Comprendez my colloquialism?


A few weeks ago I overheard some of the other mothers outside my daughter’s dance class talking about email etiquette. One of them originally hails from Spain and was explaining to the others how it’s extremely impolite in her country to send an email that addresses someone only by their first name, and is not preceded by some kind of greeting. She went on to say that if such an email ever graces her inbox she feels very offended.

I’ve previously worked for an employer where almost the complete opposite of the situation the dance class mum described was true. There was an unspoken rule that one should most certainly not address either their superiors or subordinates in an email with the greeting “hi”. “Hello” seemed much the same bag, and “dear” overly formal, so people tended to start an email only with someone’s first name. Thankfully our Spanish friend didn’t work at the same place.

Despite the language barriers, much politeness and common courtesy, such as please and thank you, is recognised the World over. Likewise, offensiveness and rudeness, in particular swear words, are pretty much universal. But with so many shades of grey in between nobody could be expected to know all such nuances.

Unfortunately low tolerance levels of such trivialities which are clearly not intended to insult are all too common. Take “pet” names for example. I don’t use them myself, certainly not with people outside my immediate family anyway. However, I know it’s quite common in other parts of the UK to call people “love”, “darling”, “duck” etc – even complete strangers. It doesn’t bother me and would completely pass me by as a pleasantry, but I remember talking to a friend years ago who got really offended by it. In fact she ended the conversation shouting “I’m nobody’s darling!”. To me this is going a step too far but I guess in this litigious society tribunal cases have been built on less.

Of course it’s mainly a question of context and content (as well as culture). I recently discovered, much to my embarrassment, that phrases or sayings which seem utterly banal here, have a completely different meaning on the other side of the World. I don’t think I necessarily need to go that far to raise a few eyebrows with my accent or idioms, which outside the North East UK probably sound completely alien. If I thought I’d offended someone just by being myself I’d be horrified. But who then needs to change their outlook?

The majority of us do what is required to get along with others and avoid causing offence. None of us are socially infallible and thus all of us will trip up at some point. Cultural norms are important but so is tolerance. I guess we could all be, and use, a little more understanding. An unintentional cultural misstep and an actual offence are miles apart, and this difference needs to be accepted.

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5 thoughts on “Comprendez my colloquialism?

  1. Pingback: Best Blogs 25 April 2014 | ChristopherinHR

  2. What a great post. I am always working on my cultural awareness (I’m from Denmark, but live in Ireland and work for a company with people from all across Europe). I find that if I’m unsure of what is expected of me, it helps to be up front about my cultural bias: “Just to let you know, I’m from the Nordics and we tend to be quite direct. I hope that’s okay, but please let me know if I’m being too direct.”

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