Today I feel like laughing. Would you care to join me? Then read on, my friends, because I am going to tell you What Not To Do Or Say When Communicating With Individuals From Other Nations. This is a short, first-hand collection of experiences which have precipitated a few foot-from-mouth extractions, not to mention plenty of chortles, winces, and gulps.
Lesson #1: Know The Origin Of Your Euphemisms. While we may all be speaking English when we’re reaching “across the pond,” this doesn’t necessarily mean the slang we Americans use is a regular part of a British person’s vocabulary.
Having entered this world well after World War II, I acquired the term “snafu” as a part of everyday English used to describe “a situation gone awry.” Apparently, though, this little word is NOT included in the Queen’s polite English vernacular. When the kind bloke to whom I unassumingly communicated this term looked it up, he happened upon the definition by origin and kindly (with an eyebrow only slightly raised) inquired after my intentions.
I was brought up in a household where English was not the first language (Italian was). There are words I heard that I, to this day, do not know the equivalent of in English; nevertheless, I did, at least, know when they were not nice words. I was completely caught off guard, however, by my little snafu.
In the same vein, it is unwise to employ the use of idioms when speaking to those for whom English is a second language. Lesson #2: Avoid The Use Of Idiomatic Expressions.
I recall one of the first bits of Italian lingo I officially acquired: “in bocca al lupo,” which literally means “in the mouth of the wolf.” Its English equivalent is “good luck” or (even better) “break a leg.” How does this come across to someone who is not an experienced Italian speaker? It’s rather macabre-sounding, right?
I once found myself describing the need to involve a trailing spouse in an interview / hiring process that would require relocation. During that conversation, I could not resist my urge to add color by declaring “if mama’s not happy, no one’s happy.” The reasonable, literal, and slightly incredulous response which came back to me was, “Do you mean we have to include his mother, too?” Oops. My bad. Lesson learned, and learned quickly.
Finally, Lesson #3: When In Rome, Do As The Romans … But, Wait, We’re Not In Rome …
Certain European cultures are well known for their physical expressions of warmth — they love to hug you and kiss you on both cheeks when they meet or part company. But, as one who absorbed this cultural practice as a youngster, I discovered that such gestures do not typically apply in business situations, even with many Europeans. (((*cue awkward silence*))) Enough said?
Does anyone else have a lesson to add to this list?