October 13, 2005

Misunderstandings Mar Workplace
By Timothy Chambers
In the 1976 film ``All the President’s Men,’’ there’s a scene where journalist Carl Bernstein is on the phone, trying to confirm a story with a reluctant source. ``You don’t have to say anything,’’ Bernstein tries. ``I’ll just count to 10. If there’s any reason why the paper shouldn’t run this story, just hang up, okay?’’ The source agrees. Bernstein counts. At ``10,’’ the source is still on the line. So the Washington Post ran the article the next morning _ and was promptly hammered for printing a false story. What happened? Was Bernstein’s source lying? Ill-informed? Neither. As the journalist later discovered, his source had thought Bernstein had said ``hang on,’’ rather than ``hang up.’’ Thus a political scandal erupted over a one-word misunderstanding. When I learned about this episode, I couldn’t help but nod knowingly. For a year, I’d consulted for a top Korean chaebol. I soon found myself saddled with the task of negotiating the numerous conflicts that arose between the Korean managers and the Western staff. Sad to say, the disputes’ source often sprung from simple, innocent misunderstandings. As I encountered more and more of these episodes _ some amusing, some serious _ I started grouping them into three categories according to the type of miscommunication involved. Phonetics: I was once reading in the company library, and found an article that I wanted to photocopy. Unable to find a machine, I approached the librarian. ``Copy machine?’’ I queried. The librarian smiled and pointed toward a long hallway. I cheerfully marched down the hall, where I found myself face-to-face with a vending machine. The instant I noticed that the machine dispensed coffee, I realized what had happened. The Korean alphabet lacks a letter corresponding to the ``f’’ of English. As a result, Korean speakers often substitute ``p’’ for ``f’’ (and ``v’’) in English loan-words. Thus ``copy’’ becomes ``coffee.’’ It also explains my perplexity when a Korean colleague said she was upset over her ``pizza’’ (i.e., her visa). Idiom: ``Unbelievable!’’ a Westerner vented one afternoon. ``I told the manager about a problem I was having with the audio-visual equipment, and he wouldn’t help me at all! He just apathetically asked, `What do you want me to do about it?’’’ On paper, it’s perplexing that my co-worker became upset: after all, didn’t our Korean manager explicitly offer to help? Only later did I realize that idiom was the culprit here. To be sure, there’s nothing syntactically amiss with what the manager said. The problem is that, paradoxically, native-speakers also use the question, ``What do you want me to do about it?’’ in a standoffish way, meaning, ``I can’t do anything about it; why are you complaining to me?’’ Unfortunately, my Western co-worker had rashly presumed that the manager meant the latter, impolite expression.

Intonation: unlike Korean, English makes endless use of intonation to convey information, over and above the information carried by a speaker’s words alone. Native speakers’ use of intonation is so habitual that they often aren’t conscious of how often they use it, and rely upon it. Nor are they sensitive to how difficult a feat it is for non-native speakers to achieve fluent intonation. Hence my co-worker’s accusing the manager of being ``apathetic’’ in the previous example; in the absence of voice-tone variation, it’s natural for a native to infer that the speaker lacks interest. Another example: One morning, a new co-worker stepped into the company lounge and loudly asked, ``Did you make the coffee?’’ Since his voice was gruff, and devoid of inflection, I wasn’t sure whether or not to feel indignant. One way of hearing the sentence would have meant, innocently, ``Did you make this coffee here?’’ But another way of hearing the question would have attached a more presumptuous sense to it: ``It’s your duty to make the coffee; did you do it yet?’’ Only when I considered the context (my co-worker had already seen the coffee, before he spoke) did I realize that he wasn’t being rude; he just lacked nuanced intonation. I wonder how often Koreans’ requests are misunderstood as demands, and viceversa, due to such intonation-based miscommunication. How might we prevent these unfortunate scenarios? Two suggestions come to mind. For starters, simple awareness of miscommunication’s ubiquity would go a long way. Since nativespeakers use and hear English reflexively (and often have little exposure to non-native environments), it’s easy to forget that care is called for in parsing non-native English. The more Westerners study cases of misunderstanding, the more adept we’ll be at diagnosing a workplace faux pas as a case of reparable miscommunication, rather than demoralizing ill-will. In a 2004 article (``To Teach English, Study Korean’’), I once canvassed a range of pedagogical benefits that Western teachers could gain from studying our hosts’ native language. Unsurprisingly, I think this avenue would brighten the workplace, as well as the classroom. For studying Korean not only enhances error-analysis skills with our students; as I discovered first-hand, it also strengthens miscommunication-analysis with our non-native coworkers. My suggestion that Westerners study Korean springs from an ethical motivation, as well as a pragmatic one. It takes two to miscommunicate. So it would be unfair to foist the full labor of preventing miscommunication upon our Korean colleagues. Until Westerners take pains to become part of the solution, we’ll remain a large part of the problem. The writer consulted in Korea from 2003-04. He’s now a university lecturer of philosophy and logic in the United States.