What I say is not what you hear

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw

During the Korean War, a British army unit was holding a hill above an important river. But the British were on the back foot, surrounded and increasingly becoming outnumbered by the Chinese army: eight to one. The British commander anxiously rang his American superior and said, “Things are a bit sticky, sir.” The American hadn’t heard of British understatement so concluded no help was required. Four days later the British were overrun, 500 out of 600 soldiers taken prisoner.

This wouldn’t surprise the Irish playwright Bernard Shaw, who liked his quotes on communication. For he famously said that America and Britain were “two countries separated by a common language.”

But it’s easy to see why we confuse each other. A quick review of British and American ‘English’ words says it all:

British English vs. American English

Crisps = Chips (chips in Britain are fries in the US). Biscuit = Cookie (a biscuit is also a bread eaten with gravy in Southern US states). 

Trousers = Pants. Handbag = Purse (Britons keep a purse in a handbag. Americans keep a wallet in a purse). Bumbag = Fanny pack (a delicate idea for the British, please don’t go there).

Autumn = Fall. Car bonnet = Hood. Car boot = Trunk. Petrol = Gas. Ground floor = First floor. Pavement = Sidewalk (American pavements are tarmaced road surfaces in Britain).

Football (a game where the ball is kicked) = Football (a game where the ball is thrown). One of them is just plain wrong…. just saying.

And colloquialisms are even trickier. An American might say ‘to lay an egg,’ (to fail terribly), or ‘behind the eight ball,’ (be at a disadvantage). And if they’re ‘pissed’ they are angry, but if you’re British and ‘pissed’ you’re drunk. A British person might say they are ‘chuffed,’ (happy), or they’ll promise to ‘give you a ring,’ (call you on the phone). No jewellery involved. Sorry, we’re just not that generous.

And herein lies the challenge. We think language is like physics: measurable, quantifiable and consistent. Language is anything but. It’s really just cultural. You can study language in a class, memorise the words on a page, but they are meaningless without the context.

In my Spoon by Spoon interviews I’ve talked to 100 people who come from 20 different countries. Many of them are trying out lives in new places. For some it was a great idea to “up sticks” (a British expression meaning to leave home). If your mother tongue is their mother tongue what could go possibly wrong?

I’ve spoken to an American who relocated to London to be with his new partner, an Indian woman who moved to Texas to study but never left, and an Australian who now lives in Switzerland with her American husband and their daughter (who was born in Canada). Trés confusant? And the list goes on — a German living in London, a French woman who moved to Dublin but on her way to the UK, and a Russian now based in Canada.

What do these mixings of people and places create? Landing in a new country can be hard when you don’t speak the language, but culture is often a bigger hurdle. Eli is one example. He’s American, his wife is Vietnamese and they now live in a small provincial town in Sweden. Here 90% of people speak English, but despite this Eli is finding it hard to communicate.

Swedish culture is very different from my own. I’m really a people person.” Eli is a boisterous New Yorker who speaks loudly and fast on the phone. “I used to have long conversations with taxi drivers or with the teller at the bank.”

But now he finds himself in a country where people are private. “There are strict rules about how you make relationships. There are two areas — work and sport. That’s really about it.”

He’s finding it difficult to get to know people. “I’ve actually gone online to see why it’s hard to make friends here. It’s like they have a gatekeeper and unless you have some initial similarities you’re excluded. Chit chat is seen as frivolous.”

So places where he’d normally strike up conversations, like the supermarket, just don’t work. “People will be polite. They’ll smile, but probably think you are crazy, or American.” Eli chuckles. “That’s actually a Swedish joke. ‘A person talks to me on the train. Crazy? No, he’s just American.’ That’s the joke. Talking on a train for Swedish people means you’re mad.”

It could all seem rather hopeless. Better just to stay firmly where you were born. But actually there are a few things you can do to improve understanding:

1) Communicate one message at a time

2) Use clear and easy language

3) Check the other person’s understanding

4) Listen to their response at all levels, not just the words they say. Also pay attention to their reaction — their facial expressions and body language

I’ll invoke George Bernard Shaw one last time. It’s easy to think you’ve communicated effectively, so don’t forget to check you’ve been understood. Find out if your words have landed. And work out if the words are on your shore or theirs.

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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