Out of many, one.

When I began working on this video project for Goizueta Business School, I expected it to capture the many versions of Goizueta in English, taking Louisville, Kentucky’s playful approach to its own disputed pronunciation as inspiration.  It’s not uncommon to hear Goizueta (‘GOI-zweat-ah’) pronounced  ‘GO-zweat-ah,’ or even ‘GO-sweet-ah,’ which bundles ‘go’ and ‘sweet’ into one new, slightly saccharin word. Some won’t even speak the name until they’ve heard it first, and others pronounce it so strangely that I scratch my head and wonder how the letters I see written could ever have inspired the sounds I hear being spoken. I’m convinced that I heard it pronounced ‘GO-sweater’ once, but perhaps I just misheard.

As if pronouncing the former CEO of Coca-Cola, Roberto Goizueta’s, surname in one language weren’t enough, its many pronunciations in Spanish actually emerged as a guiding theme in the video, sending our original storyboard slightly off script.  Listen closely, and you’ll hear the subtle difference between Goizueta as it’s pronounced in English–emphasis on a buzzing ‘z’–and in Latin-American Spanish, which rotates the ‘z’  and softens its edges into an ‘s’. The same name in Peninsular Spanish transforms the ‘z’ entirely, into an unmistakable ‘th’ sound: ‘Goi-THweat-ah.’

I ended up loving this aspect of the video–in part, because it came about unplanned,  further proof that the creative process continues to thrive on space and serendipity, even in business settings more accustomed to structure and planning. 

I also loved that this plurality of accents–all of them coexisting here in the United States–so succinctly captured the US Latino community’s diversity and revealed that what is fundamentally true of language is also true of our society. 

Even when we speak the same language, pronunciation places the speaker geographically and tells a story about that person’s past, regardless of the uncharted future before them. How they are pronounced helps to bring, and connect, words to life. And, at least in this case, despite its many  pronunciations–and the people and places they represent–the one word in question remained commonly understood: Goizueta. 

Trump and the other Juan

I’ve been meaning to write this post for two weeks now, at least since first reading David Luhnow’s article on ‘Trumpismo’ and the uncanny parallel between Donald Trump and Latin America’s caudillos–the region’s outspoken and often dangerously charismatic strongmen, like Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Juan Perón of Argentina. Chalk up my not writing to a few busy (also Trump-inspired) weeks here at Emory.

Although I agree with Luhnow, I have to wonder whether there’s another comparison to be made, this time between Trump and Argentina’s other Juan: Juan Manuel de Rosas, the 19th century “Restorer of Laws,” which as it happens, sounds a lot like the Argentinian version of “Make America Great Again.”

Trump Juan-Manuel-de-Rosas

The caudillo was born into a wealthy family but made his personal fortune by acquiring large tracks of land; built a cult of personality as a controversial and, at times, brutal conservative populist; polarized society by pitting rural against urban populations; and is known as much for all of this as he is for his head of hair.

The same is true of Juan Manuel de Rosas.

Although Trump and the former military and political leader hold national fascination and just as easily spark feelings of support as they do of revulsion, only time will tell whether a spot also awaits Trump and his daughter on US currency.


Where Should the Professor Sit?

tableIt sounds like a trick question, doesn’t it: where should the professor sit? Worse yet, it’s a question that could lead to any number of seemingly irreversible and unsavory outcomes. Answer correctly and the professor might spend the rest of the semester sitting next to you, the newly self-appointed teacher’s pet. Answer incorrectly and she could get offended and spend the rest of the course punishing you for your suggestion. Avoid the question entirely and she could assume that you don’t know the answer—which you don’t—or don’t care. You don’t really care where as long as she just sits down already!

I asked my business Spanish students this not-so-innocent question recently, although not to torture them. Rather, I hoped to demonstrate what a question like ‘where should the professor sit’ might reveal about how students, as participants in complex cultural and discursive paradigms, interpret concepts like power and hierarchy.

As I had suspected it would, my question first led to confused looks and even a few how-should-I-know smirks before it did any real answers. So, to move the experiment along, I took a seat at the head of the rectangular conference table, lecture notes in hand, and asked that the students address me as Dr. Kaplan, or in Spanish, Dra. Kaplan. When I asked them what impression my decision about where to sit had made on them—what they thought it was ‘communicating’—they replied with words like ‘official,’ ‘serious,’ and ‘distant.’ Indeed, the distance between the students and me was as physical and measurable as it was symbolic.

I then moved to a central seat along one of the table sides and found myself sitting among the students, my eyes focusing on them instead of on my lecture notes. The difference was palpable—and the students made sure I knew it.  “¡Es mejor!,” one of them cried out. For her, this new, more egalitarian spatial arrangement felt better, more familiar.

From this position, I was finally ready to begin a more nuanced class discussion about perceptions of power—who has it, how they wield it, and why—and the important role this plays in business and intercultural communications.

Argentine writer and thinker Jorge Luis Borges once famously remarked, correctly or otherwise, that the Koran makes no mention of camels, and really, why would it: “It was written by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were especially Arabian; for him they were part of reality, he had no reason to emphasize them.” In this way, until we experience practices different from our own and the modes of thought that inform them, we are often blissfully unaware of our cultural norms and habits, content to live without giving them a second thought, let alone a first.

That is, in part, why the students found our round of ‘where should the professor sit’ so disruptive. More than trying to find a seat, I had asked students to define how they view authority and the amount of power someone in my position should wield, how they should display it and, just as importantly, in what context—perhaps theretofore underexplored terrain for them.

I then highlighted that members of more hierarchical societies than that of the United States might view my position at the head of the table as the more natural and appropriate place for a professor to sit or stand, and that taking a seat among students could actually be viewed negatively and misunderstood as the professor being weak, unsure, or uncomfortable with her charge. Just as the group of mostly American college students had voiced their preference for a more egalitarian relationship with their professor, so too could a group of students from a more power-distant country—say, Mexico—respond with their inclination toward seeing and interacting with their instructors from, well, a distance. By this point, the class had experienced two important lessons: most intercultural misunderstandings happen without either party even saying a word, and it’s the easily taken-for-granted practices of daily life and social interactions that make or break business relationships.

Although I remained seated among them—which they probably expected I would—the students left class seeing for themselves that knowing who sits where, how, and why will help secure them a seat at the table in their future international business dealings. And by that point the question will have become: where should they sit?


As Seen in Real Life – #Goizueta

Around the corner from my Goizueta Business School office hang several–ok, exactly eight–Salvador Dalí reproductions of Francisco de Goya’s infamous etchings, Los Caprichos.Caprichos IAlthough Goya’s originals are dark, menacing, and intent on exposing, in the artist’s words, “the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society,” but especially in that of 18th-centry Spain,…

Caprichos IIIDalí provides a colorful, almost playful reinterpretation of Los Caprichos, which once nearly landed Goya before the Inquisition…

Caprichos IIand now brighten my path on the way to the bathroom or the copy machine, or both.

For every lingua franca, Babel


“Great powers should revel in small data: the granular and culture-specific knowledge that can make the critical difference between really getting a place and getting it profoundly wrong.”

– Charles King

I’ll go out on a limb and say that most (if not all, I wish it were so) college marketing and/or advertising courses offer up a cautionary tale or two about good ads gone bad—badly translated, that is. Urban legend or not, the popular anecdote about why the Chevy Nova allegedly tanked in Latin America is as powerful an example as any. Advertising lore has it that the quintessential American muscle car ran out of gas in Spanish-speaking markets through no mechanical or esthetic fault of its own, but rather because of its name, which Chevy executives had been so careful to associate with concepts like speed, wonder, youth—the heavens!—in English, but had neglected to consider its possible meanings in Spanish, where ‘Nova’ can easily be misinterpreted, especially in spoken contexts, as a flat ‘No va’—‘it doesn’t go.’

Word has it that in Latin America, it didn’t.Chevy Nova

Although potentially costly to businesses large and small in the short-run, language gaffes, in one form or another, are to be expected in a world with roughly 6,500 spoken languages. These missteps may make their speaker the butt of a joke or two, but language errors can often be forgiven, if not forgotten entirely. At worst, they become instructional of what not to do.

Far more expensive in the long-run is the assumption that English, as the world’s presumptive lingua franca of commerce, diplomatic relations, academic discourse—not to mention popular culture—has had a leveling effect on the world and its people, languages, and cultures, therefore warranting a change in how we study them.

In the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, Charles King spun his own cautionary tale of sweeping federal cutbacks to strategic international and language studies, which, he fears, will result in a citizenry less familiar with world history, culture, and languages, and thus, less prepared to solve the most pressing issues of our times and those still to come.

He writes: “In an Internet-connected world infused with global English, private funders have radically scaled back their support for work that requires what the political scientist Richard Fenno called ‘soaking and poking’: studying difficult languages, living in unfamiliar communities, and making sense of complex histories and cultures.”

What short-sighted policymakers and former Harvard presidents fail to recognize in this scenario is that alongside English as a global phenomenon exists its place-based foil—Babel, if you will—a confusion of languages and cultures that still influences how people interpret such abstract concepts as time, power, trust, and loyalty—in short, their view of the world. English as a common language may allow us to communicate and advance our shared interests, but only by making sense of these differences in worldview can we begin to truly understand one another and appreciate the complexities that often underlie our common ground.

Language study provides a critical tool in this process and allows its participants to access the world in a broader and yet more particular way, and helps yield greater insight into its people and the shared, place-based cultures that often endure despite the adopted language in which business, diplomatic, or academic meetings are held.

Learning languages, thus, complicates the world—it’s far easier just to assume that English will always speak louder than culture and that a Chevy Nova is simply a Chevy Nova, no matter where it’s driven… or not—but somehow, miraculously, also makes it more intelligible.