Cultural Orientation and the Language Gaffe.

When one is transferred to a nation where an unfamiliar language is spoken, common practice amongst relocation policy providers is to provide language training to prevent intercultural miscommunication. Sadly for those of us who residing in countries where we share a common language, there is no such support. Presumably, there is the assumption that as it is your mother tongue, you will be able to communicate effectively and minimise misunderstanding all on your own.

Boy, did they get that wrong.

What actually happens is that you wade into the conversational fray with abandon, confident that your words and meanings will be clearly understood. Unfortunately, Murphy’s law states that the more public or important the venue, the larger the gap between what you think you are saying, and what your words really mean.

I’ve fallen into this trap very publicly myself. I spent number of a years at an American system international school in Kenya, heavily involved with the PTA. On one of my first meetings, I found myself strongly advocating the sale of rubbers at the school store, and was bewildered by the committees seeming reluctance to stock such an essential item.

“For the high schoolers?” asked one ashen parent, in an attempt to be both polite to the newcomer, and progressive in her thinking.

“No, no, the elementary schoolers – they’re the ones that really need them.” I replied. “We could get the coloured ones and the ones that smell like strawberries and chocolate – the kids would love them.”

At this point, I was taken to one side by a kindly woman who had expat experience on both sides of the Atlantic. I was informed in hushed but gentle tones that what in Britain are referred to as rubbers are known to Americans as erasers, and that I was in danger of having the PTO peddle condoms to underage preteens. It wasn’t the most impressive way to start my year in office.

I’m happy to report that it’s a global phenomenon, and the embarrasing repercussions spread across continents, cultures and even leisure activities.

Take Pippa*. An accomplished destination consultant, with 18 years of US experience and a job wrangling groups of Australian businessmen around Las Vegas, she was not a woman who was easily rattled. So when she appeared on my doorstep one afternoon in a state of incipient hysteria, I knew it must be something big. It was.

For a number of weeks, she and I had been discussing potential locations for a spa day. When a new massage venue opened not far from our houses, she felt a professional duty to test it out prior to us booking the whole day.

Her first clue that all might not be what it seemed was when the three young, attractive and large breasted therapists lined up and asked which one she wanted. Her attempts to explain that she just wanted a Swedish Relaxation massage appeared to further confuse matters, and she spent the next torturous hour attempting vainly attempting to cover her nether regions with the supplied cerise washcloth, in what can only be described as a bizarre version of Spanish bullfighting.

She did manage to exit at speed after an hour, with her virtue only partially tarnished, thanks to lightening reactions and the oil rendering things a little slippery.

Her first question when she reached the relative sanctuary of my sofa?

“What in God’s name do you think I was supposed to tip?”



8 thoughts on “Cultural Orientation and the Language Gaffe.”

  1. A friend of mine went to Australia when she was a teen. She went out to a nice dinner with her parents and some coworkers of her Dad’s. After the meal, she leaned back in her seat, and to the horror of the Aussies nearby, loudly announced to all and sundry, “I’m STUFFED.”

    Your post made me laugh so hard I’ve got mascara streaks running down my face. Thanks for that.

    1. Sadly, further clarification is required, because I have a horrible suspicion I’d be using this one too. A faint voice in the back of my head is telling me that I am announcing some element of carnal knowledge?

  2. Also on the subject of Australia, never announce in a crowded bar that you’re rooting for the Australians. Unless you want all the men to suddenly buy you drinks. Trust me on this one.

    1. It has taken me 13 days to realize what you were actually saying.. Thank God the Rugby World Cup is over and my modesty still intact..

  3. That was priceless – you gave me a good laugh this morning! I have a couple of good examples myself: A British friend who was asking where is the best place to get some fags (in the US) – clearly, they are NOT cigarettes there! And I’ve seen any number of bemused English people trying to figure out what a ‘raincheck’ could possibly be.

  4. It took us a few months of living here to get used to men casually mentioning that they needed to change their pants. To us, pants were underwear, and we really didn’t want to be told of the need for clean ones..

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