November 1999
It's a Large and Confusing World, After All
Thoughts On Dealing With a Global Industry
ILLUSTRATION: TOM CURRY

by PAUL D. LEHRMAN

No one speaks English, and everything's broken...

-- Tom Waits, "Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)"

There is not a more self-centered country on earth than the U.S.A. Thanks to the relentless blindering of our media and entertainment industries, our perception of foreign lands is predominantly of places with wars, floods and earthquakes, where people talk funny and eat strange things despite the fact that what they really want is McDonald's and Coca-Cola.

As a result of this, Americans have an odd--and, I used to think, unique--way of dealing with people who don't speak English. Since we can't conceive of a world where not everyone speaks our language, when we are confronted with someone who doesn't understand a thing we are saying, we simply repeat it, only louder. Of course, this doesn't work, and so everyone goes away from the meeting feeling that the other guy is stupid. It doesn't lend itself to a great deal of cross-cultural understanding, and it's one of the many reasons why Americans have a reputation the world over for being boorish.

I liked to think that I was above that. My mother arrived here from Russia at the age of 12, speaking not a word of English. My grandmother, who came with her, had lost much of her hearing before she left Russia, and so she never really learned English. I grew up thinking that Russian was a language that was always spoken at high SPLs, since that's how my mother and grandmother communicated with each other. But I also learned that when I am talking to someone who is not fluent in English, I need to speak slowly and clearly, and if they don't understand me, I should find other words that perhaps will be more familiar to them.

Nonetheless, a few years ago, I found myself characterized as an ugly American thanks to an offhand comment I made in an online discussion group. A large Japanese company posted to the group a press release that was, to put it politely, a little awkwardly phrased. I expressed that I considered it dumb, if not arrogant, for a company with such formidable resources to post an important press release without at least having it checked over by someone who spoke English well, just to make sure that English-speaking readers would be able to make head or tail of it.

The rest of this column, along with 56 more, is now available in The Insider Audio Bathroom Reader, published by Thomson Course Technology PTR.

Copyright ©2006 by Paul D. Lehrman