Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation: Cracking Hidden Cultural Codes

Posted by nancymueller
Posted on August 22, 2017
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Have you ever found yourself “lost in translation” when speaking across cultures?

“Hi! How are you?”  Translation: Greetings

Recently, a German friend posted: “What Germans probably confuse the most is that ‘How are you?’ really just means ‘Hello’ in the U.S. and doesn’t actually mean the person is interested in how you are doing.” 

Her statement reminded me of the time I passed a Middle Eastern student in the hall and said, “Hi! How are you?” and kept walking. I was half way down the hall when I heard him respond: “Don’t you want to wait to hear my answer?” We had a good conversation about the meaning of the phrase after that. 

Typically, we U.S. Americans say “Hi! How are you?” as a greeting in passing. We don’t expect the other person to then go into detail about how they are really doing, good or bad. In fact, as my friend found out,  “If you indeed answer a ‘How are you?” thoughtfully and at length, you will get very wide eyes. Nobody expects you to lay out your feelings when asked, ‘How are you?'” Yet while we don’t expect a lengthy response at that moment, we may be interested in how the person is doing when it’s appropriate to have a longer conversation later, perhaps over coffee.

Rishad Quazi, who grew up all over the world, shares his perspective: “I studied German for two years, and, “Wie geht’s?” seems to be the closest cultural equivalent to, “How’s it going?”. You can either give the most common short answer of, “Yeah, good.”, or “Not bad.”, or “Pretty good.” Once in awhile you’ll get the full-on, mostly unexpected, “Well, my mom’s mad at me and hasn’t talked to me in six months, I’ve got a sore back from unpacking from my last business trip. Oh, and my boss is jerk, and …” Cultural, social, familial, etc. context all play into the response you’ll get.”

“Let’s Get Together.” Translation: “Sometime”

“Let’s get together” is another phrase that U.S. Americans say that can be just as confusing to recent U.S. arrivals.  Its intended meaning is similar to “Let’s do lunch sometime,” at some vague date in the future, with the underlying assumption of “one of these days when our schedules align.”

Like success, culture leaves clues. For example, we can see elements of a person’s culture when we observe different styles of communication (as in direct or indirect eye contact), dress, holiday customs and dining habits from our own. But what we don’t see when interacting across cultures are the assumptions, values and beliefs that drive those observable behaviors and practices, the invisible clues. Identifying these cultural nuances is peeling back one more layer that deepens our cultural understanding, but doing so takes time to recognize and get used to.

Want to become fluent in another language? Here are a few resources to check out:

The Great Courses
Rosetta Stone

Have you had a similar confusing situation when interacting across cultures? Share your story with us here.


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