Sunday, April 30, 2017


When it comes to communicating with other groups of people, there are two general categories of understanding - language and culture. Now, with specific individuals, everyone has a little different way of doing things, but before you can get to that point, it's important to have the first two down.

In the U.S., we have a very individualist culture, for example. It's all about what can I do for myself and what can you do for me. Many other cultures are collectivist, where it's more about what I can do for others or what we can do together. Neither is better or worse than the other - they are just different. You could go from one country to the other and learn the language just fine but still have difficulty communicating if you don't have the culture figured out.

I was at Wal-Mart a while back and a Hispanic gentleman was checking out in front of me. No big deal, just rolling the cart through and paying for things. After he paid and was about to leave he realized he had put something on the little rack under the main cart. He pointed it out to the cashier. I can't remember exactly how he said it. It was in English, but either the accent or the words he chose made it a little unclear what had happened.

As the cashier was trying to figure out what was going on, she asked the gentleman, "Is that yours?" He responded, "No." This confused her a little more as I think she was maybe imagining that somehow the cart he had been pushing around had something left in it from a previous customer. Whether or not he could sense her rising confusion, he quickly followed up with, "I haven't paid for it yet."

At that point, I was set and knew exactly what was going on. The cashier was just not getting it. As they went back and forth a couple times, her trying to figure out if he did or didn't want the product that by now he had pulled out from under his cart and him somewhat indirectly answering her questions, I stepped in. I pointed out to the cashier that he wanted to purchase the item. He had put it in his cart. He just had forgotten to pull it out and put it on the conveyor belt so she could scan it. As such, it was not his yet. It would not be his until he paid for it. It was his in the sense that he had put it in his cart and was intending to pay for it. (If you want to test this one out, go grab something out of someone's cart, and chances are they will tell you, "That's mine.")

As he left, she thanked me and said something about how she wished she knew Spanish. The interaction they just had was in English, but she knew there was something missing in their understanding. Knowing Spanish probably would have helped, but maybe not as much as she thought.

I speak Spanish and at the time was trying to learn German. I mentioned the program I was using, Mango Languages, which is available free through the library. She seemed interested in it and even wrote down the name of the program. As I explained a little how it worked and how much I was learning from it, I could tell she was losing interest fast. No other customers were waiting, so it wasn't that. I could just see that it wasn't something that was going to be able to hold her attention very long.

Languages take some dedication to learn. The idea of knowing another language was interesting, but not so much the process to get there. Of course, from there, the cultural components are a whole different level, a difficult level to get through using software. Language is the first step, though.