Learning a new language helped me become a better Product Manager

My name is Smriti Garga and I can fluently speak 4 languages. Since I am born in France with Indian parents who wanted to make sure I have an international life, I was brought up with 3 languages (French, Hindi and English). In 2016, I decided to move to Italy for a work opportunity even though I could not speak a word of Italian.

In this article, I will share with you my experience of moving to Italy without speaking Italian, how this impacted my life and the ones around me, and finally, how I adopted these learnings to conduct my role as a Product Manager.

Navigli in Milan, Italy — credit to Fabio Oppini from Unsplash

When I moved to Milan, Italy without speaking the local language, I constantly felt like I was a tourist. It wasn’t my intention to feel like this, but others around me treated me as if I were only ‘stopping by’ here. Even though I tried learning the basics of the language in my first week, as soon as I would speak a broken Italian at the restaurant, the waiter would switch to English. The same would happen at work.

I was part of a graduate program with 10 other colleagues, and it quickly got divided into the ones who could speak Italian and the ones who couldn’t. It was difficult to have fun as a group since there were major cultural gaps, and we could not even understand each other’s jokes. Everyone was making an effort to morph their personality into a superficial one with the basic language level of the other; both realising we were not leveraging the full potential of the interaction.

This entailed an experience where it was difficult to foster true relationships with the ones around as I was not able to convince them that this new location is not only a stopover, but my ‘home’.

How does this relate to the world of Product Management?

As a Product Manager, it is key to interact with diverse stakeholders across the business — marketing managers, engineers, designers, data analysts. Each have their own way of working, their own KPI driving them forward and to a certain extent, their own language.

I stumbled upon the Product Manager role when working in a Digital team where I was in charge of the user journey of a new product launch on an e-commerce website. It was my responsibility to understand the benefits of the new product, the user behaviour on our website with existing products and the capabilities of the e-commerce platform for new launches. In other words, having a constant touchpoint with the Marketing team to get a better understanding of their GTM strategy, the UX designer and data analysts to deep-dive into the customer mindset and the engineers to leverage our platform in the most effective way.

Before this role, I was in Product Marketing so I was familiar with the priorities of the Marketing team. However, working with designers and engineers was fairly new to me, so I stepped back and empowered them to lead the way.

I felt like a ‘tourist’ in their worlds and was not yet familiar with what ‘success’ meant for these teams. I was not able to share their pains as well because I did not have context on what they were struggling with.

After a few weeks in Italy, as part of the graduate program, I had to work in a call center in a small town Ivrea and speak directly with customers. The manager suggested I change my name to something Italians could easily pronounce (I chose my mother’s name Monica) and was taught the following sentence: come posso aiutarla? (translates to how can I help you).

With my French background and some basics in Spanish picked up during school, I was able to understand more Italian than I expected, and was able to resolve the customer queries on the phone (it became easier as time passed, and my managers helped me when I needed it).

After that experience, I became more perceptive of the changes in the personality of the Italians around me when I would make an effort to speak their language. They themselves felt more comfortable, and became their truer selves by showing warmth, humour and passion.

This made me realise the importance of speaking Italian in Italy in order to stop feeling like a ‘tourist’ and like a ‘friend’ instead.

Today, in any organisation I work in, I become close friends with the different communities (French, Indian, Italian). I realise that speaking different languages completely expands my horizons of knowledge.

Again, how does this relate to the world of Product Management?

In order to best work with designers and engineers, I asked as many questions as I could (which they did not mind answering as they appreciated the active effort in understanding their perspectives). This made me realise the frameworks they prefer using, the environments which we have access to, the missing user data to test journeys… they were able to share their pain points and I was able to understand them. The role of empathy became more important than ever.

As the role of a Product Manager interacts with such different worlds (marketing, data, design, technology), I make sure I play a passive part in each of these communities to continuously learn new concepts and extend my perspective. Understanding them allows me to understand my role better.

In conclusion, being a polyglot helps me be a better Product Manager because I am able to interact with others in their most authentic version. Speaking multiple languages makes me realise how much complexity there is in each language, it is not just about grasping the grammar and vocabulary, but the context in particular. You can only have effective teamwork with your colleagues if you speak the same language (whether that is Italian, or UX).

Furthermore, landing in a country where I didn’t speak the local language made me comfortable with ambiguity, and tested my patience as well as perseverance. I consider it a valuable experience as it allowed me to learn key skills which have helped me become the professional I am today.

Please share below in the comments if you agree, or have a similar experience of being outside your comfort zone and how much that impacts your relationship with ones around you.

#polyglot #language #productmanagement #productmanager #italy

Product Manager with an user-centric mentality. Love to challenge the status quo and leverage the power of new technologies.

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