Excuse Me, Do You Speak English?

They were an odd introduction to cultural differences, our early experiences.

The first was, more or less, an unexpected one – our move from Southern California (born and raised) to Texas for graduate school, and a whole different world. I really hadn’t expected what we plopped into. Everyone spoke English, or some reasonable form of it, but most things ended there. We, my wife and I, were considered ‘drug-using-liberal-hippies’ (this was in the late 1960s) by people who hadn’t even met us yet (we were actually a pretty good definition of ‘straight-arrow’). In their vocabulary this description was a single word. But that’s a story for a later time.

The second experience was a bit odd because we thought we were better prepared. We had lived in Texas for two more years, two years on Long Island, and were in our third year in western New York, so we thought we had ample ‘culture shocks’ (and broader expectations) under our belts.

This instance was our first trip overseas, a trip to Denmark for a conference where we would also see a number of Danish colleagues we had befriended in the US during the previous five years. They spoke fluent English and had assured us that there would be no trouble communicating in Denmark as ‘everyone speaks English.’ The conference was in English and attended by a significant number of international guests. All was well.

Suitably reinforced, we ventured in our free time into downtown for sightseeing and shopping. My initial interactions with local people proceeded somewhat along these lines:

‘Excuse me, do you speak English?’

‘??!!’        (exact translation unavailable)

This happened on a number of occasions, and I was initially puzzled, if not frustrated. When I inquired of my Danish friends, they simply replied, ‘Odd, I’m sure they actually do speak English. Try again.’

So I did.

Same result.

After about three days of abject failure, a light bulb went on. I needed a new approach. So, when we were walking from a bus stop towards our dormitory and passed a chocolate shop (I am certain there is substantial meaning here), my wife and I ventured in (after suitably checking that there was no one else in the shop nor anyone anywhere near 100 yards outside of it). A young woman clerk came out of the back in response to the bell and greeted us. I took a deep breath as my wife simultaneously pushed me forward (she was desperate for some chocolate), and I said with a smile in my most polite demeanor,

‘I’m sorry, I don’t speak Danish. Can you help me?’

‘Why certainly! You must me visiting from America. What brings you to Aarhus? And what kind of chocolates are you interested in? We have truffles, …’

Bingo! The mother lode! (to say nothing about scrumptious chocolates).

From that moment on, for the next two weeks with rare exceptions, by starting with that question we never had any difficulty in being able to use English in the hinterlands of Denmark. It validated all of my colleagues’ claims.

My lesson here was very simple. Although I had read The Ugly American, I didn’t realize how easy it was to be one without realizing it (Note: or to be an Ugly Cultural Whoever). In order to enjoy the excitement of visiting other countries and cultures you have to understand you are the fish out of water. And show you recognize that. In terms I’ve used earlier in this blog, I went from acting (innocently) in a -∑ manner (‘what’s in it for me’) and shifted to an intentional +∑ mode (providing an opportunity for someone to ‘add value’). And that humble question has continued to work in every country we’ve ever visited.

Our second experience followed right on the heels of the first, about a week later near the end of our trip. We travelled by train to Copenhagen and spent the afternoon in Tivoli Gardens. We were a bit hungry, so we scouted out a kiosk and sat down opposite it on a bench while I planned my solo sortie. Having learned from the beginning of our trip, I had acquired the equivalent of today’s iPhone translator app – a tourist phrase book – and worked diligently on some useful but simple phrases. I waited until there was no one at the kiosk nor anyone within 50 yards of it, took a deep breath, and made my move. In slowly enunciated ‘Danish,’ I said,

‘I’d like two hot dogs, fries, and two cokes, please.’

Poiuyt, uioasd fghjklx cvbnas dfghj qwer, tyui oasdf ghjk !!’ she said, rapidly in Danish.

‘Drat! Hadn’t anticipated that’, I thought to myself. In the midst of a long, embarrassing pause, believing I was completely alone in this and clueless as to what to do or say, I heard from behind me a deep masculine voice,

‘She says the French Fries won’t be ready for three minutes.’

I turned sheepishly and said, ‘Thank you.’

I returned to my wife, who had remained on the bench, and relayed the events of the last two minutes, wondering aloud, ‘I don’t know where he came from, but I am really grateful.’

Three minutes later we had our snack, and two more cultural lessons:

Immerse, but expect it to take time. And be prepared to laugh at yourself.

I also think it was then that we discovered that we didn’t belong in the ‘just like to visit’ category, but more in the ‘live in other places’ category and used the ‘just like to visit’ to investigate possible adventures.

And there have been many.


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 02: Value Added, A Definition, 07: Getting It, 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, 09: Doing, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Excuse Me, Do You Speak English?

  1. Jennifer says:

    “Immerse, but expect it to take time”… So true! And as you immerse, adapt; otherwise there is no immersing. Maybe that’s in where the “expect it to take time” comes. I remember our move from Michigan to New York – talk about a culture shock! I seem to recall a few adaptations to my attempts at immersion before fitting in and being accepted.


    • Jim Edmonds says:

      We experienced the same “shock” when we first moved to the east coast, to Long Island from Houston, but L.I. was rural enough then that the shock was much less than it was when we moved from Michigan to northern New Jersey. Moving in a westerly direction twice was nice as life seemed to move at a much slower pace. There’s something to be said for that.


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