I learned most of what I know about interacting across language and culture from the incredibly kind and thoughtful way my host country colleagues have dealt with me. With the exception of the occasional angry or inexperienced person, I’ve been gently managed by people all over the world. They’ve had different approaches to coping with the semi-literate outsider, some more successful than others. Some of their techniques really stand out.
If they’re speaking a language other than English, and they say my name when I’m in earshot, they stop and explain what they said about me. I can utterly ignore the Serbian/Spanish/Tatar discussion going on behind me but my neurons fire if my own name is spoken. I could easily make myself nuts wondering what I am doing in the conversation. It’s a gift to immediately know.
They believe me when I describe my language skills. If we’re at a meeting and I tell them I can follow the powerpoint slides in Russian, they don’t insist on whispering a translation anyway.
They walk a neat line between including me and excluding me. If I sit down at the lunch table, I feel bad if everyone immediately switches to English. I feel awful if nine Uzbek speakers converse with each other in English so I can understand. I’d rather track the conversation as best as I can. If everyone starts to laugh, though, it’s very nice when someone leans over and tells me why.
If they don’t know something about Americans, and they need to, they ask. They don’t guess or assume. They just ask me. And if I tell them all Americans aren’t the same and we have different habits in different parts of the country, they accept that.
So, I learn from that. I know what the culture gap looks like from my side, and I try to picture it from the opposite direction. I memorize other people’s kindnesses so I can copy and give back as best I can.