When I went to school I was really keen on learning languages. One of them was German. I went to Munich to study and live with a host family. On my first day I met the father of the house and he immediately greeted me with a:
“Hi – my name is Karl” – “Guten Tag – Ich heisse Karl”.
Not really mentally having landed in Germany I thought he had asked me if I was cold. So I shook his hand, smiled and responded tactfully:
“Nein” – “No”.
He looked very surprised as he was quite certain that his name was and always had been Karl. Bewildered but still confident he continued:
“Doch – ich heisse Karl” – For sure, my name is Karl”.
I kept smiling, shaking his hand and responded in the same very determined way:
“Nein, nein überhaupt nicht” – “Not at all”.
Poor Karl was at this point thoroughly confused. It took us another five minutes shaking hands, agreeing that his name was in fact Karl and no – I was not freezing.
The confusion lead to some good laughs. Misunderstandings led to understanding.
I have spent my life since not only misusing languages – which I do quite well – but doing so in an international business context. And today working for UKTI promoting international trade – these opportunities have just multiplied.
I do however try to avoid misunderstandings – focusing on understanding as that is core to business as well as to trade.
Because I believe that just as our desire to understand and interact with people is a driving force behind the wish to learn a foreign language, so the desire to trade is a driving force behind our wish to understand and interact with people.
I recently held a TEDx talk in Stockholm and had the opportunity to give my view on international trade and how it can bridge differences.
Trade is about exchanging goods or services for money or for other goods and services. Trade satisfies our needs and make use of differences, and in turn – differences create opportunities. It has to do with what we call making use of comparative advantages, which can exist for example in differences in technological or scientific progress in land, labour, capital and entrepreneurship. Furthermore, promoting the right type of comparative advantages can grow trade and our economy.
But if places and circumstances are different – maybe people are a bit – or are they? Trade makes people communicate. If they communicate, they get to know each other. By getting to know each other you open the door to empathy. Communication and interdependence can prevent conflict.
According to a paper from 2008 named “Does Trade Integration Contribute to Peace” – an increase of 10% in bilateral trade volume lowers the probability of military conflict between two neighbouring countries with about 1.9%. According to the same paper – an increase in global trade openness by 10% decreases the probability of a military conflict between two countries by about 2.6%. Trade, according to this paper, seems to effect bilateral as well as multilateral peace, as it can create an ambition for countries to conform so they can stay in the multilateral trade community.
And New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has pointed out what he calls the Big Mac thesis: that no two nations with McDonald’s franchises have ever gone to war. A country developed enough for an established international franchise will generally find war an unattractive activity.
So international trade is not only about utilising differences and comparative advantages to make countries better off and raise global GDP, but also about raising awareness of the similarities that people share and trying to promote understanding.
In the end, I did learn some German. And just as our desire to understand and interact with people is a driving force behind the wish to learn a foreign language, so the desire to trade is a driving force behind our wish to understand and interact with people.
At the end of the day – we humans are social animals. Fighting tooth and claw is not what is going to get us to progress but our ability and willingness to cooperate.