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What Does That Mean?

Friday, September 1, 2017 | by Rachel Trainum

In business and life, it's likely you will have a conversation with someone whose first language is different than yours. Though the conversation may be going well there could be some confusion taking place.

What may make sense to you in your first language may not make sense to someone who is using it as their second language. Mistakes in understanding can arise in many forms so it's always good to be aware of your use of language. And if you're the one using a second language to communicate be aware of common phrases known to those who speak it.

Phrases or slang have potential for easy misunderstandings between the two cultures. But slang misunderstanding doesn't just happen in English but in all languages and cultures.

The book "In Other Words", by Christopher J. Moore, explores common phrases from Western Europe to Indigenous peoples. Moore's book discusses common phrases used in several countries and their literal meanings in English versus their meaning in the language it was spoken in.

An example from the book includes:

Kokusaijin (kok-sye-djin, Japan): This noun would have a literal translation to mean someone who is an "international person", similar to the word "cosmopolitan" according to the book. Literal translation would take it to mean someone who is knowledgeable about foreign language and cultures, but in Japanese context means someone who has "a flexible and open personality".

It's easy to see how a word that is so simple could change the conversation so easily.

Reading Moore's book, you learn a little about the background and history of the words and phrases which is useful for when using them in context.

When learning new words, often times you learn the definition or literal meaning as well. According to Moore, that's how communication mishaps happen and you may end up saying something you didn't mean.

There are many resources besides Moore's book that offer helpful cultural language and etiquette tools when visiting another country or talking with someone from another country over a business dinner in the United States. Anyone can search online phrases or customs to facilitate them in their interactions.

It's important to remember that language is not the only cultural difference to take into consideration when meeting someone from another country.

If it's a formal or informal business meeting, knowing cultural competence will advance you further in your career.

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