CULTURE CLASHES by Mike Sweeting 

How often do we miss what is really meant because we do not understand where the other person is ‘coming from’? 

In my travels for Gospel, for business (and for fun), I have probably spoken with people from over 100 different cultures. There are several regular hurdles to understanding the other person. The first is language. Did you ever hear about the first Pepsi advertising campaign in China? ‘Come Alive with the Pepsi Generation’ was translated with great care into Cantonese. Everyone was very pleased when crowds gathered around every billboard. Some sniggered, while many declared they would never buy a can. The slogan read: ‘Pepsi will make your ancestors come back to life again’! 

I also recall the export experience of Shaeffer pens. They made the mistake of using a Spanish agency for their Mexican launch. The slogan was ‘You will never embarrass yourself with a leaking pen again.’ The translator did not know that ‘embarrass yourself’ is Mexican slang for ‘getting pregnant’. Sales rocketed – for all the wrong reasons. . Another ‘howler’ in Spanish was a Ford car, called the Pinto after a type of wild horse. Not a single Mexican man bought one – because you are called a ‘pinto’ there if you are, shall we say, under-sized! My favourite is the original slogan used by the Swedish advertising agency of the Swedish company Electrolux to launch in the USA. ‘Nothing sucks like an Electrolux!’ 

The second hurdle is wishful thinking. We often hear what we want to hear, not the reality. The saddest example I came across was in Uganda concerning Guinness beer. The word had got out that it cured AIDS. You may well have heard of more vicious versions of the same myth prevalent in South Africa. 

The third hurdle is our (or their) mannerisms. In India, I have to be careful not to touch anybody’s foot, or to reach out to them with my left hand. Both are considered to be defiling actions. You only touch someone’s foot intentionally if you intend to worship them. The left hand is for dung, the right hand is for food. However, the one that gives me the most trouble is the ‘head waggle’. Here are some possible mean-ings when an Indian waggles their head to you: 

‘I see’ 

‘I half agree’ 

‘I’m not really sure’ 

‘I suppose so, but you will have to convince me’ 

‘I heard you’ 

‘Start again from the beginning. You are talking like a crazy Westerner.’ 

As you can read above, NONE of those mean ‘Yes’, which is what westerners always think it means! I leave you with a question. Are you missing what people are REALLY saying – because of language, or wishful thinking, or mannerisms?