by Adina Tarry

My brief stories relate to my personal experience in different countries, linked by a common language…or not.

I lived in London for a few years before going to Sydney, another English speaking place. Once there I found work and quickly noticed that my interactions with others were not quite fluid. Eventually an exasperated manager bit the bullet and challenged me one day, as I’ve been talking to him for some minutes. “Adina, what exactly is it that you want? Just tell me…??!!!” he interrupted. Slightly shocked by such abruptness I answered “Well…a meeting next Monday at 10 am if possible”, “No worries…why don’t you say so and waste my time…done…” and then he left…my English graces dismissed in an instant. The full impact of that story happened when experienced in reverse.

After 11 years in Sydney, I came back to London. For the first six months, every time I opened my mouth I seemed to horrify, insult or put someone off…very quickly I became disoriented and anxious about what to say and how to behave, so I kept quiet and a low profile, when with people, and simply watched and listen very hard…then mimic what I heard and saw…this involved not stating directly what I wanted, using the words “hope for”, “perhaps”, “maybe” “if it is not too much trouble” and also thanking and apologising repeatedly before and after sentence…This seemed to work.

After some time, and mellowed by the “English” approach, I found myself thinking, when working with Australian and American clients, who were in London looking for work: “Oh dear! Speaking like this will not get you far here, in spite of your brilliant qualifications”. And then shared my own experience and finings with them.

Something similar I can say about my visits to Paris (where I lived before coming to London) where in spite of my fluent French I do not say half as much as my friends whom I’ve known for over 20 years. They all find me much too quiet these days “you have become soooo English…” they say, whilst I think…”you have been talking for 3 hours now in a heated debate around a beautiful French meal, but for the life of me, I have no idea what you are talking about …” And yes… the key words for France are: journey, discovery, desire, pleasure, dream, enquiry…soooo not English !

As for my visits to Italy, that is something else again….around the table with my friend’s family comprising the parents, their three grown daughters, their “finanzati” then one or the other or both mothers (in law) plus a” drop in” neighbour, possibly with a baby, all talking at once around a large table that sits 12, with the sound of “pass me the bread”, “do you want some more pizza” and “is the lasagne heated yet” shouted at the top of their voices…is another experience to behold….lucky I speak Italian, otherwise I would think they are about to kill each other…

What can one learn from these stories: that language even when the same, does not override different social practices, that the temperament of a country may be expressed in language and the way it is used, that we must not make assumptions of any sort and invest time first and foremost, when moving around the planet, to observe what the local people do.

Whether we can and wish to adjust to the others and whether we can partly or completely change our behaviours depends on many factors including our personality and own thinking and communication styles and this adds even more layers to the complexity and fascination that cross cultural interactions offer us.


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This entry was posted on Saturday, May 22nd, 2010 at 11:45 am and is filed under cross-cultural communication, General, international business . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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