Any of my friends and colleagues know that I’m not the kind of person to mince words. In fact, I often feel an obligation to deliberately say things which are somewhat provocative. You may find yourself asking why that is, and that’s exactly why I do it. I find it’s very important to be able to ask questions, since by doing so we allow ourselves to develop. If you stop asking questions then you find yourself on the slippery slope known as complacency, i.e. accepting things purely because of the fact that they exist and not asking why that is the case or if it should be.
Of course, there are a great deal of things which cause offence to people, and in some cases this isn’t because of disrespect but because the people saying these things aren’t aware of the resultant impact their actions may have on others. When learning another language it’s important to realise the consequences of what you’re saying and doing, since the things which are seemingly innocent from your own cultural point of view can have negative consequences for someone else. Here are some examples from my personal experience that we’re going to look at today. Here’s a list of some of my favourites:
In the wrong hands, this can be of the most offensive and degrading words which English language has to offer, and there’s a good reason for it. This word was originally derived from some Romance language and had the meaning black, and could have been used by the speakers of the said language to describe the obvious difference in skin colour between Europeans and Sub-Saharan Africans. Eventually it got into English and developed a very derogatory meaning which means more than just “black person”.
Russian also has the word black?? of course, but when referring to people it means the colour of their hair. The (completely neutral) word for a black person is “negr”, which can obviously open a whole pandora’s box of miss-conveyed meaning! More often than not, people don’t realise he sheer brutality and inappropriateness of what they’re saying with the word ‘nigger’, but then again how could they? In Russia people were slaves based on descent, not skin colour, until the 19th century.
Yes, this is point to and the subject is the number two. People have different ways of showing it. In much of the English speaking world, people show two with their palm facing out, whereas in Central and Eastern Europe people have the palm facing inwards. What’s the result of this? That I often get flipped off more than I would care to think in English class. As any native English speaker will know (with the exception perhaps of North Americans) two fingers stuck out palm inwards means fuck you. This can be summarised in the formula below.
I can’t think of any examples when people have taken offence at foreigners innocently asking for two of something, because this difference is well-known, but it’s never else’s good to bear in mind.
I love to sing and dance when I’m happy. My students are sometimes shocked when they first come to me because of the way I jive around the classroom. If I’m busy doing something else, I’ll whistle. When I first moved to Ukraine I was surprised by the shock and horror I was confronted with when I did it. According to Eastern Slavic superstition, if you whistle inside then you’ll lose all your money. I’d point out that it’d already happened since I was now living and earning in Ukraine and not Western Europe. Maybe his was because I used to whistle in the UK as well and the superstition just has a strange way of fulfilling itself.
I grew up in a house where people often worked around with their shoes on (although my mum would often keep telling us not to do it) I thought that wearing shoes in the house was just something people did. Oh no! There’s a wide spread of countries from Korea to Germany where it is completely unacceptable. If you want to make someone horrified, you don’t have to do much more than absentmindedly stomp into the hallway. I even get friends staying with me demanding I take my shoes off in my own house.
No, this isn’t the big black thing outside the Earth’s atmosphere, it’s that personal area each of us has around us. The amount of personal space varies according to culture. Different people feel differently about being a certain distance from each other when speaking, which kind of balances out if people come from the same place. If two people don’t, each often moves around to find a distance comfortable for them. I find that my personal space requirements are A LOT smaller than most other people’s I meet, meaning that when I speak to someone, I often end up backing them into a corner because I’m trying to get to a closer to find a distance comfortable for me whereas my partner is trying to find a larger distance which meets their needs!
So, what can we do to avoid intercultural misunderstandings? It’s important to know about them and how your actions can affect others and we can only know about it if other people tell us! Remember that life is a learning experience and we find these things out by making mistakes. You can either not do something because you may unwittingly upset someone from a different culture, or you can continue being you and adept accordingly when you find out what you need.