Handling Sensitive Conversations With Clients & Associates: Code Talkers, Navajo & The Language Of Law

“Code talkers” refers to persons who use an obscure language as a means to transmit secret messages.

The use of Navajo during World War II is perhaps the best known example of code talkers. Philip Johnston, a civil engineer for the city of Los Angeles, first proposed the use of Navajo to the United States Marine Corps. Johnston was a World War I veteran who was raised on the Navajo reservation as the son of a missionary.

As one of the few non-Navajos to speak the language fluently, Johnston knew that the complex grammar, the fact that the language was unwritten, and mutually intelligible pronunciation with the even the language’s closest relatives within the Na-Dene family meant Navajo could provide meaningful information across enemy lines, as well as an undecipherable code.The use of Navajo code talkers in World War II was invaluable in winning the war, but the practice of using code talkers in wartime dates back to World War I.

In fact, the first known use of Native Americans in the American military to transmit messages under fire was a group of Cherokee troops in the U.S. 30th Infantry Division during the Second Battle of the Somme in 1918. The unit was under British command at the time.

Cherokee is the only Southern Iroquoian language that remains spoken today. And yet, on March 25, 2011, Google announced the option to perform searches in Cherokee. As of November 2012, Gmail is supported in Cherokee, and on December 18, 2012, Microsoft announced Windows 8 will be released in Cherokee, containing “nearly 180,000 words and phrases” in this Native American language.

“Why do organizations like Microsoft and Google care about languages with so few speakers?” asks Nataly Kelly for the Harvard Business Review Blog.

“Without a doubt, providing members of linguistic minority groups with access to technology in their native tongues is very important. It empowers these communities, enabling their languages to survive and thrive in the digital age,” Kelly answers.

But that’s not all. In an analysis of gross domestic product by language use, Mark Davies discovered in 2003 that English and Chinese held the highest purchasing power, followed by Japanese, Spanish, and Russian, i.e., $87.50 of every $100 spend corresponds to a person who speaks a world language (via HBR).

Kelly goes on to argue that the remaining percept of micro-language speakers, like Cherokee or Navajo speakers, still possess a powerful and influential market share.

However, there’s another reason why businesses should care about language. Communication today, whether via code, programming, tweets, or traditional press releases, is an important and powerful tool.

For law firms, the extent to which you can effectively communicate your services and practice philosophy to clients affects your profitability. In his article “From Biglaw to Boutique: Networking Contraditions,” Tom Wallerstein stresses the need for partners to ask clients for work.

He points out that lawyers asking their acquaintances for work doesn’t have to be laced with a clandestine agenda. Nevertheless, “beating around the bush” won’t boost your firm’s bottom line.

Furthermore, attract clients by speaking in their language. If you want to represent a young, upcoming start-up in technology, the first step would be increasing your Klout score (or, at least, knowing what one is).

Clear language is important for selling your firm to clients. It’s also important for keeping them.

Your clients are no longer restricted to a single national, cultural, or language border. Especially in a melting pot like America, clients come from a variety of countries and cultures around the world, and their businesses serve a variety of different interests and needs.

Law firms are in the business of servicing micro-language clients—put in a single room, your engineering clients, corporate clients, and criminally prosecuted individuals will stress words, phrases, and their general demands differently.

This means your use of language should be meaningful and direct, but also universal. Unlike the intent of code talkers in military ventures, the language of law firms should aim to be understood by all. There should be no hidden messages, agendas, tricks, legal jargon, fine print or fees.

Retain your clients with a clearly written, custom retainer.

Finally, language is important in internal communication. Ethnic, cultural, and gender differences exist within, as well as outside the firm. It’s not just about preventing workplace discrimination suits with a one-size fits all policy, but it’s about making employees feel heard.

When associate competence and career goals are understood, management can them employ them in more productive ways. This is only possible with effective, adaptive internal dialogue.

So, not only is it important to know the language or your own law firm, but it is also equally important to know the language spoken by your clients and their customers. Cracking the code of sustainable business strategies is knowing when to speak up, what to say, and how exactly to say it.

For more information, listen to C4CM’s audio guide on Handling Difficult Conversations: Communication Strategies for the Workplace.



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