Following our article in January’s Dotsub Community Newsletter, the New York Times had an Op-Ed piece (Jan 20, 2014) and some responses a week later about idioms in different cultures, specifically in this case, greetings.
The following letter is taken from the Jan 27, 2014 New York Times, partially reproduced below if you are unable to view for whatever reason.
Greetings, From Around the World
JAN. 23, 2014
To the Editor:
Re “The ‘How Are You?’ Culture Clash” (Op-Ed, Jan. 20):
Alina Simone illustrates a universal of cross-cultural communication: the tendency to take literally expressions that members of another culture use idiomatically. Greetings are prime examples because they are among the most ritualized expressions in any culture.
While Americans seem hypocritical to Russians because we ask “how are you?” when we don’t want a medical report (and reply “fine” when we aren’t), both Russians and Americans in Java or the Philippines might find it intrusive to be asked “where are you going?,” not recognizing the question as a formulaic greeting, the expected answer to which is “over there.”
And Burmese or Cambodians who ask “have you eaten yet?” (literally, “have you eaten rice?”) may be misheard by Westerners as issuing an invitation to lunch when they are simply saying hello.
What’s sad is how ready we all are to draw negative conclusions about members of a different culture because they so clearly don’t mean what they say, even as we ourselves are blithely using idioms and formulaic expressions without giving a thought to what a literal interpretation of their meaning would imply — or would lead outsiders to think about us.
Washington, Jan. 21, 2014