Misunderstanding? Point the finger at the native speaker!

Jan 17 • Communication Skills, Cross Cultural, Management and Leadership, Morry Morgan Blog, Trainers Blogs • 4131 Views • No Comments on Misunderstanding? Point the finger at the native speaker!

Source: KJGarbutt @ Flickr
MY DAD HAS A QUIRKY HABIT. Rather than saying “yes” or “no” to wait staff he instead draws out his answer. For example,

“That doesn’t sound like a bad idea” equals yes.

“Well I would love to, but will pass at this moment” equals no.

You can understand the confusion the wait staff go through, especially when my dad is abroad – which is often.

The use of ‘bad idea’ in a positive answer, or the statement ‘I would love to’ in the negative, dominates the response, and so more often than not my father receives the opposite of what he has requested (or declined). This is a quirk which becomes apparent only on holidays, but for many expatriates working in China a similar language quirk can make life very frustrating on a daily basis.

Take, for example, a recent conversation  I heard between an American – we’ll call him Dave – and his Chinese subordinate – which we’ll call Sherry – who work for a holiday resort in Zhejiang Province, China.

Over a cup of coffee, during the break in my training, I saw Dave and Sherry talking in depth about work. I was too close to avoid eavesdropping into their conversation, and thankfully I did.

“Sherry, we need to buy more tea for our guests,” said Dave, before pausing briefly, and then turning around to delve into the coffee and biscuits. Sherry nodded, and turned to head to the bathroom.

But I suspected a misunderstanding had occurred, and so cut her off at the door.

“Sherry!” I called. “May I ask you what Dave just said?”

“Sure,” said replied Sherry. “Dave is going to buy more tea for our guests.”

“Wait there,” I requested, and I walked over to where Dave stood with his coffee. “Dave, a quick question. What did you say to Sherry?”

Dave looked slightly perplexed, but responded. “I told her to go and buy more tea for the guests.”


So who do you blame for the misunderstanding the above example? For me it is clear – the native speaker. Like my father, Dave has a quirk to his language. For Dave ‘we’ means ‘you’ – when he is giving an order. Of course to prevent misunderstanding he should have use the internationally accepted, dictionary supported meaning for the word ‘you’ – which is the word ‘YOU” (not ‘we’). But he didn’t, and as a result the complete opposite almost happened.

And who would the native speaker have blamed when no tea arrived for the guests? Probably Sherry. After all, Dave’s a native English speaker.

Just like my Dad.



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