Sunday, May 3, 2020

Foreign tolerance

                                                            [Picture of Oliver Cromwell*]

For every native-speaker of English, there are around four non-native speakers. This means 80% of English users not only have imperfect knowledge of English grammar and spelling but how to express tone. In other words, of increasing importance due to social media, most are not familiar with the manner in which it is possible to express ideas without sounding rude or aggressive. In this regard, it is important to understand that each language has its own acceptable style of written expression, which may sound ridiculous or rude when translating literally.

Two extremes are French and Hebrew. French is a flowery language arising from a culture that highly values formal politeness.  Some beautiful phrases found common in French correspondence of all kinds include: nous avons l’honneuer de  [we have the honor of], je suis dans l’obligation [I am in the obligation of], en vous addressant mes meilleurs voeux de succes [in sending my best wishes of success], and je me permits d’attirer votre attention [I allow myself to bring it to your attention], even when the the content does not reflect such thoughts. By contrast, Israeli society and the Hebrew language are quite direct, if not blunt, which is reflected in the written language. For example, Hebrew generally avoids use of such fillers as please in  sentences and how are you doing at the beginning of emails. Since, its syntax generally follows the subject-verb-object order and the language has often has few synonyms, the message is to the point. Its tendency to call a spade a spade is the polar opposite of the French indirect style.

English is a direct language in terms of sentence syntax but developed in a class society that valued politeness. In practical terms, the polish in English correspondence is added through doubt, understatement and vagueness, among others. To avoid putting people in uncomfortable corners, English has many phrases to allow for error, at least in form. These include to the best of my knowledge, as far as I can know, it appears that and I have received information that. These words avoid direct accusation. Another technique, typically British, is reducing the severity of the term, sometimes to the point of sarcasm. For instance, your services did not meet my satisfaction means that the contractor’s worker was awful while I find it regretful often expresses great anger. When it would be too confrontational to formally mention a painful matter, native English speakers prefer vague terms. Some examples include please advise, payment issues, contractual obligations and resolving the issue. Using these techniques, English correspondence loses its uncomfortable aggressiveness at least as far as native speakers are concerned.

However, most users of English are neither native speakers nor advanced students of English in terms of formal studies or living in an English-speaking country. At the same time, they increasingly are active in international writing, especially in social media and email. Their language is generally understandable in terms of content but sometimes creates misunderstanding in terms of tone. Specifically, the writer may have intended the greatest respect but the reader, especially a native English speaker, may forget that the writer does not share a common culture and interpret a comment as rude, even insulting, or bloated This communication gap can create avoidable communication barriers.

In terms of implications, it is clear that non-native English-speaking professionals that actively use email and social media should seek guidance on the matter to ensure that they transmit their true message. For example, my wife, an Israeli, occasionally consults me in regards to sensitive email to make sure that the underlying message is effectively expressed. On a greater scale, when reading and reacting to various comments in social media, especially Facebook, it is important to consider the background of the writers. If they are non-native English speakers writing in English, however correct that English may be, they may be entirely unaware of English writing conventions and, consequently, how insulting their comments sounded to a native English speaker. Accordingly, we native speakers must be patient with foreigners not only because they are the majority but also because the vast majority have limited knowledge of English. I hope for the same when I write in French or Hebrew. As Cromwell would say, tolerance is the basis for a civil society.

* For the sake of the blind, do not forget to caption your pictures. Picture taken from wikipedia site.

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