Choose your words carefully in cross-culture communication

Originally posted January 2013

I was listening intently to a very serious presentation a week or so ago when the woman sitting next to me passed a note. It took all my willpower to not burst into guffaws. Seems our speaker hadn’t taken into account language and culture differences when he chose the expression “pussyfooting around”.

A simple expression can cause all kinds of confusion in cross-culture communication.

A simple expression can cause all kinds of confusion in cross-culture communication.

The speaker in question was American; his audience mainly Scandinavians. Perhaps that’s where the slip up occurred. Swedes, Danes and Norwegians are very adept when it comes to English so it’s easy to assume they have a fairly broad vocabulary. But as this example clearly shows you can never be too careful when it comes to cross-cultural communication.

For your entertainment this is how the note swapping went.

Woman: “Did he just say pussy?”

Me: “No, pussyfooting.”

Woman: “What?”

Me: “Pussy is a cute word for a cat.”

Woman: “Oh, I thought it meant” … and she pointed to the obvious anatomy.

Me: “No, it means to tiptoe around, not committing to anything.”

While we were the only two people in the audience rude enough to be passing notes, I doubt we were the only ones distracted from the speaker’s observations on international trade under the influence of a growing Chinese economy. I also suspect that the two distinguished Chinese speakers on the panel were also at a loss.

With one ill-chosen expression the speaker potentially:

  • Lost the respect of audience members who thought he was swearing.
  • Alienated the women present, who misunderstood his reference and thought it was gender-biased.
  • Insulted the entire culture of his fellow panellists.
  • Distracted his audience from the message as they focused instead on this unfamiliar wording.
  • Confused others entirely as they tried to work out how cats fit into the picture.

The thing is, I doubt the speaker had any understanding of the impact of his choice of words. In all other respects, he was a brilliant presenter. He had fantastic presence, built good audience rapport, and kept his slides brief but his dialogue interesting.

It just goes to show that no matter how good you are in front of an audience or how many times you have given the same speech, if you don’t take culture into account you will fail to get your message across.

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