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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