It IS still what you say


It is not what you say that matters but the manner in which you say it.

W.C. Williams American Poet, 1883-1963


If this is true, then a major consideration must these days be the cultural aspect of both the phrases being used and the intonation an emphasis we put on the words and phrases we use.  One of my last blogs looked at how this depends on the individual words that we use.

Many years ago I first encountered the importance of this when running a residential training course for a multinational group who had flown in to the Heathrow hotel from several parts of the world to be with me.  The first day’s sessions were on time management and the importance of planning. I closed one of the sessions by confirming that ‘a stitch in time saves nine’. The result – a room full of bewildered people all wondering what sewing had to do with the day’s topic!

It gets worse when we consider the large number of proverbs and sayings that are in common use. Of course most cultures have their sayings, but translating them can be completely meaningless, as it is not the words themselves, but the concept that is being conveyed by the phrases.

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There are several websites that explore such sayings – with, thankfully, the underlying meanings or intentions explained to support the translations. Here are a couple of my favorites about Chinese Proverbs.  Without the explanation, what might we assume from the phrase “The Changjiang River waves behind drive the waves ahead”?

Indian proverbs also make interesting reading.  For example “A dog will not make himself look like a horse, just by cutting off his tail”.

And what would our international friends understand from many of our own English or western sayings, such as:

  • No such thing as a free lunch
  • Too many cooks spoil the broth
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
  • You can lead a horse to the water but you can’t make it drink
  • Don’t count your chickens before they hatch

The lesson here for us all is probably to try not to use too many sayings or proverbs, or when we do, make sure we explain what the key messages are that we are intending to convey.

So….I’ll ‘keep my fingers crossed’ that you will remember that ‘it is better to be late than never’ to change your approach!



Professor Ian Favell
Ian is a Visiting Professor at Middlesex University and has been Chief External Verifier for CIPD for almost 20 years. As Principal Consultant for Assessor Training Ltd Ian is particularly interested in quality assurance, assessment and verification, training, learning and development, and the development and use of competencies and competency frameworks.
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