ESL South Korea

Cultural Miscommunication

I put the phone down and started thinking about what my wife had just told me.  A bill of 40,000 Won had just turned into 400,000 Won because the dentist had made a mistake and dropped a zero when translating the figure into English…  I rushed over to her office, which was close to my house, where my wife was waiting, unwilling to proceed with a treatment we’d just found out to be 10 times more expensive (from roughly $40 to $400) than we were initially told.

I discussed the issue with the dentist and with the help of a translator explained that we were unwilling to proceed with the treatment.  The woman’s English was not up to scratch and she’d made an honest mistake, a translation error, a simple miscommunication, but it almost cost us a lot of money…

This little tale illustrates how easily miscommunication can take place and the sometimes extreme consequences that may result.  When money and numbers are concerned it can be especially problematic.  Even English proficient Koreans have trouble translating big figures from Korean currency into English and I usually ask them to write the figure down, or check with them in Korean.  I’ve more than often found that what they the figure they’re saying in English and the figure they really mean is different.

When your first language is someone else’s second language and on top of that a language he/she is not very comfortable in, miscommunication is almost inevitable.  Be ready for it and expect it.  Don’t act surprised when it shows up and never make the other person feel stupid or somehow inferior because he/she misunderstood you.

Avoid unnecessary miscommunication by speaking slowly, using emphasis on important or key words and avoiding jargon or technical terms the hearer might not be familiar with.

Body language and facial expression will aid greatly in avoiding miscommunication.  This is why it’s even easier to misunderstand someone over the telephone.  Conversations with Co-workers that I normally have very little trouble understanding often become a haze of repetitive statements and emphasis as conveying meaning simply gets harder over the telephone.  So when dealing with important matters with a Korean, my advice is to do it face to face and avoid using the telephone.