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"Once upon a time I was invisible…"

Play figures, several green ones in a group and one blue on the side.
Ulrika Georgsson discusses the feeling of being excluded, something that may be affected by the language skills.
Published Jan 12, 2021

Being in a room, unnoticed and unable to understand the language, can bring on feelings of exclusion. What happens to us when we don't understand what’s being said? Ulrika Georgsson, a member of one of the ITM School's JML groups, casts her mind back to moments she would rather forget.

Have you ever felt really and truly excluded; so much so that you feel invisible and just want the floor to open up and swallow you? I have.

I was 20 years old and in Edinburgh working for a few months while I polished up my English. On one particular evening, the two French women I was rooming with invited me to their party in the living room. Dressed for a party, I stepped out of my little bedroom next door and into the living room, which by now was pleasantly buzzing with conversation. Thinking what a great opportunity it was to get to know people in my new city, I began to introduce myself. All too soon I realised everyone was speaking French. Whenever they laughed, I didn't understand why. Their lively discussions were all double Dutch to me. I sat there for a good while, trying to break into conversations around me; trying to shift things over to a language that would also include me. After a few minutes I began to feel invisible and unimportant. Not a single person in the room noticed me or cared whether I understood or not, and I just wanted the floor to open up and swallow me.

As a new arrival to KTH, a similar feeling hit me when I was in a meeting with my new colleagues.

”It seems that MMK has received a number of new PAs and ITMs' GA will announce the new names shortly,” someone utters. Que? I didn't understand a thing, and with so many indecipherable abbreviations in a single sentence I only had energy enough to raise my hand once and ask what on earth a PA is. These days I know that PA stands for program director, but it took months for me to learn all the abbreviations at KTH. There were innumerable conversations with people where I felt stupid having to ask what various words meant.

I imagine many people today feel exactly the way I did back when I was new at KTH. The feeling of exclusion and of not being understood triggers the body's stress systems quite unnecessarily. Because we're gregarious creatures and most of mankind's past was spent on the savannah, our bodies associate exclusion with mortal danger. The fight or flight response kicks in, our pulse rate rises giving the brain a kind of tunnel vision that focuses on the threat, and once this tunnel vision takes over, we are no longer very smart.

Internal terms and abbreviations all serve a purpose and sure, Swedish is the official language in Sweden. But no one learns a language overnight, be it Swedish or an organisation's internal jargon.

Perhaps we could take a step back from time to time and consider our choice of words. Maybe walk a mile in the other guy's shoes and ponder whether they understand the language we use. Perhaps we could speak English a little more often and scrap those of our internal terms and abbreviations that do not contribute anything.

So how did the party end? After an hour or so I was so despondent nothing at all was fun any more. I crept out and back into my room. No one noticed I had left and I didn't much feel like making new contacts. My self-confidence was bruised, and I made up my mind then and there never to speak Swedish in a room whenever there was someone in the company did not know the language.

Text: Ulrika Georgsson