Is It the Culture or Is It Me?

One of the things that they don’t teach you in your high school foreign language class, is that language is only… maybe… 50% about the words and the grammar.

Or… let me clarify:  Communication isn’t about words and grammar.  It’s about understanding.

God’s help me… I’m giving my taxi ddriver directions on how to get me home from Kunshan.  If I don’t show up for work tomorrow, it’s because I ended up somewhere in Hubei[1].

These are the replies I got:

  • Do you need help to talk to the driver?
  • [my address in Chinese] (from person A)
  • Give him Google map
  • [my address in Chinese] (from person B)

Every single person who replied took me seriously.  I had to specifically reply to them and say “I was joking”.

They understood all of the words I said.  And they understood the grammar.   But the actual meaning–the fact that I was using hyperbole (joking)–was lost on them.
This isn’t because they don’t know English.  2 of the people  who replied teach English (and they’re very good at it).   It’s because many ideas don’t translate with the words.
To Americans (and one or two Brits), hyperbole is very common; we use it in every third sentence.  I know, I know… My mother used to say:  “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times:  Don’t use hyperbole.  Not a single person will understand what you mean.”[3]
Never in a million years did I think she’d be right–until this very second.
I’ve been in China for 3 years, and I’m still surprised when people that I know can speak English are blindsided by (what native speakers would consider to be) the most basic uses of the language.

[1] Hubei is like… a bazillion miles over yonder.  It’s a completely different province.   Basically, I was saying “My taxi driver doesn’t know how to get from Waunakee to Lodi[2].  If I don’t show up for work tomorrow, it’s because I ended up in Las Vegas[2].

[2] Substitute with:  2 cities that are right next to each other, and someplace a thousand miles/kilometers away.

[3] Sorry for using you in my silly example, but things carry more weight when they come from Mom. Forgive me?  🙂

Leave a Reply