Starting from “How Are You” – How Communication Barrier Goes Beyond Language

by: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator

Seven years ago, when I first came to Canada, the first culture shock I ever experienced was the question “How are you?”

It was my biggest fear at the time, that someone would show up in front of me and burst out the words: “how are you?” I, feeling attacked, would have to answer in return, without having developed the conditioned response of replying with “I’m good.”

Before I came to Canada, I learned how to greet each other in English through textbooks. My education had ingrained this knowledge deeply in my brain. Still, asking people how they are doing and replying when asked was a brand new experience to me, because there exists no such culture in my mother language environment.

I speak Mandarin Chinese. In Chinese, we don’t ask “how are you.”

Surely you can translate the question by its literal definition. It will perfectly make sense in terms of its grammar. But it won’t sound natural. It will sound like a question coming from a beginner’s level Chinese learner, or a dialogue cited from a novel that’s translated from a European language.

More common ways of greeting back home would be to say “Morning,” “Hi,” “Busy working?” Or, when texting, “You there?” – Any sentence that solely acknowledges each other’s existence, rather than in the form of a question that provokes self-examination and expects a certain answer. Whenever being asked the question, my first reaction would always be to automatically think about how my day had been, even though I was trained not to do so. “It’s just small talk,” as the teachers had said, “people don’t really care about how you are.” But the question still made me feel obligated to re-examine my life.

Another reason why this petty little issue became such a trauma for me was the “I’m good” versus “I’m fine” debate. In China, the English textbooks we used were quite outdated before the Olympics forced everyone to keep track of modern English. When I took classes in primary school, the toilet was still called W.C. (water closet). Before I came to Canada, the default response to “How are you” was still “I’m fine, thank you, and you?” – very proper and old-school. Even today, when being asked the question, my answer can still be delayed due to having to fight against my first reaction to be socially acceptable.

I’m not the only person who has faced this struggle. A Canadian co-worker of mine expressed her mixed feelings when visiting Britain and being constantly greeted with “Are you alright?” (“Why would you assume I wasn’t?”) A Filipino co-worker said in his culture, greeting is more of “a head nod.”

This is not something that can be changed within one day (or even one year). This is what cultures do to people: your way of thinking is branded by your background and upbringing, no matter what other languages and cultures you acquire later in life. More importantly, this difference in your thinking pattern is always lost in translation, which is what makes cross-cultural competence such a rare but precious skill.

There are more examples to this. When expressing how tired a person feels, native English speakers say “I need coffee.” When proposing after-work activities, they say “let’s go grab a drink.” Chinese people freshly off the planes rarely use, or even comprehend, such expressions. Because coffee, under Chinese cultural context, is perceived as a beverage rather than a drug; and the lack of party culture has determined the focus of Chinese gatherings being eating, rather than drinking. A dinner in English means a serious date and a coffee means friends socializing, while in Chinese, the subtexts could be EXACTLY the opposite.

This is precisely how hard it is for newcomers to survive in an English society. They learn English, they use perfect grammar, but the language they speak is still not the same as everyone else’s, let alone all those references that might pop up in a conversation (what on earth is “Rachel’s hair” to a person who hasn’t watched Friends?). They realize there might be miscommunication occurring, as do the people around them, but to the majority of people who are unaware of these cultural diversities, the issue persists and cannot be resolved. They keep calm and let the struggles carry on.

One of the purposes of professional language services is to diminish such communication barriers, but language service isn’t the final solution to these aforementioned issues. One can seek help from language service providers to translate immigration documents, but the task of becoming friends with their neighbours after settling in still rests on their own shoulders. Many of them stopped trying after experiencing constant frustration, turned to their own communities and built their little “ethnic towns” within the English society. This is sometimes unappreciated by the locals, but it can’t all be blamed on them. To break these barriers and to create a truly multi-cultural but inter-connected society, there still is a very long way to go.