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How lorry drivers communicate when they don’t speak the lingo

24 February 2020

Every day, Polish lorry drivers pull up at large Dutch companies to unload their cargo. Bianca Dijkstra, who speaks Polish herself, observes how foreign drivers communicate with their customers when they arrive with a delivery.

Dijkstra used to work in the business world, in international customer services and in logistics, until she was faced with the choice of either progressing further down that path or doing something else. And she chose the latter. She went back to university (she studied the Master’s degree programme in Multilingualism at the University of Groningen/Campus Fryslân), and then got a job as a researcher. Her bilingual upbringing (Polish-Dutch) and interest in languages, her background in business and the fact that one of her relatives is a lorry driver, attracted her to this research.

‘I investigate communication between Polish lorry drivers and the Dutch recipients of their goods,’ says Dijkstra. ‘Generally speaking, everything usually goes well: arriving, unloading and moving on. But what if a pallet is missing, or if the driver can’t find the entrance? Then you have to improvise and communicate, which can sometimes be quite the challenge. Older drivers especially have difficulty with English and German. And younger people, who have often learned English, are sometimes let down by their language skills, or they feel insecure because they don’t speak it perfectly.’

Observation

Dijkstra often spends a day observing what happens at companies. She watches and listens when a Polish driver arrives with a delivery. ‘I take note of what happens in terms of the communication and then I conduct interviews.’ Does she sometimes have to bite her tongue when a driver can’t make himself clear, given her knowledge of Polish? ‘Yes, but I hold myself back. As a researcher, I want to observe, not intervene.’

Gestures, drawings, pre-written notes: these are some of the aids that drivers use to eventually work their way out of a tricky situation. Modern tools like Google Translate are less popular. ‘People don't dare to place blind trust in that yet and, besides, they find it very impersonal,’ Dijkstra explains. And if they’re really struggling, a quick phone call to the driver’s office usually helps. On one occasion, she watched it all go wrong. ‘There was a Hungarian driver. He was loud, fairly direct, and started to get aggressive. The miscommunication got so out of hand that the security guard removed him from the premises.’

Communicating when we don’t speak the same language

Dijkstra wants to increase our knowledge about how we communicate when we don’t speak the same language. ‘Sometimes, the drivers only speak a few words of English or German. They can come up with very creative ways to get their message across, but we’re not always open to that, for example due to lack of time or for security reasons.’ Unfortunately, there isn’t really an effective way to make all drivers speak English or German yet. ‘There’s a huge shortage of drivers, so you can’t select people based on their language skills.’

Dijkstra already has an idea for a follow-up research project. ‘At the moment I’m looking at how logistics professionals solve communication problems. Later on, I want to test whether these solutions work for other companies as well,’ she says enthusiastically. ‘So we can come up with solutions that make work more enjoyable for everyone.’

Bianca Dijkstra is a PhD student at the University of Groningen/Campus Fryslân and is researching communication strategies used by Polish lorry drivers and their Dutch customers.

Last modified:09 March 2020 3.46 p.m.
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