People skills

The busy linguist should play nicely.

There is an old adage that "people do business with people they like". It is obvious when you think about it, but the recent French market survey has shown that we still persist in thinking that professional skills trump the ability to get on with people. It would appear they don't.

A number of years ago I organised interpreters for a product launch. It was a no-expense-spared event in a great venue. The interpreters arrived well after everyone else and were shown to their booths. Within five minutes one had rushed out and accosted the first passer-by to complain there were no lamps in the booth. Passer-by gamely said he'd see what he could do. Yet he was one of Europe's top set designers going about his everyday business, not a person to be burdened with interpreters' problems.

I have sometimes thought such behaviour is caused by a kind of bottled-up stress. The need we have for our comfort zone to be just as we want it with everything in its place. To everyone else it's a pain in the neck.

We Europeans tend to mock the American "have a nice day" routine, seeing it as a kind of rote vapidity that has lost all real meaning. But it does evince a positive attitude to life that is like a breath of fresh air compared with Europe's occasional brusqueness. There is something energizing about a can-do attitude.

Many years ago interpreters acquired the reputation of being difficult, stubborn and inflexible, and of variable competence. We no longer deserve these epithets, but stereotypes stick. A degree of bloody-mindedness probably got AIIC off the ground in the first place but - as they say - that was then and this is now.

We have to see ourselves as part of the overall team when working at an event like the car launch I talked about. We may stroll in at 11:00 but the carpenters, set designers, lighting experts, sound technicians and caterers have been on site since 05:00. Their job is as important as ours and they are as likely to be at the top of their trade as we are of ours. We clearly don't want the rest of the team to see us as the people who do the least work yet make the most noise. Like the legendary empty vessels.

There is a lot of information on the Internet about soft skills. They can be summarised as being in a good mood, listening to people, welcoming feedback and seeing ourselves as part of a team.

Here are some suggestions based on my own observations and hang-ups:

  • Treat documents as a useful tool not a drug hit. In days gone by I would cringe at the shrill tone in which interpreters demanded documents. Clearly we need them but there are ways of saying so. Thanks to email we are now more likely to have too many documents than too few.
  • Channel your queries through the team leader. If you need water, lamps, a pencil or some paper simply ask him or her to sort it out. Don't go out and bellyache at the technician or anyone within harpooning distance.
  • Try and be upbeat and cheerful. If you feel anxious, miserable and grumpy consider that you may be in the wrong job.
  • Keep your dealings with the organisers polite and businesslike. Accept that they do not understand the intricacies of interpreting and use that as an opportunity to explain things clearly to them - but only as much as they wish to absorb at that moment. I have seen secretaries of meetings under a lot of pressure unable to escape the clutches of verbose interpreters - and too polite to say so. Stick to the essentials and go through the team leader.
  • Turn up to the meeting in plenty of time. Interpreters can put themselves under pressure by arriving just in time and of course that increases their stress levels and makes them more likely to snap at innocent bystanders.
  • Flexibility is arguably an overused word, but it important in our dealings with clients. If the whole team has worked well all day and refuses point blank to do the last 20 minutes because it is beyond the official close, they will squander the goodwill they've spent the day acquiring.  The consultant interpreters can always factor in any overruns when quoting for the next meeting.
  • We need to show our clients that we take their concerns seriously and that the interpreters are part of the larger team.
  • Say hello to technicians when arriving and thank them before leaving - otherwise our only interaction with them is when we complain.

I am clearly not advocating that we give in to unreasonable demands. If however we have established a community of interest with the client, our concerns will be taken seriously.

Recommended citation format:
Philip H. D. SMITH. "People skills". September 10, 2007. Accessed July 12, 2020. <>.