The other day I said to one of our lead trainers in cross-culture, “Neil, why don’t you come over tomorrow and we can shoot the breeze on some of the thoughts we had on the project.” He replied, “Sure, let’s chew the fat.”

These Americanisms leave me chuckling, but I also realise that as new managers, we are likely to come across idiomatic usage from so many different countries that we’re likely to be all at sea (read confused).

Idioms are used by all cultures. People of each background take these usages for granted, assume they’re universally understood, and often feel a mere literal translation will be enough to convey the same meaning to people of other backgrounds. But that’s not really so. Often, we end up getting the wrong end of the stick (which, of course, means misunderstanding what was meant) when our expat colleagues use idiomatic speech.

Piece of cake?

I’ve found myself in such a situation quite often. And often, I’ve had others telling me stories of how they’ve either misunderstood or been misunderstood. I’ve put together some of the common phrases in British and American English, as well as some popular usages from other countries, to give you a taste of how being on the same page isn’t a piece of cake! (Translate as: it isn’t easy for multiple people to understand the discussion the same way).

Let’s start with the things I misunderstood initially. Getting down to the wire — when my American client said this about his project, I thought it was something to do with having a slim chance and made suitable sympathetic noises, but it turned out to mean getting close to the deadline.

“Six of one, half a dozen of the other,” my sister in San Francisco replied when I asked her which was harder to get — admission in college or high school. What she meant was it’s the same. Same difference, as we say here in India

“Manian, tell me about this new office project team, I want the whole nine yards,” a client once said to me. I thought this expression had its origin in the sari, which was nine yards long, and set out to explain that it was commonly six yards these days. But the expression actually originated in their sport and meant “I want all the details.”

On the other hand, if someone tells you, “Let’s cut to the chase,” it means just the opposite, the same as “What’s the bottom line?” meaning, give me what I need to know in a nutshell. Rambling on after they use this phrase means we don’t “get it,” and the client is likely to find us tiresome.

Joe, a Canadian friend I was coaching in the intricacies of Indian etiquette, once threw up his hands and said to me with a groan, “I can’t win for losing,” by which he meant that no matter what he did, he could never be right in the Indians’ eyes!

Literally difficult

Again, you may think you know a language, but literal translation can leave you extremely confused.

An Indian fluent in English confessed he was puzzled by his expat boss, who repeatedly told his staff, “We can’t wait till the cows come home.”

“What cows? Is he using this because it’s India?” he asked. He was as amused as I was after I explained that the boss was only telling his team to hurry up. Indianisms can be just as confusing. One worried team leader from Singapore, whom we were training, asked at our session, “Why do Indians want to get intimate with me on e-mail?” We had to explain to her that when an Indian writes “I wish to intimate you…” It only means “I wish to inform you …”!

Sometimes, it may not be even a phrase, it could be a gesture, accompanied by one word. The Japanese and the Koreans use a similar mannerism — they sort of flex their biceps and accompany it with a word roughly translated as ‘fight’ or ‘fighting’. They don’t mean to pick a quarrel with you — they’re telling you to ‘Keep it up!’

Sure, knowing how to converse idiomatically with one’s colleagues, irrespective of nativity, is not as essential as communicating deadlines or project instructions; but it does add that extra layer to communication. It provides a foundation of cultural understanding that can prove invaluable to long-standing professional relationships.

Cultural foundation

Idioms and expressions like the ones I’ve told you about come from the fields of sport, lifestyles of yore or contemporary practices in specific ethnic cultures.

For instance, the French say ‘a meal without cheese is like a lovely girl with one eye’ — fine dining and fancy cuisine are so important to France that many expressions have their roots in food. Understanding this makes it easy to appreciate that three-hour business meals are the norm in their culture too! And remember, if you understand your French guest to say that he’s trying to accommodate the sheep and the cabbage, he’s only telling you that he’s trying to please both sides in the business deal.

Then there are the polite euphemisms that different cultures use. Go sakinishitsureishimasu…I am sorry to be leaving before you — is a very polite way of parting if you are leaving a party or event before the Japanese guest you met there. Je m’eclipse is a good show-off expression for France, which says the same thing, I am sorry I am leaving before you, I am going to eclipse my way out.

Familiarising yourself with such habits of speech may seem a trivial thing to focus on, but it goes a long way in cross-cultural relationship-building.

It lessens the ‘them’ and ‘us’ divide, and using appropriate idioms and expressions makes you feel like one of ‘us’. So, make time for idioms. Use less of your own, and understand, then emulate other country-specific ones.

(The writer is the Founder CEO of Global Adjustments, a relocation and cross-cultural services company.)

(This article was published on August 30, 2012)
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