5 days a week at an IT consultancy using mainly Swedish.
(To be clear here: my mother tongue is Finnish and like many of us, I’ve grown up reading/hearing/seeing/using mostly English. I learned a little Swedish at school.)
It was harder than I had imagined. It was an extra layer on top of all the other new things that I was taking in. Heck, it was a layer between me and all the other new things.
”Your Swedish is amazing, you’ve got nothing to worry!”, people say when I express my frustration. I know you all mean well and I thank you for the encouragement. Keep doing that, please! But this is not about you. It’s about me.
Feeling that you fail a 100 times a day when stumbling with words, hitting a total blank in your head, not being able to express your opinions or thoughts, and not having the energy to participate in an interesting conversation because you don’t find the words and when you finally do the conversation has moved on to another subject – it slowly eats you up.
At the end of the day your self-esteem is below the Earth’s surface, even if you’ve just had a very ordinary day with very ordinary tasks.
You see, it doesn’t require a BIG failure to feel like shit. It’s the hundred small things and misunderstandings that hit you in the daily interaction with your gym instructor, colleagues, clients or the cashier. These mini-failures gradually pile up and form a giant mountain. And then it starts all over again the next morning.
Don’t get me wrong here. I love working in Swedish and becoming more fluent at it every day. It’s a choice I’ve made, a decision and an exciting challenge that I’ve accepted.
However, for someone who is used to being good at expressing oneself verbally it can be surprisingly hard to start from zero. The magical tool of playing with words and forming vivid meanings is suddenly not a strength anymore, but a liability. It makes me slower in my thinking, more insecure, less funny (or perhaps still funny but in a non-intended way) and makes me feel incompetent in my job.
But here comes the great part. My colleagues and our company culture have been the best possible ground for me to seek discomfort and grow in this matter. They have given me love and support when needed, but let me fight my own struggles.
Nine months ago I was thrown so far away outside my comfort zone that at times I felt more lost and insecure than ever. For example, participating our authentic leadership workshop and talking about my deepest fears and dreams in Swedish while being two weeks in the company, was an experience to remember. Giving feedback to 17 new colleagues and trying to say something else than “du verkar vara en trevlig person” to each of them requires stretching one’s limited vocabulary and imagination to its maximum.
Despite the sometimes extreme discomfort, I’ve always felt safe among these people and exploring my limits as the imperfect human being that I am.
That is what this whole thing is about, really. Making sure everyone feels seen and heard as the persons that they truly are. Making sure it is not about you: that you’re not the one setting obstacles on someones path, but instead creating the circumstances where they can discover and fight their own battles.
And look, you’ve got committed people onboard who dare to challenge themselves, fail and try again – because they know you’ve got them covered.