Crossing the language barrier

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Crossing the language barrier

Getting used to a markedly different culture is one of the greatest challenges one faces when moving to a new country. Specifically, adapting to different communication styles and overcoming the language barrier is crucial if you’re going to embrace your new home and retain your sanity. It’s not just about learning the local language. As someone who wrestled with Korean for two years, I know it’s not always possible to get to grips with the native tongue. Just as important, however, is understanding the style your hosts use when talking - even in English.

Brits are often accused of what we call “talking around the houses.” In other words, we go to great lengths to avoid getting to the point. I had thought this was something we shared with Koreans. In fact, it’s the amusing and confusing mix of direct and indirect communication that, in my view, bonds us together.

On those days I arrive at the office looking perhaps a little tired, I can be sure a colleague will not hesitate to tell me I look exhausted. “You don’t look very good today Colin”, might be the blunt assessment. “You must be very sleepy”, another will offer. This might be genuine concern for my well-being and a reflection of reality but to Brits this bold and painfully direct style takes some getting used to.

Another example I regularly come across is use of the phrase “as I already told you.” I’m assured by Korean friends and colleagues that this is used for emphasis and I know the expression is often used to introduce a point. Again, our sensitive British brains can interpret this as a sign of frustration on behalf of the speaker: are you angry? Do you think I didn’t listen to you the first time? On the occasions I have explained this interpretation to Korean colleagues they have been embarrassed and keen to stress that there was no such anger of frustration.

Contrast that direct style with the complex use of language that appears in written communication. I have lost count of the number of emails I have received, in English, from Koreans whereby I have to read until the third or fourth paragraph before I’m clear on the request. “These days the weather is getting warmer and the spring blossoms are in full bloom” may be followed by a statement of how important the sender considers the relationship with the British Embassy. It is only after such pleasantries that I learn I am being asked for some information or perhaps for a favour. Not wishing to offend the sender, I mentioned this style to my colleagues. I’m told that a simple “Colin, can you do something for me please?” would be considered too direct and potentially impolite.

We Brits are an odd bunch. We may use an indirect style of language but we generally prefer it when others get to the point. This is a real challenge for others and I sympathise.

A friend recently shared a guide to what British people say, what others hear and what they actually mean. Whilst exaggerated for comic effect, it’s not too far from the truth. I’ll let you in on a secret: if we say “I’ll bear it in mind”, chances are we are just trying to be polite and have either already forgotten or will soon dismiss it from our minds. If we say “could we perhaps consider some other options?” we are not supportive of the idea that has been put forward. Perhaps most bizarrely, whilst “not bad” generally means “good,” “quite good” often means “a bit disappointing.” Confusing aren’t we?

For me, such different use of language is fascinating. It can be frustrating but taking the time to stop, ask or interpret adds to the richness of a new culture experience. The next time a colleague says “as I told you before” I’ll set aside my sensitivity. And I promise that if I tell you something is “very interesting,” I won’t mean the opposite.

*The author is Head of media and public affairs for the British Embassy in Seoul.

by Colin Gray
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