Cross cultural communication through the English language

Expression and communication are the two crucial abilities that are necessary for one’s wellbeing. That includes everything from explaining how you feel to being able to phrase your thoughts in the appropriate way. But the words are almost meaningless if the listener misunderstands them or misinterprets them due to some unclear connotations. This is very likely to happen during the conversations between international students, but especially when talking to British citizens who have not had that much exposure to people from abroad. In this article I would like to address the ways in which the disconnect happens, giving you a few examples, then moving on to discuss the possible solutions for it.

My national identity did not play a major role in my life when I was growing up, presumably since the most of my community was from the same background. I have never felt the need to focus on it and have additionally sometimes felt like I am not even a true Slovenian since my family often disregarded or modernised some of the traditions (we usually went to a spa on national holidays, while other Slovenians visited a parade). However, ever since I started studying in Scotland, I feel the stronger connection with my homeland. Not only because I miss it but also because the cultural differences between me and the person I’m speaking to need so often to be explained with my country of origin.

It is obvious that linguistic differences exist between native speakers and those for whom English is a second language. Some immigrants cannot understand all of the words and concepts used, but there are additional subtle problems that an English-speaking individual would probably not think about.

Firstly, it is probably true that foreign students have a different understanding of the connotations of certain words or we phrase our thoughts in unconventional ways. This means that we cannot express ourselves completely or cannot be understood as we would be back home. For example, I have noticed that ‘hate’ is a very strong word in English and that I am using it much more liberally than my peers here. I am guessing that they might think that I am overreacting and that I have many negative feelings toward others whereas I use the word to describe a mild discomfort.

Secondly, the jokes are different in every language. You have probably heard of the comparison between American and British humour as seen in the series The Office. (I tried to sum up the differences in this section but it turned out to be just too complicated, so am advising you to watch both of the shows the next time you feel like procrastinating).

It should then not be surprising that there are many more ways of telling a joke and that the context is what makes it funny. I have noticed myself staying quiet even when I found something funny because zingers work somehow differently in Slovenian and are usually not as funny here. Additionally, I need a bit more time to explain the joke given my accent and a lack of vocabulary, so the a successful joke is not that likely. But that means that it is more difficult for us to socialize and connect with the British as, in my opinion at least, jokes are the easiest way to start a friendship.

As an individual coming from a quite culturally homogenous environment, I would like to think that I am slowly becoming more aware of the differences between the students from different backgrounds. I have for example figured out how to ask one where they are from without the offensive connotation. I now say: ‘Are you from around here?’ which either makes people chuckle as I’ve obviously made the wrong assessment of their accent or they causally answer yes.

Additionally, I have a tip for everybody who is not comfortable being asked where they are from. Challenge the person asking you the question to guess what your country of origin is. This will either make them realise the absurdity of the question and/or maybe even make them feel a bit uncomfortable, like they made you feel before. I must say it is quite satisfying to see people trying to figure out what the countries in the Balkan area are. Also, many of the people take this as a fun challenge and the beginning of a new friendship.

However, I am still struggling to figure out what the appropriate response is, when you see somebody being different from you or for example having a habit that may seem weird. Imagine the first time you have seen somebody using a piece of cutlery you do not usually use at home (for me that would be chopsticks). One could either ask why they don’t just use a knife and fork or they could quietly observe the other and not mention anything. I think both responses could turn out to be at least micro-aggressions and I am still not sure which one would be more appropriate.

Being quiet might make the other  person feel uncomfortable and not accepted given that you cannot openly talk about their differences, especially when you both consider the other different and are not likely to build a strong and true friendship. On the other hand, talking about the differences might seem the healthy and a grown-up response but it might be quite demeaning if one has not yet realised that what they’re doing is different and strange and then become self-conscious about it, especially if many students ask them about the same thing.

For me, that would be my accent and thus omittance of the words ‘the,’ ‘a’ and ‘an’. I was not aware of it and did not think it was a problem, but once my Scottish friends talked to me about it, I have tried my best to minimise the number of times I make this mistake. I was not offended but it revealed a difference between us that I did not know existed. I am not sure that staying quiet would lead to a better outcome given that I would keep making the same ‘mistake’.

All in all, in the best case scenario it should be intuitive to us how to deal with situations that are a part of cultural shock at the university, but given that the world is not that simple, doing our best should be good enough. I think the first step is to realise that there are subtle things that influence international students a lot and not to dismiss them just because they are more difficult to observe.


Image: Keith Rowley via Flickr

Related News

Say something

The Student Newspaper 2016