Oddities and difficulties in cross-cultural communication


Working in tech in Seattle, I have had a lot of colleagues from India, China, and several other countries. Almost all of them spoke English as a second language. This caused communication difficulties in at least one case I vividly remember (because it was my fault), and communication oddities in many more.

One fun example was when one of my Indian colleagues told me that a meeting had been "preponed". I thought he was coining a new word by back-formation, perhaps as a little joke. I looked it up later only to learn that, while "prepone" is not a word in American or British English, it is a word in Indian English. I told him about it the next time I saw him and we both had a chuckle. He didn't realize that this word wasn't available in American English, any more than I knew it was available in Indian English.

A less fun example involved a Chinese software engineer I worked with. His English was adequate, but not great. We had a lot of trouble communicating. One thing that I found frustrating was that he would often begin answers to my questions with "That one…", where the antecedent was unclear to me. I sometimes would interrupt him and ask for clarification, which just led to more frustration all around.

Some time after I switched teams, I learned a bit of Mandarin myself. And I learned that the expression "那个" — "nàge" in pinyin — can be literally translated as "that one". And while it does have that meaning, it's also used as a filler word, like "um" in English. So when he was saying "That one…", he didn't mean it at all. He was trying to collect his thoughts and figure out how to express them in English — a process I interrupted. He just didn't know a better way to express that than a literal translation of "那个" that doesn't work in English.

And I just plowed ahead, heedless of the difficulty and assuming that he meant what I heard. I should have stopped myself and realized that if what he said didn't make sense, it was likely just a language issue, not indicative of sloppy or imprecise thinking. I should have let him complete his thought before jumping to conclusions about what he was trying to say.

That mistake still haunts me. But it serves me well as a cautionary tale today, a reminder of what can go wrong when I am insufficiently charitable in my interpretations of what other people are saying.

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