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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 vice-
versa, 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 native-
speakers 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 co-

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.