Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Lessons of Language and Culture

Living in another country is like walking in the fog. At times you have no idea where you are, at times you can make out shapes in the distance. At times, you can see what is right in front of you but you may not recognize anything else in the landscape.

Every time I think things are going well here in Italy, I am reminded again that culture and language is such an essential part of who you are and how you behave and react that it gets us into trouble.

Just for a moment, I would like you to pause and answer this question: What does the phrase "extremely tough" mean to you?

To me, it means it may be hard but is possible. It may be doable. We will have to work at it but could make it happen. So when we discussed a proposal at work and I got this answer, I thought that it would be difficult but was open to discussion.

To my Italian colleague, it meant no. It meant it was not possible to do, they would never agree to it, we were wasting our time. So it came out this week that he was extremely angry with me about the fact that I went forward with the proposal through formal channels at work, because he thought I was completey disregarding his feedback and intentionally causing delays. And I was frustrated when the formal channels completely, flat out rejected the proposal without discussion, feeling they had strung me along and were just delaying things. Both completely normal responses, given our understanding of the situation. And both completely wrong.

All because he said "extremely tough," meaning "no" and I heard "maybe."

The layers and layers of language and culture are all around us, are part of us. You don't realize how fundamental they are, how much we operate on assumptions in every day life, until they are challenged. This is my cultural lesson for the week. Maybe you can learn from it too. Even in our home country, in our home language, we make assumptions all of the time about meaning and intention. Next time you are frustrated by a situation, check and validate your assumptions and look at it again. Those assumptions may be the problem.

1 comment:

  1. I hear you... the other day I hurried into a store having a 'blowout' and it turned out to only be a 'sale'. When, what I thought was a blowoutman approached, he asked if there was anything he could do for me. I was very clear in my response and gave him a definitive, "that would be extremely tough."


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