In the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the interpretation of others and the assumptions people make depending on their background, the context and their culture.
I’m so glad I learnt English from birth or I would have no chance with the complexity of the language, the nuances and subtleties, and the messages sent without words at all. It’s not just knowing the what each word means, it’s the multiple meanings that are troublesome! For example:
- Mean = the definition of a word, intent
- Mean = horrible, nasty, miserly
- Mean = average, based on the total value divided by the number involved
Working in a multi-cultural office last year, emojis were an essential tool. We had Italian, Spanish, Russian and English members of the team. The team worked alongside each other in the office with me working from home. We used email, instant messenger and the Google suite to chat and collaborate. As most communication was in writing, not face to face, it meant that a joke may not be taken as one, so this emoji was definitely useful 😂!
According to the Italian-English dictionary, the translation for “Faccio come le pare” is “Do as you like”. Fairly innocuous you would think… until you say it to an Italian and discover it really means “Do what the f*@£ you like!”. Entirely different. Oops. The same applies to stupida = stupid or idiota = idiot. They are seemingly light insults in English, but in Italian they’re not very complimentary at all. Confusion reigned for a while on that day! Fortunately the intent was explained and good communication restored shortly afterwards.
Working in Ghana, I was with a group of Ghanaian, Glaswegian and English volunteers. I didn’t understand the Glaswegian accent for 2 months and some of the Ghanaians were mortally offended by different interpretations of a simple gesture. My memory is not particularly clear, but I have a feeling that a ‘thumbs up’ in Ghana means something pretty rude. Maybe someone else on the expedition can confirm whether that’s right 😉…
And anyway, and proven statistically apparently, people who swear are more honest. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it’s a good excuse tor the occasional:
In The Darkest Hour‘, my daughter loved the fact that Churchill used the ‘V’ sign the wrong way round in the beginning… so instead of symbolising Victory, it meant something rather cheeky 🤣. Brilliant film and a well-deserved Oscar!
In Switzerland, it’s rude if you do not look the other person in the eye when you say ‘Cheers!’ – it’s a sign of trust. On a Sunday, it’s also banned to use your washing machine or lawnmower (which I might adopt actually, I hate mowing lawns full stop). The lovely thing though in The Valais, the French speaking part of Switzerland where I was based, is that a greeting is an elaborate ritual. You do not just give ‘un bisou’ (one kiss on the cheek) or ‘deux bisous’, or even ‘trois bisous’. ‘Quatre bisous’ (four kisses) is expected 😍! So it takes a while…
Nuances in communication – especially in native English – are difficult for other cultures to see and understand. There’s Reading (the place), reading a book, reading a room. Nightmare! And when it comes to acceptable English subjects of polite conversation War – Religion – Sex are still often not felt appropriate. The unwritten rules are literally a minefield!
It can be fun interpreting the alternative meaning behind a gesture, the emphasis in a phrase, a facial expression ☺️. I like to remember that while alternative perspectives exist, the differences are not insurmountable. Ultimately to resolve them, it takes a real and honest conversation to develop a friendship and bring together a community.
Love Ruth x
The header image is by Elisha Terada on Unsplash.