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As part of our imperfection, we encounter lots of limits. This article is about letting others talk despite all language difficulties and culture differences, respecting their freedom of speech, or with Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The Italian story of "Uscita everywhere" and the Austrian "Asakalano greeting" are exemplary in describing those little mishaps, we may encounter when attempting to speak a foreign language. And then our boy responded to the fashion trend of the "peace sign" by creating a picture to proclaim once and for all: "Peace is a weapon (against war)."
"Uscita" and other Linguistic Limitations
Italian Exit Strategy. Knowing another language definitely helps on your travels! Returning from Milano the other day, I would remember the stories my grandfather used to tell from his train travels through Italy. This is perhaps where he met - or thought up - that guy who took a banana out of the backpack. He carefully peeled it, then got out some salt and sprinkled it on the fruit. After that, he opened the train window and threw the banana out. Repeating this procedure several times, his vis-a-vis finally asked him what he was doing. The reply came in form of a counter question: "Do you like salted bananas?" Anyway, during his sheer endless train ride, my grandfather was looking at the signs in the railway stations they passed through. After reading the name "U-s-c-i-t-a" at the last few stops already, he wondered whether he was crossing a large city, possibly spanning from "Upper Uscita" through "Central Uscita" all the way down to "Lower Uscita". Only later, he found out that the solution was quite simple: "Uscita" is the Italian word for "exit", which marks the way out in e-v-e-r-y Italian railway station. Years later, my grandfather already spoke a few words in Italian, when he went with his newlywed wife to Italy for honeymoon. Arriving at the hotel, he proudly asked for the room in local language: "Uno gabinetto per due!" What he got in return was that funny look. He had just ordered a TOILET for two! Apparently, he SHOULD have said: "Una camera per due."
Viennese Grocery Confusion. It all started with eating tasty, reasonably priced Bulgogi at the Vienna Naschmarkt (literally "Snacking Market"), the biggest open air grocery market in town. A couple days later my colleague wanted to return to the same place on his own. As he asked for directions to "the grocery market", one passerby tried to help and wrote down the name "Billa" for him. From that point on he asked people for the next "Billa" and was sent into different directions, for the same supermarket chain operates several shops in the inner city. After some time of grocery confusion, he discovered the misunderstanding and gave up. On another occasion though, he was more persistent. Failing initially to make himself understood in an ice cream shop, when ordering the famous Apricot Ice Cream Dumplings, he recorded my voice on his mobile device with the correct pronunciation of the German expression. Later that day he returned to the ice cream shop and asked: "I want...", then simply playing the recording "Eismarillenknoedel". The plot worked out perfectly fine and moments later he was holding the eagerly awaited ice cream desert in his hands. I surely hope that he deleted the recording of my voice after it had served its purpose and doesn't use it as a ring tone: "Apricot Ice Cream Dumpling... Apricot Ice Cream Dumpling... Apricot Ice Cream Dumpling!"
Wrong Translation. Basic foreign language skills can be very helpful. Saying "Mahlzeit" or "Bon Appetit" in local language before lunch or dinner can raise a smile on someone's face. But sometimes.. very basic foreign skills are just not enough. Two Italian colleagues would attract attention, as we overheard one saying "Ti amo". They quickly clarified that they had in fact addressed a third colleague, who was still finishing up before leaving, with a simple "Ti aspettiamo", which is Italian for "We'll wait for you." It is so important to know languages well and sometimes even dangerous not to. Like in the old Monty Python TV sketch about a foreigner, using an alleged English-Hungarian phrase book. When he went into a store to buy cigarettes, the false translation made him really say something like: "May I touch your knee?" This is when the situation escalated.
Language Advantage. Advanced language skills can change and even save your life! Just remember the story of the mother mouse scaring off a cat by fiercely barking "woof-woof!" Nevertheless, the mouse turned to its kids to explain: "Do you now see the value of a second language?" Practicing a secondary language at early age feels important. As a kid ordering Gelati in Italy, they offered me to speak English to select the ice cream flavours of my choice. Pointing my finger, I would say: "This, and this..." And I remember those school days, when the French language teacher explained us that the French don't speak the letter "H." My immediate question: "How do they laugh then, a-a-a-a?" Otherwise, in French I just remember the most important sentence: "Je ne parle pas francais," a key statement just like "No hablo espanol!" Or in Korean: "Nanun hankuk mal motaeyo!"
Peace Sign. In order to express a positive feeling, you may consider just using the "V sign" instead, typically made by raising both the index and middle finger. During World War II it became a symbol for "victory" and throughout the 1968 movement it adopted "peace" as a second meaning. I don't know why and how it started, but one day our daughter became a huge fan of the peace sign. The former flower-power-symbol has become a fashion brand and is printed on numerous t-shirts, sweaters and jackets, while as a charm dangling on necklaces and earrings. Obviously, we had to take numerous pictures of that two finger sign that nowadays rules the world... peace to you, bro!
Horns Sign. Hard rock voice Ronnie-James Dio popularized the sign of the horns that metal-heads ever since make during rock concerts. When he took over as singer of Black Sabbath, rather than flashing the peace sign all the time on stage like his predecessor Ozzy Osbourne, he introduced the "metal horns" gesture, which his Italian grandmother had used to ward off evil spirits. In Italy it stands for "Curnuto" or putting the horns on a man (as the green hat in China). Having a similar meaning in Greece ("kerata" is Greek for horns), the sign is said to relate to the legend of the Minotaur in the Cretan Labyrinth, the bull-headed offspring of King Minos' wife and a Taurus. In Norway the same gesture symbolizes the evil itself. The ILU sign is quite similar though, just don't forget to extend the thumb as well.
Accent Acceptance. Linguistic limitations are there to live with, while making efforts for constant improvement. And I may have those limited language skills, as I write up these thoughts. We all may have our local accents, when speaking a language different from our mother tongue. We may fight with the way we phrase things as well as inflation and the melody of our speech. Some see a big issue with that, others don't. And then again there is spelling... Whenever discovering a typo, a colleague would usually comment that the left finger was probably faster than the right one.
Typo Tolerance. It feels unprofessional to exchange messages with too many mistakes and a way out of the "time versus accuracy"-dilemma is the usage of spell checks, which usually work, if the spelling error doesn't create another valid word. On the other hand, "aoccdrnig to a rscheearch, it dseno't mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae." In case you find one of too many mistakes on this website, knildy nitofy teh webmaster via e-mail.
Making the peace sign is not only an attitude towards life, it is also very in, cool and absolutely hip these days.
(Too many) Words
Language Barrier. At a workshop far away from home, as other participants had vanished during a meeting break, I suddenly found myself alone for a while, reflecting numerous impressions collected over the past weeks being around people from different parts of the world and step by step finding together in group discussions, review sessions and leisure time, by overcoming culture differences and language barriers. Then a colleague rescued me from my loneliness.
International Comms. Communication skills are even more important these days than they have been in the past. As the bible quotation "In the beginning was the Logos" suggests, the word - in this case the word of God - has been important from the earliest days. While there have always been these folks, who are unbelievably good in selling themselves and their work, times they are still a changing and soft skills related to communication become more and more vital for all of us. Being able to navigate in a more and more international environment is a key factor for success and survival in these times of economical evolvement in connection with increasing mobility and accelerating globalization.
Silent Insecurity. Good language skills may help us to more efficiently manage our cross-border relationships. Knowing how it feels being a foreigner is an important experience, an alien, maybe from the same planet just, a stranger in a strange land, as they say. Which should not hinder us from speaking up even in our secondary language, when it is important to be heard. In some cases it is not only the result but the intention that counts. On some occasions questions are not welcome though. Sometimes being quiet is a habit, not a problem, while people with a more southern mentality may tend to follow the motto: "Why say one word, if a hundred will do?"
Encourage Others. But in other cases, there is a person behind it, who is too often left back in the shade, not given time and respect to express him- or herself. Cut off and discouraged, overruled and lectured, destroyed and not built up again. It may happen that those making up some helpful rules for interaction by default place themselves above them as a natural exception. Making themselves more equal, without even noticing. Then it is up to us to help leverage differences and provide support to those in need of it for being excluded and picked on.
New Greeting: Asakalano
Tinkle Tale. German-emigrant comedian Dirk Sternmann writes that for a Viennese, the Northern German pronunciation may sound uncool like a stuttering, rattling Leopard-II-tank: Boring, but somehow intelligent. When he had to use the bathroom during a seminar at the University of Vienna, he raised his hand and said: "Excuse me, I have to go pee - Entschuldigung, Ich muss mal pinkeln". Then he overheard a female voice whispering to the person sitting next to her: "Wow, is he clever - Pfoah, is der g'scheit!".
Supermarket Salute. "Darum nerven die Oesterreicher - That's why Austrians get on the nerves" is a book that rails over the non-binding snugness and submissive friendliness in the Apline republic. The difference between German and Austrian pronunciation and diction was explained by the unforgettable story of a Berliner, who was asked at the cash desk of an Austrian super market: "Asakalano?" Sounding to her like a local greeting, not too far from "Sayonara," in order not to appear impolite, she also replied: "Asakalano!" Whereupon the cashier put a plastic bag on the conveyor belt and charged her additional 25 cents. Later, a friend living nearby explained to her that she had just asked for the same in Austrian dialect, by saying "Ein Sackerl (in Germany: Tüte) auch noch - A bag as well!"
Newborn Mix-Up. Teasing is quite common among two nations separated by the same language. And so a German colleague once told me the story of three fathers-to-be in hospital. The three men were sitting in the waiting area next to the delivery room, eagerly awaiting the arrival of their babies. One was German, the second Austrian and the third a coloured African. Suddenly the nurse came in and said: "Congratulations! All three of you are fathers of healthy newborns!" She went on: "But there is a little problem, we mixed up the babies. So just go ahead in and take one baby each." Instantly, the German father ran into the delivery room. He grabbed the black baby and as he rushed back out, the nurse stopped him at the door and asked: "But that baby could not possibly be yours! Why did you take this one?" He replied: "Well, better than an Austrian!"
Finger gymnastics can be quite misleading. Is it "I Love yoU" or "Devil's Horns," a repertoire of every hard rock fan? When our kids gave us the V-sign, did they try to tell us "Peace" or "Victory" ...for getting their own way?
Natural Approach. A cultural dimension that shouldn’t be neglected in international communication is the local practice with what is called “power distance,” influencing the likelihood that people in a lower ranking position within an organization will dare to speak up and openly voice their opinion. As by a study, the power distance was smallest in Austria and greatest in several Asian, Arab and Latin American countries. What matters most is what level of confidence and trust will you be able to establish for otherwise quiet people to open up in conversation with you? One of the ground rules for any discussion is to let others finish their sentences, even though you have something urgent to say. A typical German saying calms down the offspring until 'the elder' have finished their conversation: "When the cake talks, the crumbs have a break - Wenn der Kuchen spricht, haben die Kruemel Pause."
Winning Trust. Jokes about others should be used in a way that no one loses the face, and made a two-way street by laughing with others about ourselves as well. And it may hurt to find out that we are not that great, that popular, that exceptional, as we would like to be. But we need to live with reality, the obvious, the average we are. Accepting the truth - even if it may be a daughter of time in some cases. Speaking a foreign language, it is hard to find the right fine tuning with the way we want things to sound. Misunderstanding due to limited vocabulary is a classic (as if there were not enough other reasons already). And still there are exceptions to the rule, when an unusually high level of understanding may be reached all over the globe. Blind understanding and trust may occur among people with completely different backgrounds, just wiping away all these borders and boundaries. A glance, a smile, a blink, a feeling that arises and proves everything wrong that was written above.
Out of Question. It may occur to one that using a foreign language frequently leads to questions over questions. In certain cases, the exact opposite may be understood even. The result can be quite a bit irritating, frustrating and embarrassing. A phrase easily confused among German and English is "out of question". While the German expression "ausser Frage stehen (literally: standing out of question)" refers to something that is undoubtedly agreed without question, the English term "being out of the question" stands for a strong objection as found in the German "gar nicht in Frage kommen (literally: doesn't come into question at all)". The usage of alternative vocabulary such as "it goes without saying" is highly recommended. Any questions?
Others Go First. Coming back to good behaviour, without lecturing too much, I would like to mention some humorous examples on how we get kids over here to remember simple things. One thing you learn is that the donkey always speaks of itself first: "I-ah (Eeyore)" can be interpreted as Austrian dialect for "Ich auch - me, too" and is one classic to avoid mentioning ourselves first, rather saying "My friend and I" than "I and my friend." A mental link, in German actually called "Eselsbrücke - Donkey's bridge." Growing up, we used to joke about the fact that "it is not polite to point with a naked finger at a dressed person." As a consequence, either we have to cover the finger or the person needs to undress.
Do's and Don'ts. One day I asked my daughter to say the magic word when she wanted something. She replied: "Simsalabim?" Finding out, it was not "Hocus-pocus" or "Abracadabra" either, I finally helped her out with the expected answer: "Please!" As she just reminded me, what had already helped us in kindergarden was the rhyme: "Zunge zeigen tut man nicht, weil das heisst ich liebe Dich - Do not stick out your tongue at others, for it means you are truely lovers." Or, as my boy would translate it: "Stick out your tongue you don't do, for it means I love you!" Some things go without saying, one might think, but observation during international workshops includes: Yawning, talking with full mouth, nail biting, feet on the table, you name it. "Am I boring you?" is a good response to someone yawning at us, opening it up at us slowly like a hungry lion. And whenever someone picks the nose in front of others, we would ask him to send us a postcard, when arriving up there on the top. But now, I guess, I have arrived down there, at the bottom of tastefulness and at the end of this article.
Looking at our vacation pictures, we even discovered our youngest catching up with the peace sign... in the middle of the lake.
Young Johnny. As they say in the US: "Remember, when you are pointing your finger at somebody, there are three fingers pointing back at you." It is important to ingrain the ground rules of behaviour at an early age. As we say: "Was Hänschen nicht lernt, lernt Hans nimmermehr - What little Johnny doesn't learn, big John won't ever learn." In English this would sound more veterinarian: "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." Just like "Quaele nie ein Tier zum Scherz, denn es spürt wie Du den Schmerz - Don't abuse an animal for fun, whatever you do, for it feels the pain just like you."
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