3 Tips for Cross-Cultural Conversation

by cv harquail on September 30, 2012

When you and your au pair struggle to communicate — even when you both speak English resonably well– it can be hard to know whether the problem is “attitude” or “comprehension”.

We see issue a lot in comments about au pairs who are given lists of tasks but don’t do them, or host parents who seem cold and uncaring.
 welcome colorbee etsy.jpg For example,

• An au pair speaking to her host mom about how to toilet-train a toddler comes across as condescending and a “know it all”. But in her mind, she’s simply trying to show that she’s confident.

• An au pair says he can cook healthy meals for the kids. For the first week he’s been here, he’s make hot chicken fingers and peas, which the kids love. So why do the host parents keep nagging him about “healthy” dinners?

According experts*, three things can help you suss out whether it’s culture or attitude.

1. Paraphrase.

Repeat what others say in your own words to confirm your understanding. Ask the other person to do the same.

2. Define terms.

When it’s your turn to speak, invest time in creating common definitions of terms. Taking time now to define your terms – even if it’s only by asking a simple question such as “what do you mean by healthy” and then answering it – can save time and energy later on. Be patient, and plan for extra time for this.

3. Never assume that you understand each other– check for understanding.

Don’t take it for granted that everyone is using terms in the same way. Tone of voice may suggest understanding, but that doesn’t prove that you’re on the same page. It makes sense to double-check — and not by asking “Do you know what I mean?”  Try instead “So a healthy meal would look like…. what?”

And then there’s the best advice I’ve ever been given:

Always have positive intent, and always assume positive intent.

Somehow that makes even the most awkward conversations more likely to succeed.

Other “cross-cultural tips”? Please share….

See also:

Top 5 Tips for Cross-Cultural Success, by Shana Medah
Using Cultural Differences to Come Together, Guest Post by Shana Medah
Is it Cultural, Generational, or just Me?


*From Ethan F. Becker, author of “Mastering Communication at Work” (McGraw-Hill)


Used to be an AP October 1, 2012 at 9:54 am

The AP appearing to be a “know it all” could also be due to her native language. Even if the AP knows a lot of English words and has a good command of the grammar, that doesn’t mean the she knows all cultural implications. When I have dinner with my parents it is perfeclty alright and not considered rude to say (the word by word translation of) “give me the salt”. To most Americans that probably sounds rather rude, but if you say it in German to a German you know well, it’s not rude. I’m sure that there are many other examples, also from other languages.

DCAuPair October 1, 2012 at 3:50 pm

This can even happen with two English speakers of different dialects. In South African English, we often say “sorry” instead of “excuse me”. I remember travelling to England and one girl getting very annoyed with me for being so apologetic about everything – until I explained to her that I mean “excuse me” and that I’m not apologizing every time I want to get someone’s attention or ask them to move out of the way :)

German Au-Pair October 6, 2012 at 7:52 pm

Um, “Give me the salt” would be considered rude in Germany, too. Maybe not to the extent as it would be in the US, but it IS rude, not to say “please”.
We don’t necessarily say “Could you give me the salt, please?” with close friends and family members, but we would certainly say “Give me the salt, please.”
Just because your parents don’t require those manners of you, doesn’t mean that’s the German culture.

kat October 7, 2012 at 9:48 am

in ‘my’ german family we used to say ‘salt, please’. well , actually i think we only used that phrase for butter :D. otherwise we used the phrase ‘pass me the salt, please’ or ‘pass the salt, please’.

German Au-Pair October 7, 2012 at 11:26 pm

See? There’s a please in there. Saying please is an intercultural thing, I guess. Americans tend to be MORE polite, but a certain level of politeness is common everywhere.

emm October 9, 2012 at 12:40 pm

I live in country, where we actually DON’T have the word ‘please’ in our language. We don’t even have anything similar kind of, we just don’t say please. (If we want to be extra hyper polite we might say for example, salt, thank you, but not in everyday language.) This obviously causes problems in speaking English at least in the beginning, as we just forget to say please. But I’m not saying that we would not be polite, but we just express it in different way.

Returning HM October 1, 2012 at 10:38 am

Ahh this happened with our very first AP ever (8 years ago). Each day for the first few weeks, when I got home after being gone from my little ones more nearly 10 hrs, I would say to her, “I’m here, so you’re welcome to hang out with us or welcome to do whatever you want, but I’m on with the children.” I’d say this with a smile, and my intention was to give her a break after her long LONG day with a 1 yr old and a 3 yr old. But AP took it completely differently, and when she finally blew up at me, after a few weeks of this, it turned out that no matter how I had smiled or made sure to say that she could still hang out with us, she felt “dismissed” the minute I came home. I was SO glad to know this, because after that, I learned to say things in multiple ways and, even more importantly, to check back for understanding — not just that she had understood my WORDS but that she had understood my INTENT — and that has made a world of difference in hosting.

kat October 5, 2012 at 2:04 pm

oh this reminds me of my first summer in England. I took children to pick some peacock feather off a path when this lady came round and said: ‘You are welcome to get the feathers but you are not a a public footpath. ‘ Little did I know then a) about footpaths that are private b) that it actually mean ‘you should get out , preferable now’ :D

kat October 5, 2012 at 2:05 pm

btw just the phrase ‘you are welcome to ‘ took me ages to understand. not sure whether its me or my mother tongue to blame.

Taking a Computer Lunch October 1, 2012 at 6:44 pm

I’d say, even with very fluent au pairs, American idiomatic English can escape them, especially when they first arrive. It’s hard not to use it, but look for the puzzled expression that tells you to backtrack and explain the idiom. It’s not always possible for me to have a face-to-face conversation, especially when the AP is feeding The Camel and I’m cooking dinner.

DCMomof3 October 6, 2012 at 9:10 pm

After having several conversations with my AP about not wanting her boyfriend in our house, she would send me texts that said “I am at home with BF” – I thought that she meant HIS home and would say things like “great, have fun” – and then I would come home and find that she meant that she was at OUR home with BF. And it became totally confusing because I had sent her a text of approval for something that I did not approve!

Twin+1Mamma October 8, 2012 at 7:29 am

I think this is a hilarious post! We’re welcoming our first au pair in 2½ weeks but already e-mailing has been problematic, which even between two Americans can create some misunderstandings. One of the funniest ones was, when I asked her about what she would like to do with the kids during the year (We have 3 kids, the twins are 7 months and our daughter is 6). She had a bunch of ideas but also asked me, if there were any great children’s museums and such nearby, when I was stupid enough to write something like ‘It’s great to have a long list of activities and if you aren’t sure it’s age appropriate or too much it’s always a good idea to just play it by ear and we’ll figure it out’
Next day a reply came back ‘Oh, I like playing music to kids and often come up with little songs’. I thought it was the cutest thing ever, which reminded me why I love this program! Neither of us can wait, and I am sure plenty of these mix-ups will happen during the year

Emerald City Host Mom October 8, 2012 at 4:43 pm

That’s pretty cute. :)

Our au pair just started learning about idioms in her ESL course and host dad and I never really thought about it. That is, until we did a web search and found a list of them. It’s interesting to look at a list and realize just how much we say things that don’t make sense.

Brazilian Au Pair October 14, 2012 at 8:09 pm

I remember when I was an au pair once the car broke and I called them and told about it. The HM felt like “I” broke the car, and I felt like the car brakes and that wasn’t my fault. She was angry because I didn’t apologize, but in my culture there is no need to say sorry as much as the north americans do.
Then she actually told me that I didn’t care because I didn’t say I was sorry. Back then my english wasn’t good enough to explain to her that it’s not part of my culture to apologize because the car broke down. I ended up rematching for other reasons. Now I look back and wish I could have explained better.

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