Don’t mention the war!
During my travels as an IT Consultant, I have unwittingly offended most nations and races that I’ve encountered. This is where Prince Philip and I have a lot in common. We both know and understand the sound of the tumbleweed blowing across the silent, dusty plain after an ill-considered utterance in a public place. Startled companions and coworkers gasp at the audacity and sometimes sheer ignorance of my remarks. So why do I do it? Why can’t I just keep my big mouth shut and say nothing? Good question. I like to think I’m a natural diplomat. Not a very good one admittedly, but I like to imagine that I’m bridging the gap between cultures. One way to do this is by identifying with the culture of the country I happen to be in at the time. Of course educating myself about the country I’m about to visit before I visit it would go a long way towards avoiding these social faux pas.
For example, the Germans seem to be particularly sensitive about the war for some reason (Duh! Just my sense of humour). I took on a contract in Germany working for a large company in Cologne. As large companies do, they had a staff canteen, but it was some way down the road from the office. A group of us were walking to the canteen one fairly sunny day and my German colleagues were donning their jackets.
“Oh come on! it’s not cold”, I scoffed. “I was in the army, so I’m tough”. Tough maybe, but apparently ignorant. I had decided to express the latter sentence in German, beginning with ‘Ich war in der wehrmacht…’. Having grown up in South Africa I speak fluent Afrikaans, which has it’s roots in Dutch. Consequently, some words bear a remarkable similarity to the equivalent German word. I used the Afrikaans word for ‘army’ (weermag) as a base and picked the equivalent German word that I had heard before…..’wehrmacht’. There was a stunned silence until one of my colleagues piped up:
“Actually, Kevin, ze wehrmacht voz Hitler’s army. Ve don’t use zis vord any more.”
Suitably chastised, I decided to be more cautious when translating words in future.
I published a book in South Africa in 2001 called ‘Computers are only human’. I thought the title was a clever corruption of the old expression: “I’m only human”. I listed the publication as an achievement on my Resume (or CV if you prefer). It was during a telephone interview with a German recruiter from IBM that he said to me:
“I see zat you have written a book, ‘Computers are only human’, but zis is not correct, because computers are clearly not human’.
At first I thought he was joking. Just to be sure I asked him: ‘Are you joking’? To which he replied that he was being deadly serious. I promised to delete the offending item from future versions of my Resume.
It was a few months later that I was walking back from the canteen when I encountered the Project Manager and some colleagues walking towards me. We knew each other well by that stage and I enjoyed his sense of humour, such as it was. So I said a brief ‘Hi’ and touched two fingers to the side of my head in a gesture known in England as ‘Wotcher, mate’. I suppose it comes from the days when one would tip one’s cap to an acquaintance. When he returned to the office later, the boss pulled up a chair at my desk, so I knew that a serious chat was inevitable.
“Kevin, I vant to ask you vat is viss ziss zaluting zat you are doing, because in zis country zis is not politically correct.”
I was stunned that such a meaningless and flippant gesture could be so miscontrued, but when in Rome and all that.
Then there was the time I was working in the UK and happened to mention to a colleague that I had never seen so many disabled people, while living in South Africa, as I had when I arrived in England. I then made the helpful suggestion that perhaps it was due to England being a small island and what with the interbreeding and all….. Of course I didn’t mean to suggest that the English are an inbred race, but it spewed out that way. Another national offence. Then there was the time I was working in Ireland and wore my Union Jack socks to work. My colleague, Bob, looked horrified as I crossed my legs. At first I thought my trouser zip might be open, but he helped me out:
“Kevin, I wouldn’t be wearing those socks in Ireland if I were you.” Again incredulous at how such a small thing might offend so many people, I refrained from making that mistake again. How was I to know that there were ‘troubles’ between England and Ireland for which England is still being vilified by the Irish? I will probably go on unintentionally offending nations everywhere, so I can only apologise in advance for those who become victims of my scatter-gun approach to conversation.
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