We might as well refer to generation gaps and gender gaps as communication gaps, because it seems to me that these gaps all come down to words. Nothing separates cultures and communities more than language. As an example, at times the verbal utterances and vocal noises coming out of my teenagers’ rooms are so strange and foreign to me that they sound like scenes from The Exorcist taking place in the Star Wars bar.
And what greater communication divide can we think of than the language barrier separating men and women? After all, women speak English, and do so in such an abundance as to apparently exceed men’s physiological capacity to comprehend more than just a fraction of it. Yet fellow women seem to have no limits to their tolerance for it whatsoever. On the other hand, men have their own language altogether. It’s called “Sports,” and its vocabulary is the narrowest of any of the global languages, requiring only a few choice words for men to effectively talk to each other.
I once remember having lunch in an executive dining room inhabited by predominantly male executives who were sitting around the large table and chatting about – what else – sports. The lone woman in the group interrupted and said, “Geez! Can’t you guys go for more than five minutes without referencing sports?” There was a silent pause in the discussion as the men seemed to look at each other in search of any answer other than the truth, which of course was…no.
I learned a long time ago that to survive the business world and master the board room, it seemed that one needed to command the lingo of men, the lingo of sports-speak. This was more than just knowing the outcome of the latest local professional football game or who was leading the PGA Tour at any given time (although all of that seemed pretty pivotal to surviving an executive luncheon or staff meeting as well). The language of Sports extended beyond knowing facts and figures. To speak Sports effectively one had to master an ability to substitute clever sports metaphors for the normal English language in as many sentences as possible.
Learning this foreign language wasn’t easy for everyone. The ex-jocks seemed to have the greatest advantages, having grown up using the future metaphors like “it’s a slam dunk” (i.e., it’s easy), “we hit it out of the park” (it was a success), “we’re not putting points on the board” (we’re not doing well). But like living in a foreign country, just being constantly exposed to the language of Sports was effective training for anyone. Fortunately, I personally had the great privilege of learning from a master Sports linguist, an executive I once worked for whom I’ll call Mr. McBee.
Mr. McBee had taken the art form of speaking Sports to a new level. He was not limited to the standard sports cliches like the rest of us mere oratory mortals. His command of the Sports language was unmatched; so colorful and creative it was downright poetic. But what was most impressive was, while the rest of us could only interlace brief and occasional Sports phrases into the English language, Mr. McBee’s Sports fluency allowed him to carry on entire discussions while speaking only in Sports. In fact, so many of his conversations were so cloaked in sports-speak that we often had no clue what he was talking about. We eventually learned to meet in private offices after meetings with Mr. McBee just so we could translate and clarify the discussions.
“That’s a jump ball.”
In thinking back on the many Sports phrases I heard over the years, I was able to compile the following example of how a typical Mr. McBee staff meeting might sound:
Member of Mr. McBee’s Senior Staff: Mr. McBee, I think next month’s sales target is going to be a tough one to make.
Mr.McBee: Nah, c’mon. It looks like about a nine iron from here. (Translation: It’s easy to achieve.)
Senior Staff Member: I don’t know, Mr. McBee. I think it might be a stretch.
Mr. McBee: Have a set of balls. See the court and don’t blow the easy layup. (Translation: The Corporation wants me to make the number, so let’s just make the number.)
Senior Staff Member: Do you think we should add a special promotion or just build more customer inventory?
Mr. McBee: I’d say that’s a jump ball. (Translation: I don’t know.)
Senior Staff Member: Mr. McBee, the VP of Sales is worried and I trust his judgment, don’t you?
Mr. McBee: Are you kidding? If that guy was my quarterback I’d punt on first down. (Translation: No, I don’t trust the bastard.)
Senior Staff Member: Why don’t you trust him?
Mr. McBee: He aint gonna’ be the one diving on the floor for the loose ball. That’s for sure. (Translation: He’s not aggressive enough.)
Senior Staff Member: Are you sure about that?
Mr. McBee: Listen. Driving off the tee is for show, putting on the green gets you the dough…and brother, that boy’s broke. (Translation: He can’t handle pressure and get the job done.)
Senior Staff Member: Mr. McBee, perhaps we could just honestly explain our potential sales shortfall at the next corporate update meeting.
Mr. McBee: Are you stupid? The last time we tried that, I felt like I used to feel when showering in the locker room with my black college basketball teammates…embarrassed!” (Translation: I don’t want to report missing the number, and, my college teammates had larger penises than I did.)
Senior Staff Member: Mr. McBee, I’m afraid that the only way to make the number would be to do something really stupid.
Mr. McBee: We have a choice, boys. Miss the number, or do something stupid. I choose stupid.
That last one needed no translation.
I’ll always remember Mr McBee with fondness. We developed a great relationship during my years working for him. But of all the things I learned through that experience, there was one lesson that was most important. Relationships live or die on communication. To make a connection with others you need to be speaking the same lingo. So whether it’s your kids’ pop culture, your husband’s obsession with sports or your wife’s love of chick flicks, you better start brushing up on that particular foreign language. After all, it’s the bottom of the ninth, the clock’s running down, the game’s on the line and the ball’s in your court. Got it?