Friday, 27 June 2008

Miss Communication

"Ooh, you are lucky. You've got a good cooker here," said Elsje to the room in general, over dinner one night. Everyone smiled and nodded.

Because Elsje spoke beautiful English, more flawlessly grammatical than that of most native speakers, I did not for one minute think she meant anything other than a stove. I thought it was a little odd that she should be so enthusiastic about a mere appliance, but since I spent much of my time struggling with the sensibilities of the Dutch, I figured it was just one of those things. Like eating fish and cheese for breakfast and never needing your bread toasted.

Much later, I realized belatedly that Elsje had been complimenting my cooking. It had been my turn to make dinner and I'd produced an indifferent lasagna, but the standard of cooking in our small artists' community wasn't high -- everyone else was more interested in spending time on their art than wasting it preparing food -- and Elsje had been impressed by my efforts. The Dutch are some of the best non-native speakers of English I know, but the perfectly logical 'cooker' for 'cook' trips up a lot of them. It tripped me up, too.

"My brother lives in a mansion," my friend Naoko told me my second week in Tokyo. I was immediately impressed. Space is at a premium all over Japan, but especially in Tokyo. I had only been in a few people's apartments, but I'd been shocked at how tiny and cramped they were. I knew that Naoko's brother had a good job, but I'd had no idea he lived in a mansion. The day Naoko took me to visit him, I had an even bigger shock. A mansion in Japan -- and in other Asian countries, I am told -- is not the spacious, well-appointed stately home westerners envision, but a slightly better-than-average apartment, generally insulated, ugly, and with a ferroconcrete foundation. People are nonetheless very proud to live in mansions and bristle if you make a mistake and call them apaato, or apartments. An apaato is the poor cousin of the mansion.

"Have you had your tea yet?" my husband asked me one evening, way back before he was my husband. I had gone to visit him after work and was somewhat taken aback by this question -- as though tea was such an important drink that if I hadn't had a cup, I ought to rectify matters. I told him I had not, and to my surprise he began to clatter about with pots and pans. I kept him company as he cooked what I thought was to be his dinner: an omelette, salad, and toast. But to my amazement, he slid it onto a plate and placed it in front of me.

"What's this for?"

"It's for you, silly."

"But I've eaten!"

"You just said you hadn't!"

It took us quite some time to get it sorted out. I'd worked for a British company for almost six months, but that was the first time I realized that tea wasn't just a beverage, but a proper meal.

Three years later, he and I were sitting in my in-laws' house in the Midlands, watching a man from Birmingham install a burglar alarm. The man was telling us all about his trip to America, how he and his wife had decided to go to Disneyworld instead of having car pits installed, how glad he was they'd had the holiday to the States instead. As I listened, I tried to visualize the car pits. Could they be subterranean garages of some sort? Space was at a premium in England, I knew, and though I'd never seen any car pits (that I knew about), perhaps they were a feature I would become more familiar with in time. I was on the verge of asking about them, but held my tongue; I had some trouble understanding the man's strong accent and decided to ask my husband later instead. Thank God.

"What are car pits?" I asked my husband later. "Are they under the house? Can you put gardens over them?"

He stared at me in bewilderment. "What?"

"The guy was telling us about car pits," I reminded him. "How he and his wife went to Disneyworld instead of getting them installed--"

"Carpets!" my husband hissed. "He was talking about carpets!"

Now I've come full circle. Last week, I was chatting with a group of women who were talking about a man they knew, up in Edinburgh. "He lives in a mansion," one of the women said, in hushed tones. Immediately I pictured a squat, ferroconcrete building with a rusting laundry rail on every floor. I could see housewives out beating the futons they were airing; I could smell the fish broiling and rice cooking and picture the fluffy slippers you would be given to change into when visiting.

I was halfway home before I figured it out.


Alice said...

Another excellent post. Call for book here!

Alice said...

And I would have been like, "car fascinating...I'd like to hear more about them..."

ChrisEldin said...

Ditto the carpets! I would've asked also...

Alice, I think little by little, Mary has accumulated a book on her blog!

ChrisEldin said...

Just took the book quiz--FUN!!!!

This is mine: Watership Down

Though many think of you as a bit young, even childish, you're actually incredibly deep and complex. You show people the need to rethink their assumptions, and confront them on everything from how they think to where they build their houses. You might be one of the greatest people of all time. You'd be recognized as such if you weren't always talking about talking rabbits.

Charles Gramlich said...

Definitely a good lesson about assumptions. Loved the mansion in Toyko example. and the Car Pits.


C.R. Evers said...

LOL! Those are great! My husband and I have had our share of miscommunication as well. Thankfully we have been able to laugh at them all! :0)


Carolie said...

Aren't words simply wonderful? The funny thing is, I assumed Elsje was referring to the person who cooked the meal! I'd never heard "cooker" as a word for oven or stove until I lived in Ireland, and even since, I've only ever heard those from Ireland and the UK use "cooker" to refer to a stove. Same thing about the brand name Hoover used as a verb...when I was growing up, the floor was vacuumed, not Hoovered.

I, too, had the mansion misunderstanding here in Japan. The first time I saw a sign proclaiming a very ugly apartment building as the "Something-or-other Mansions," I got the giggles, which puzzle Miyuki. The conversation that followed set me straight on what constitutes a Japanese mansion...and I fear gave her even more fuel for her "America must be Paradise" dreams.

When I lived in Dublin, I made the mistake of telling my then-husband that I'd gotten home early because "Aisling's boyfriend gave me a ride." His eyes widened, and steam began coming out of his ears....until he realized that the boyfriend in question had merely given me a LIFT on his motorcycle, not shown me a good time in bed!

I won't even get started on what my then-mother-in-law had to say the time she heard me tell my little niece that I'd swat her fanny if she didn't behave (for Irish and UK Resident Alien fans, that word means BUM in America! Oh, and if you have a bum in America, you've adopted a hobo somehow...)

Chris, I completely agree that Mary's got a book within her blog!

Kim Ayres said...

Simply superb, Mary :)

Catherine J Gardner said...

Car Pits? LOL!

Mary Witzl said...

Alice -- I tell you, I was millimeters away from making that comment about car pits; I still shiver to think about it! The man had a heavy Birmingham accent and he put so much stress on the first syllable that he threw me off entirely. But I know if I'd made my comment, he'd have thought I was teasing him.

And thank you for your kind words. I have actually written a memoir and just need to sew up my ego again and try resubmitting it. The book, that is; sadly, my ego stays wtih me.

Chris -- You and Alice have cheered me up about this carpet comment. I swear, you should have heard him! 'CAR-pits' was exactly what it sounded like; I can see those car pits yet.

And you got Watership Down, you lucky thing? Is it true that you always talk about rabbits? I'm sure I've never heard you mention them!

Charles -- Everybody falls for that mansion thing in Japan. And what is really funny is when you make some innocent reference to someone's apartment and have them get all offended -- "I don't live in an apartment!" I used to tell my students that in English, they should refer to their mansion as an apartment -- unless they wanted to have a lot of foreigners showing up, expecting to be put up for the weekend. That used to straighten them out.

Christy -- Misunderstandings do make great stories, don't they -- as long as they can be sorted out! And there are so many, I think there ought to be a separate blog where people could post them.

Carolie -- When I was first in Japan, a colleague used to refer to the two-burner kitchen 'konro' as the cooker, so that term was firmly in place in my mind by the time I got to the Netherlands.

There are a lot of false cognates that mix people up when they go to Japan, and all speakers of English struggle to tell the difference between what is 'Engrish' and what is perfectly acceptable, but unfamiliar to speakers of our own dialect. I observed the class of an Australian colleague once and heard him correct a student when she used the term 'baby buggy.' He assured her that no such term existed in English, poor guy. And then I got into trouble by telling a student that 'pissed' meant angry, not 'drunk...'

I love your 'ride' and 'fanny' stories, and I have been there and done that! The fanny mix-up is particularly prized here in the U.K. You know the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton story about 'fanny', don't you? Apparently, Burton was ordered by an American director to grab Liz by her fanny, and he chose to interpret this the British way. And you know what a rubber is here, right? My kids brought down the house once, asking for a rubber in California, when they were still little.

Now I'll get off my bum (not fanny) and try to get that book out...

Kim -- Thank you. I feel a little silly trotting these old stories out, I don't really think they're superb, but the encouragement I get here balances out the rejections I get, so I keep coming back.

Catherine -- You really had to hear it, honest. To this day, I can see them in my mind's eye.

debra said...

Another great story, Mary. Cultural differences are interesting----and reasons not to make assumptions.

Gorilla Bananas said...

It makes me wonder what a real mansion is called in Japan. A palace perhaps?

marshymallow said...

A rubber is an eraser, right? Or a bouncy ball? Is it ever still called India rubber, like in Swallows and Amazons?

:) Great post, BTW.

Christy said...

Ha! I distinctly remember a test in one of my linguistics courses about common mistakes that non-native speakers make. I'm always so fascinated by how many people make the same errors - it's a wonder we manage to communicate at all sometimes.

Linda D. (sbk) said...

Too funny, Mary! I love your tea story. That one came up with my in-laws once (before I was married to Brendan). They asked if I'd had tea and I said no, but then kept turning down all the food they were offering. They thought I was trying to starve myself.

From that day on they sent groceries with Brendan every time he came to visit me.

A Paperback Writer said...

I have a basic background in linguistics, and I've taught both Spanish and English to non-native speakers of both. I had already studied Scots linguistically and understood that it is indeed a different language from English, however similar it may seem. I even kept a list of Scottish Standard English words and phrases that I'd learned.
Nevertheless, I recall one time when I was in the kitchen of the housing (what Americans would call a dorm) unit on Richmond Place where I lived in Edinburgh, one of my Canadian kitchenmates (2 of the people on my floor were Canadian) came in and got mad that someone had let a pot boil over and not cleaned it up. "Just look at this element!" She half-shouted. "It's a mess!"
Element. My mind raced through chemistry. Which element was she talking about? The kitchen smelled like food, not a science class. I stared at her, and she ranted on and on about the condition of the cooking area.
Finally, after a couple of minutes, it dawned on me: burner. An element (on the hob, if you are an Edinburgh native) is a burner on a stove to an American. whoa.
The other one that took me a good 30 seconds was when I was at church and someone began talking about their friend who was a lollypop lady for the school. My mind raced in futility until she mentioned something about traffic and --poof!-- I could picture the image of a crossing guard with her stop sign held up like a huge lollypop -- and I smiled and nodded.
Those are my most memorable bits of confusion.

One of my favorite phrases from my native Spanish speakers trying to learn English is "can I charp my pencil?" In Spanish, one does not "sharpen" a pencil; one "takes out a point on the pencil." The kids don't hear the "en" sound on the end of the word, and they can't pronouce "sh" when they are very new to English, so we get "charp."

Mary Witzl said...

Debra -- I love cultural differences. Life is a lot more fun with them, though it is important to recognize them as such. Too many people see them as evidence that people cannot get along instead of reasons for learning about other cultures in their own right.

GB -- The term I've heard for 'mansion' in Japanese is generally 'yashiki.' But real mansions in Japan are as scarce as hens' teeth.

Marshymallow -- I'm glad you're back!

No, I've never heard the term 'India rubber' used here outside those Arthur Ransome type books; (it sounds a little kinky, doesn't it?) Maybe some of our British commenters will set me straight, but people here generally just call erasers 'rubbers' without the India.

Christy -- I'm fascinated by errors too! Somewhere I have a list of all the cringe-worthy mistakes I've made in Japanese. It's still growing, though only very slowly now, and most of my errors don't get people laughing out loud anymore.

Mary Witzl said...

Linda -- Great minds think alike: our posts crossed!

Lucky you. I wish my in-laws brought me food. I have to go to their houses to get it and it's always so good they KNOW I'm not trying to starve myself.

APW -- Boy, 'element' threw me too. I found out what a lollypop lady was through driver's education and having kids, but so many other things here have confused me. For instance, a 'surgery' is a doctor's clinic, not a place where you go to have surgery performed. And a surgery can also be where politicians meet to discuss issues, but I'm still not 100% on that one. Our kids are studying for credit (still haven't entirely figured that one out); they have highers and standard grades and preliminaries and all sorts of other strange exams and tests. I feel so bewildered at parents' meetings. A tuck shop is where you go to get snacks; a joiner is a carpenter; a jumper is a pullover -- and so on. Sometimes talking is a little like a minefield, but is does make for a lively time!

I love that 'take out a point' for 'sharpen'. My favorite false cognate in Spanish is 'embarrassado' for 'embarrassed.' Once you've fallen for that one, you really ARE embarrassed...

Natalie said...

I'd forgotten all about the Japanese "mansions"...ha!

When I first came to Italy and taught with an English woman, we used to crack up over our linguistic differences. Before I knew her very well, I commented that I liked her pants. Her eyes grew wide, she looked down and responded: "What, are they showing?" For those who haven't heard this, I'd apparently told her I liked her underwear...should have said "trousers." ;-)

Another time she had just seen U2 in concert and went on and on about how brilliant they were. And the whole time I was thinking: Right, I like their music, too, but are they really all that smart?
It was about a month later that I finally realized that she was saying how great they were, not that they were geniuses.

Mary, have you read Bill Bryson's book MOTHER TONGUE? You'd never think a book on the history of English would make anyone laugh out loud, but I did. Often.

Thanks for another great post!

A Paperback Writer said...

Ah, yes, embarrasada = pregnant. yup. funny one.
Your school stories made me think of another one. At one meeting with my supervisor for my dissertation, he told me he'd be a bit late next time because he'd be marking exam scripts. I stared at him blankly for a few seconds. I knew that one "marks" papers instead of "grades" them in the UK, but the marking of a script whooshed my mind off into drama territory. It took several seconds before I could translate the phrase into "grading test papers."
The first time I heard "revise for an exam" I was a bit taken aback, too. Why would you revise it when you hadn't taken it yet? I figured it out later, of course.
Here's a little Utahism that others find amusing. In the UK, students who fail to attend class when they are supposed to and have no valid excuse are "skiving." In most parts of the US, this is known as "ditching" or "skipping" class. But in Utah, it's "sluffing." All over the state and only in the state, since at least the mid-1970s and probably longer, "sluffing" has been the word used even by admininstrators and state senators discussing the problem, as well as kids, parents, and teachers. I wish I knew the etymology of the word.

Eryl Shields said...

My husband says 'tea', but I say supper for an informal evening meal and we both say dinner for a formal one. Our son just uses dinner for all evening meals. So when supper is ready I just shout 'grub's up' and everyone knows what I mean.

My husband has to go to Belfast on business once a week and when he was first offered a soda he was shocked to be given a large bread roll filled with bacon and eggs.

Tabitha said...

Ah, communication snafoos...yes, I had my fare share with my in-laws, who live in India. I learned the hard way that a sideways shake of the head, which means "so-so" in America, means "yes" in India. And, depending on how the head is shaken, it can look like what's considered a clear "no" in America. It took a couple of days of this before I figured it out, then I berated my then-future husband for letting me flounder through this for so long. He was so accustomed to this gesture that it never occured to him to set me straight. :)

A Paperback Writer said...

I loved the soda story.
When I was 18, I visited Spain for the first time and learned that a tortilla there is not the same thing as a tortilla in Mexico (and hence the States). I have since found that there are just as many differences in Castillian Spanish and the many variations of Latino Spanish as there are between British English and American English. (And we won't even go into SSE and Aussie English or Argentine or Caribbean Spanish!) Some of the words to watch for include a little gem of a verb that means "to pick up" ( as in, to give a ride to) in Spain but "to pick up a prostitute" in most of Latin America.
In both Spain and Mexico, a chula is a cute girl. Mexican American girls use the word "chulo" like American girls use "cute." So, a darling teddy bear elicits "Ay, qué chulo" from them.
A few years ago in Scotland, some Spaniards I had met asked me to take a photo of them posing in the lovely kirkyard in St. Andrews. As they cuddled in close, I said "ay, qué chulo," which to Mexicans means, "oh, how cute."
When the Spaniards ended up rolling on the grass in convulsions of hilarity, I learned that "chulo" in Spain means "pimp."
Sigh. Oh, well. I certainly made their day. :)

Mary Witzl said...

Natalie -- Now that you mention it, 'brilliant' this and 'brilliant' that really threw me when I first got here, and now I use it all the time and hardly even realize it. And I'll never forget the first time someone told me she was hoovering the stairs. I thought "You're WHAT?" Trousers and pants, and jumpers and pullovers -- even to this day I get confused. But what the heck; it all adds to the fun.

Yes, I love Bill Bryson, and I thought his 'Mother Tongue' was great, a wonderful combination of useful and entertaining. I've put a lot of people here straight about the past participle 'gotten'. The ignorant tend to sneer at this as an 'Americanism,' the sillies. Thank God for Bill.

APW -- Revising and sitting for exams gave me more pause when I first got here! I'll never forget the time I was reading an old textbook and some kids asked me what I was doing. "I'm just trying to catch up," I told them and one of them nodded sagely. "Oh, you're revising!" I could hardly even answer them. And another one I used to find odd was 'reading' for 'majoring in'. "John's reading history at Cambridge" just doesn't sound like it does the job, does it? It makes me think John's something of a slacker.

And speaking of slacking, 'sluffing' is perfect, isn't it? I wonder if it comes from 'slough'? as in 'shaking off'?

Eryl -- My parents used to have a running debate on whether the evening meal should be called supper or dinner. They never did sort it out. I think we came to the same conclusions: that 'dinner' was posh, whereas 'supper' was rather common.

I love that soda story, and you can bet I will be careful about ordering one in Ireland!

Tabitha -- I remember hearing about that head side-to-side head shaking as being one of those gestures that has the potential for tragic confusion. When I was studying sociolinguistics, in one of our textbooks there was a tale about an Indian engineer working with a group of other nationals. Someone asked "Is this wire live?" and he did that side-to-side 'yes' -- with disastrous results. The Japanese 'come here' sign -- hand held out, fingers flapping -- looks just like our sign for goodbye, and this can be very amusingly misinterpreted.

APW -- My brother-in-law is Cuban, and he has encountered plenty of these differences in Spanish dialects himself. My own Spanish level is still too low for this to become a problem, but some day I hope it will be more of an issue. But I love that 'chulo' story.

Jenn Thorson said...

I came across your blog through Alice of HoneyPie and her recent awards ceremony. It's a delight to see such well-told tales. I love knowing that storytelling and carefully-penned memoir is alive and well on the internet.

Mary Witzl said...

Jenn -- Thanks to you, I now know I got an award, and boy, am I pleased! I wish I'd known about it last night as I sat glumly contemplating yet another rejection.

I've visited your blog and I loved what you wrote about cracking up just going to the supermarket. Nice to know I'm not the only one who does this!