Several years ago I met a teacher from an Asian country and was teaching her language here in the States. As we talked, she asked me about the meaning of the phrase, ‘Excuse me.’ She had been in the States for several years at this point but it seems she had always interpreted this phrase as being rude. It sounds like she had heard the phrase used by teenagers in American movies in a very sarcastic way (which certainly was rude!) and applied that interpretation whenever it was used. She had never talked to anyone about it before our conversation so all that time she had been in the States, she had negative thoughts toward people who were using the phrase. I explained briefly the different ways the phrase is used in English and also sent her this video by an ESL teacher which explained it more fully as well as demonstrated how it is used in brief skits.
I thought of this conversation this week when I was in a coaching situation with some people who have recently moved to the States for work. I shared the story as I encouraged them to ask questions about things in the culture that don’t make sense. It is important to be aware of how easily we can misinterpret things in a different culture as well the damage that can be done to relationships as a result of that misinterpretation. Finding people who can answer these questions is so valuable for new immigrants. Learning to be that kind of person is a great gift to give to others!