The Miscommunication of Travel & Life Overseas

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ November 22nd, 2010. Updated on May 12th, 2012. Published in: Travel blog » Discover World Culture » How to live overseas.
Fulani Woman in Nigeria, Africa

Fulani woman (African Nomad) - just traveling by; it's all smiles, but stay a little longer in a different culture & you will learn a lot about miscommunication - it goes both ways though (click to enlarge)

How to Deal with miscommunication when you travel or live overseas

Miscommunication happens in every culture, but is highlighted when you travel or live overseas.

Think you know a country well? Speak the language so well that there’s no miscommunication? Good, you’ve only just begun. And, you’ll probably never reach the finish line.

Travel & miscommunication go hand in hand

Anyone who’s traveled will know the woes of miscommunication. Anyone who’s lived overseas should hopefully know the darker concepts of “miscommunication”.

Indeed, anyone who’s taken a shoddy tour in another country will get an inkling of what I am referring too.

“Sorry sir, he didn’t understand you.”

The different levels of miscommunication

Linguistic miscommunication is a given to anyone trying to speak another language anywhere in the world. I fail at this miserably. Yes, I speak more than one language, but the plethora of the rest is made up of badly pronounced greetings, directions, and costing.

This is only a small fraction of my point here

The real truths are that language, mixed with a foreign culture, is a complex and vast subject.

Without getting into the grammar of past progressive sub-nouns belonging to the gluteal region I shall continue.

Yes, learning another languages verbs, nouns and grammar are all very important at different levels. Depending on your duration and reason for visiting. But, quite amazingly, I’ve never been to a language course that teaches you about the cultural meaning of a word or phrase.

This is where miscommunication in travel really comes into play

Lets take something easy, like Pidgin English. It’s an adapted form of english spoken in parts of Africa. In this case, West Africa.

“I de go come.”

Literal English translation: “I am going & coming”

Moody girl from the Philippines

Not everything is as black & white as it seems in the Philippines

Literal English meaning: I am both going & coming – possibly stuck in one place, or going nowhere.

West African real meaning: “Don’t worry, I will go ‘somewhere’ but I will be coming back”

More miscommunication from around the world

Amazon: there are tribes (Pirahã) that do not have any word for numbers, there is only “a lot”, or “a few” – try buying at a market there.

Russians have additional words for colors, making them very good at describing them.  – now imagine taking a painting class in Russia.

Polish rarely use the word “please” as it’s already implied when asking for something. – just in case you thought they were being rude.

In Korea, they “eat medicine” rather than take it – enjoy going to the pharmacy.

Cultural miscommunication within ourselves

In many countries there are different languages or dialects spoken throughout. The nations people are often faced with difficult and confusing times as they misinterpret what they mean. (perhaps this can be attributed to the many problems within a country with many languages)

Now enter the poor tourist, expat or foreigner with so many other things to take into consideration.

Foreigners being taken advantage of due to miscommunication

Here we have culture vs culture vs language. In the Philippines the foreigner is assumed to be from the U.S.A. and rich. And, for the better part they might well be. But, that doesn’t mean miscommunication between you and a well educated English speaking person here won’t happen, it will.

Ask for a product at a high-end store,  and you might get something other than what you asked for.

Try to have a logo designed, and you will see something that’s interpreted quite differently.

Spend copious hours working with someone to produce a product to a certain standard, only for it to look different.

Mention the delicate and subtle tastes at a restaurant and get strange looks. It’s not that people here don’t taste them too, but it’s not a part of the culture to describe subtle tastes. Food in The Philippines, is still regarded as sustenance by the majority, and no more. (snack foods don’t count I am afraid)

Dealing with miscommunication, cultural differences, and …

Years ago I put it down to laziness. My dear African workmate, yes you must actually work to get this project done.

Then I learned about the culture. Yes, it is the afternoon, and hot, you must sleep and then we can work tonight.

After this, I learned it can also be a little of both – No my friend, all week you had to go home early; this week we work all day. So sleep well, or learn what loud music and coffee can do to wake you up at work!

Uncovering the secret to “miscommunication” in other countries

Why did I spend two years living in The Philippines? Lot’s of reasons. But this can be used as an example to show why so many foreigners have difficulties in any country outside their own culture.

6 months or even one year, I have already learned, in trying to live overseas is not enough time to understand the subtle undertones of communication within a single different culture or society.

Example: My personal answer to “miscommunication” in The Philippines

The word “miscommunication” in the Philippines can take on a much deeper meaning. It’s often used to dilute conflict or put an

Children in the Philippines helping each other

Children from different countries are often a lot better at communicating than adults

argument to rest.

It’s also used to forget about a misdoing or wrongdoing for the sake of peace of mind. Often times it is a “buffer” word.

To a stubborn foreigner from another culture (aka me), this can be like a red flag to a bull.

I like to know the in’s and out’s of a scenario, not to pass it off as a “miscommunication”

So something goes wrong, and you are out some money. You investigate. Only to find the cause and ask why it happened. The answer is eventually passed off as a “miscommunication.”

If you push this any further in the Philippines your asking for insults, even if you are the one that has been wronged. The word “miscommunication” in the Philippines means –

“The conversation on this topic is over.”

It doesn’t mean the topic has ended. For day-to-day things, it means that behind the scenes there maybe words said to resolve a situation. But, it doesn’t mean you will ever get feedback on it either.

Unless you ask again at a later stage.

Then again, all this maybe just a rouse to do the “stupid” foreigner out of some cash. After all, the foreigner “doesn’t understand” the language nor culture, therefore – easy game.

Miscommunication in all cultures around the world

Words have different meanings in every culture. Some words don’t even have a meaning or have a translation.

What’s important is to realize this before you over step over your mark as a foreigner.

How you do this, will be dependent on the culture you are in at the time.

The act, or art of miscommunication, within a culture and in travel is in fact; a deeply psychology affair.

Coming Soon:

So what happens when you stay in a country sooooo long that the locals get fed up of you!? Yes, it happens …

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21 Great responses to The Miscommunication of Travel & Life Overseas

  1. Robert Dyer says:

    My wife emailed this to me this morning. This is one of the most insightful articles on practical cultural behavior that I’ve read online.

    I lecture in behavioral science and would be interested in using this for a class. Is this possible?

    Would you be interested in providing further insights like this if possible?

    You should have my email through this. Looking forward to a reply

  2. Lois says:

    Great topic Dave! I know a lot of miscommunication is rooted in multi-culturalism. Another example is when when you ask for directions in the Philippines. It is relative and often vague: Keep walking straight for 10 minutes then turn left. Then you reailze that 15 minutes may be a long way depending on how quickly one walks!

    When I lived in Europe, I also didn’t have any idea how faraway a place is in terms of kilometers. Just tell me how many minutes it take to get there…

    • Thank you, I like the subject too. Kilometers are only as good as the method of transport you are using! So, yes, how many minutes can be better alright. Strange thing about being a foreigner anywhere outside of Europe: people will tell you everything is very far! Yet, in reality just a short walk away.

  3. Lois says:

    Plus the concept of tampo. Have you heard what this word means here? I’ve asked many people if they have a translation for this word. But so far, I haven’t gotten close to an answer. I guess we can just say this is ‘very Filipino’.

    • Yes I’ve heard of it alright. “very annoying” :)

      It’s when a Filipino get upset with you, yet refuses to tell you, or tell you why, and then acts weirdly to you in many different scenarios.

      Erm, at least that’s my interpretation of it’s meaning!

  4. oh! this is one of my VERY favorite articles you’ve written. those hidden cultural rules and meanings are really, really difficult to uncover. bravo!

  5. Roxanne says:

    I stumbled into this via Lainie, of, and I wanted to say that its insight truly resonated with me. Thank you.

  6. Renny says:

    Great insight. I think only things like this can be discovered by people like you.

    • Normally I would shy aways from that Renny. But, this is one of the key basis in this stage of the journey that you don’t learn from being a 1 month tourist. And things like this show an insight into this journey that I doubt I can pick up in shorter stay places like Australia. But, I’ve learned what these key areas of development and understanding are, which I can take with me and make use of in other countries

  7. Alice J says:

    You must be making the email lists these days. I was also forwarded this today.

    You’ve picked up / learned how to truly see into a culture. There are people out there that study this subject alone for years. I am sure many of them are reading this now. Well done to you.

    I’m now an avid reader.

    • Glad to have you on board Alice. This has been the summation of the past 2 years. A very different stage to the journey. Next week is the conclusion, it should be even more eye opening :)

  8. Excellent post. I just have one thing to say to “Without getting into the grammar of past progressive sub-nouns ” … SPEAK ENGLISH PLEASE! LOL

    You know in Malaysia they use this Cantonese greeting often- “Sek Pao Mei?” (Which means have you eaten?) This does not mean literally have you had your lunch yet. It means, “is it well with your stomach”? Is it well with you? Because if your stomach is FULL, it mean you are doing OK.

    I really love this expression. “Sek Pao Mei?”

    • I think there is a difference between traditional sayings, linguistic terminology such as “literal meanings” and cultural meanings behind a word. Nonetheless such things can be charming.

  9. Haha, yes, this is a thorn in the side of any traveler — especially when you find yourself in situations where a local person tries to fool you that something is their culture in order to get something from you. When abroad, you are taken to be an idiot, the town fool, someone that the rest of the community can talk about — usually jovially, so there is no worries.

    Respect relations are one of the biggest obstacles to communication abroad. Many countries have certain levels of respect that they dish out to people of certain classes, races, villages, countries. Foreigners are often treated as a joke, it is difficult to be taken seriously when trying to have a deeper role in the community that you in.

    I have found that it is best to acquiesce with my given role in any country and play it out. There is often no changing people’s minds about you, so just let them think what they want and adapt. It is often easier this way.

    • “Respect relations are one of the biggest obstacles to communication abroad.”
      This is a very good point. How someone is respected from another class, culture etc is a key element. Likewise is factual learning and experience. Literally just a few hours ago I saw a North American leave something behind in a store. The attendant ran out, gave it back to them. The North America didn’t even say thank you.
      They had the air of wealth and dominance about them. I really do not like this. Sooner or later the Filipino hospitality will wear thing with this arrogance.

      Already local hotel workers class “Americans” as being rich, and looking for girls. When something stupid happens, like the girls fight in public over his money. The locals will mention, “American?”

      If the person is drunk on street, locals will say “American” or ” Australian”. Europeans seem to be deemed as fundraisers and business types.

      So given this, the perceptions of one’s nationality already has you classed when you live over here. So by fitting in, you have to deal with the preconceived notions of many first. Depending, a little, on your purpose here to start with.

      Something, it’s better to let people indeed think what they want. And, just continue on. Next week you might be interested in the conclusion to all these articles about social integration.

  10. Megan says:

    I have kind of a reverse story–when I first started teaching when I was 22 back in Washington, D.C., a student from Gabon, West Africa, came up to me and told me I was fat! I was NOT fat, but I was more than a little perturbed. Turned out in Gabon, it was a compliment…that was my first real lesson in cultural differences!

    • Hey Megan,

      Yep, in West Africa the larger the person is the more desirable they are :) Mainly due to heavy people being more likely to produce healthy babies. And, the more immediate reality of being fat meaning you eat more, therefore must have more money. Therefore a good person to be with for survival.

      Glad to say, you figured this out already! :)

  11. Kathy says:

    Very interesting post. It’s true that our travel miscommunication stems from more than just language barriers. It can be as much about how a word is meant as what language it’s in. I’ve had a number of mix ups since I moved to South Africa, even with other English speakers! The South African concept of ‘now’ is not the same as the American one. But it’s a great adventure. I’m glad you highlighted how cultural miscommunication comes into play when you’re overseas. Thanks!