Macro/micro: Keeping tabs on your frenemies

Edward Snowden is one heck of a name. It sounds a bit like something out of a spy novel, and maybe it should be, since he’s the man who busted the lid wide open on the National Security Administration (NSA)’s 2013 spy games. A contracted programmer hiding in Russia at the time of this writing, Snowden revealed that the US government was spying on, well, basically everyone. 

Also known as PRISM, the NSA program recorded Google searches, Skype conversations, e-mail — lots of fun stuff. Combine PRISM with other security measures, and that meant the US federal government was monitoring pretty much everything from your mother’s cell conversations about Christmas shopping to your cousin’s FarmVille pig trades on Facebook. As many of you know, not only did the mundane American citizen fall victim, in 2013 the American government also spied on world leaders such as Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and German chancellor Angela Merkel. In response, Rousseff stuck her tongue out and said she didn’t want to play at President Obama’s house anymore, cancelling her October state visit. A slightly more mature Merkel called the President and told him spying on friends was “never acceptable, no matter in what situation.”

I’m not sure what kind of friends Merkel has, but I spy on mine all the time. Completely joking — of course I don’t spy on my friends. But I do keep a leery eye on my frenemies. That’s why it came as zero surprise to me that the United States was spying on other nations. That’s what national security is designed to do. The United States does not hire spies to sit around the Pentagon and fashion origami. It hires them to do whatever they need to do to keep Americans safe.

Granted, there is probably little danger to be had in Brazil for Americans. The United States was the first foreign country to recognize Brazil as an independent nation, and Brazil was the only South American country to send troops to help the Allies in World War II. Brazil is our buddy, as far as nations go — arguably even more so than best US pal Britain, whose arses we had to kick for independence back in 1776. The United States has never gone to war with Brazil. In fact, after the attacks of 9/11, Brazil was the first to pony up with the Rio Treaty, which said when you go after my friend, you go after me.

But spying on Germany, unfortunately, should have been no surprise. The United States still has troops there as the result of a war with them that was the deadliest military conflict in recorded history. The two nations are at peace now, thank God, but so long as there are people still alive in one nation who remember having to kill people from the other, can two countries ever be true friends? Or are they forever doomed to be frenemies?

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, has seven different definitions of the word frenemy. None of them are positive. Personally, I first heard of frenemies when the term popped up as a program title in season three of Sex and the City. In this episode, Miranda meets a guy at a wake and asks how he knew the deceased. He says, “Roommates in college. We were friends, but competitive. We were always fighting it out for everything. He even died first, just to beat me to the punch,” to which Miranda responds, “You were the classic frenemies.” In other words, they looked and acted like friends, but really, down at the core, there was still something adversarial going on. Friend + enemy.

The translation industry is replete with its own frenemies. When I first opened In Every Language, I was naïve enough to confuse frenemy with friend. Why can’t we all just get along, there’s enough business for everyone — that whole song and dance. And I truly believed it, too. Then a Kentucky-based company dug old business cards out of my trash and provided them to clients as proof that In Every Language was closing, claiming we were moving accounts to them. An Ohio company also pulled the “they’re closing” stunt, with a sales rep who actually argued with me — the CEO — at a table full of clients that her company had bought In Every Language and my boss must have just not told me yet. Not to limit frenemies to run of the mill mergers and acquisition lies, a Washington-based company once counseled me not to pursue certification as a woman-owned business because it was a waste of time. This same company won its largest client through that certification program. 

I wish that the examples given here had never happened. The part of me that grew up in Sinking Fork, Kentucky, feels a little like Red Ridinghood must have right after the wolf pulled off Grandma’s cap to reveal his true nature. Regular readers may remember from prior columns that I grew up in a community so trusting, it was not uncommon to leave your keys in the car ignition in case someone wanted to roll your windows up for you when it rained. But there’s a reason why the book of Matthew warns the good to become “shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” — because like Red Ridinghood, we are truly “sheep in the midst of wolves.”

The fact of the matter is, we’re competitors and some of us exercise that competition on a grade school level. But like the relationship between the United States and its frenemies, there’s a time when we must put competition aside and partner together. Were Brazil, the United States and other nations to have not come together to form the Allies, a madman would have run the world and many, many more would have died. But in addition to allying with other nations, on some level countries must also remain aware of their own interests and gather knowledge on those they consider to be friends — because unfortunately you never know if a friend is really a frenemy until it’s too late.

This is the paradox our industry faces. As businesses, even the largest of us is too small to fight any of the battles that must be won alone. There are matters our industry must band together on: standards, technological developments, advocacy in regard to client education and how we are perceived and supported by all our governments. I wouldn’t be secretary of the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA) if I didn’t believe in the power we have to work together to achieve wonders. But I also wouldn’t be fully adult if I operated in that role with the idea that every translation company out there cares about causes greater than itself. The fact is, some only care about themselves. This is what separates the members from the nonmembers — not just of GALA, but of similar organizations like the American Translators Association and others. Because while we are individual competitors, we are also a united industry and even a frenemy has some element of friend.

The question is, are we the kind of friends who can resolve the matter with a phone call? I personally admire Angela Merkel for calling Obama up and saying, look, don’t do that. Unlike Brazil’s president, who passive-aggressively refused to show up, Merkel was able to politely and diplomatically say, listen, Barack, you gotta do better, ‘cause this shiznit is real. She stood up for herself and for her country and in the end, I would argue the relationship between the United States and Germany is stronger for it.

So whatever your reason is for not coming together for the good of all of us, you need to get over it. Sure, we’re competitors, but we’re also an industry. Part of adult life is having and managing frenemies. And when you stand alone, all Pascal lone reed in the wind, you become — as the philosopher put it — “the most feeble thing in nature.” So do you want to be feeble and alone, or would you rather be stronger with us?

So yes, be shrewd. Don’t be gullible. Don’t be shocked or surprised when you find out your competitor is actually, well, competing against you. But don’t deceive yourself into thinking that being the wolf is a viable alternative either. Don’t eat people just because you can, and don’t spy on them for no reason. Because while the short-term may make being nasty seem worth it, we all know how those stories end — the huntsman kills the wolf and Snowden blows the whistle.