Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The dangers of the word 'please' – views from around the world

Our latest guest blogger, Diane Lemieux, writing on behalf of World of Expats, fills us in on dangers of the word ‘please’...

Image source: Flickr / Scott Smith

Being a native English speaker is a blessing: English is the world’s lingua franca so everywhere we go we are sure to find someone that we can communicate with.

But it can also be a curse. The problem is that when other people communicate with us in English they are using their second or third… language. So what? Well, even within the same culture, what a person says and what they mean are often not exactly the same thing. For example, if my husband says ‘fancy a cup of coffee?’ what he means is ‘I’d really love it if you made me a cup of coffee.’ Know what I mean?

Because culture determines a lot of what is meant, the scope for misunderstandings in cross-cultural communication is huge. While someone may be using English words, they are not using the Anglophone culture to express themselves.

I know that this point has been made a thousand times. But from my experience of living in 10 countries and speaking 4 languages, I’ve seen so many examples of how people assume they know what the other person means. They then leap to conclusions about that person without checking to see if their interpretation is correct.

Let’s just take the tiny, simple little word ‘please’.

In North America and the UK the polite way to ask for butter is to say, ‘Pass the butter, please’ or ‘Could you please pass the butter’. However you phrase it, you really should have the word ‘please’ in there or it sounds rude.

In the Netherlands, on the other hand, the polite form regarding butter is: ‘May I have the butter.’ The equivalent to the word ‘please’ is not really required. The impolite form is: ‘Pass the butter.’

So if a native English-speaker is listening to a Dutch person in English, they hear something that sounds rude to them. A common logical error is to jump to the conclusion that the person they are speaking to is rude – in other words that the Dutch person meant to be less than polite.

So when a Dutch kid comes to my house and politely asks for butter, I have to bite my tongue so that I don’t say ‘May I have the butter, PLEASE’ like I would if my kids said it. Although I’m fluent in Dutch, it is still takes effort on my part to listen to cultural meaning rather than the English words.

I now live in Nigeria. Yoruba is the most commonly spoken native language in the region, a highly complex tonal language that is recognised by linguists as a rich and sophisticated language. Politeness in Yoruba is expressed by using respectful titles.

‘Pass the butter, my respected Auntie’ is an approximate example. The problem for native Yoruba speakers using English is that they have to translate all their respectful titles into the simple English word ‘you’. They inevitably, like the Dutch, come across as being rude.

For unilingual speakers, it is probably unfathomable that such differences in expression exist. If you have learned at least one foreign language you may be more aware of differences in meaning and be prepared to listen for nuance. But even then, in order to understand meaning you must be aware of the culture of the people you are speaking with.

Here in Nigeria I watch foreigners walk up to a salesperson and say, ‘Excuse me. Do you have any butter?’ We are being polite according to our norms. But to the Nigerian, they find themselves faced with, according to their norms, yet another rude expat. They therefore point half-heartedly in the general direction of the dairy products. And the foreigner walks away thinking how rude the shopkeepers in this country are.

Had the foreigner used the Nigerian code for politeness, they would have been treated to a completely different level of service. The polite form would have been to acknowledge the existence of the shop attendant: You start off with ‘Good morning,’ and for extra service you add ‘how was your night?’ (Literal translation: did you sleep well? Real meaning: how are you?)

So the key to communicating with other people, even those from our own culture, is to check that we got the meaning right. The onus is on us ‘guests’ who have come to live in a foreign country to understand our hosts and also adjust our own communication patterns accordingly. What’s the point in roaming the world being irritated because everyone is rude but you?

It takes practice. It took me years to cotton on to my husband’s coded messages regarding coffee. One day I just didn’t feel like drinking coffee so I answered no. He got up and made us both a cup. Ah ha!
About the author

Diane Lemieux was born in Quebec, Canada and began travelling at the age of three. She has lived in ten countries on five continents and speaks English, French, Dutch and Portuguese. She has fifteen years experience as a freelance author and journalist. Diane is author of four books including The Mobile Life: a new approach to moving anywhere and Culture Smart! Nigeria. Take a look at Diane’s blog here.

Would you like to guest blog for us? Let us know in the comments section below or by tweeting @expatexplorer!

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