Cultural Misunderstandings


One of the cooler things about Second Life is that you can be in a room full of people, and every one of them could live in a different part of the world. SL provides a medium that breaks down barriers, and so long as everyone can speak the same basic language, communication is possible. Heck, even if you don’t speak the same language you can wear a translator. You may not get the best results from it, but it’s still a step forward.

I am in a unique position. I was born and raised in the USA, a northerner from a middle class suburb of Chicago. My parents, however, were originally from the southern USA. As a kid I spent a lot of time down south too, and even lived in the Appalachian mountains for a year in Georgia. My parents liked the city better though, and so did I, so we ended up moving back to Chicago to stay. More recently, I have spent the last few years living in England.

When I was kid we would visit down south, and many of the people there, even relatives, thought of me as a kind of foreigner. People outside the USA often paint all Americans with the same brush but, believe me, the USA is a huge place, and going to a different state within the USA can be like going to a different country. The landscape can vary in the extreme too, from flat concrete jungles to huge mountains. To put the size of the USA into perspective . . . it took fourteen hours to drive to see my grandmother, and that’s not even far by some standards. To go west from where I lived would take two or three days if driving it. The size of individual states vary, but are big by European standards. Alaska, Texas, California, and Montana are all, on their own, larger than England.

When I briefly lived in Georgia the kids at school took notice of my northern accent. To them I sounded like what the English call “posh” and they would pretend to drink tea in a mock dainty way while putting on sophisticated accents and claiming to be from “the city.” Of course we didn’t even drink tea in the city, but I was the only kid they knew who came from one — aside from on television. This impression of me being sophisticated changed though when the school presented a film about life in the city which showed pollution and crime running rampant. Even to my 7 year old eyes this looked like propaganda against city people to me, and I didn’t even know the word propaganda yet. Needless to say after this film, my classmates viewed cities like Chicago and New York to be horrible and scary, places no decent person would step foot in.

You know what they call northerners in the southern USA? Yankees! It wasn’t unusual for a relative to introduce me as “Shauna, my yankee cousin.” They would mention that in advance, as if apologizing for the way I talked. It would be ironic that years later I’d travel thousands of mile across an ocean to live in England, and if someone hears my accent now they still think “yankee.”

This may surprise some people but I feel more culture shock going to the southern USA than I ever did moving to England, and I find English accents easier to understand than the accents some of my country cousins have. I get the English jokes, whereas I’m afraid a lot of times the southerners would be guffawing at something that didn’t even tickle me. My friend was the opposite though. When I’d put British show “The Young Ones” on (my favourite tv show when I was about 14) I’d be holding my sides from laughing so hard, but my best friend wouldn’t even crack a smile. She normally had a great sense of humour, but in this case she told me she couldn’t laugh because she didn’t understand a word they were saying.

But back to those from the southern USA. Even though I didn’t exactly fit there myself (at least as a kid), I have to say they often get the short end of the stick. The media does not portray southerners accurately, and if you see someone from the south on tv it is usually a northerner putting on an incredibly fake accent. It’s painful to watch. Also, to get a regular job on national television most southerners are forced to learn to fake an accent like mine.

Anyway . . . one of my first misunderstandings from another country came long before Second Life. When I was about 13 I had a pen pal from Germany. I used to love having pen pals, so when the letter arrived and I saw the German stamp I eagerly opened it, excited and beaming. My smile faltered, however, when I realized this was no happy letter — I was being told off.

My German pen pal was, in fact, furious with me. He told me in no uncertain terms that I should never write him again. I was arrogant, and he never wanted to speak to me again. My crime? In my previous letter I had said that Germans were “cool.” You see, to me, the word cool meant great, awesome, good, etc, but my friend, not knowing the slang, thought I was calling the German people cold and harsh. I tried to set things right, but I never heard from that pen pal again. It taught me a lesson though. If I corresponded with someone from a different country after that, I didn’t take it for granted they used all the same words I did.

Living in England I am able to see how others perceive America. I have to smile at how some Brits know nothing about the USA. Some will get excited when they hear my accent, and then when they learn I’m originally from the USA will say they have a relative or friend who lives there. They’ll name some town thousands of miles from where I lived, and expect that I’d know all about it. On the other hand, Americans can be just as silly. Before I left for England this man heard I was going to London and asked “Is that where the leaning tower of piza is?”

Some Brits think Americans do not get their humour. (Ironically, people from the southern USA often claim the “yankees” up north do not get their humour either.) I would have to say this is only half true. For the most part if an American is not “getting” the humour it usually boils down to not understanding the words being spoken. That, or they do not get the cultural reference to someone who is famous in England but not America. Some very basic words people from the UK speak among themselves are not used at all in the USA. I have a Brit friend who said at one time he did not know what the words “closet” or “bathroom” were. These are just everyday words in the USA. Likewise there are everyday words used in the UK that Americans have no clue about. My husband was explaining something to some Americans. He said “our flat is for let.” They stared blankly. I had to pipe in “He means our apartment is for rent,” and then they understood.

In Second Life there are bound to be cultural misunderstandings. People groups from different parts of the same country can often misunderstand each other, so you can only imagine if loads of people from different countries come into contact. And yet most people I meet in SL have great attitudes toward those from different places. Some of the misunderstandings can even be humorous. I speak “Brit” pretty well, being married to an Englishman and living in England . . . but even I don’t know all the words. My husband doesn’t swear much or use a lot of slang, so some of the more colourful phrases I’ve had to learn from British friends in Second Life. For some time I was using a gesture that called one of my friends a slang word for “penis” — and I didn’t even realize it! Though it’s funny in retrospect, my face was red at the time I found out!

One Response

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  1. Seren
    Seren February 28, 2012 at 5:26 pm |

    Really interesting article, Shauna, and great to have a good in-depth analysis of a subject too.

    Language is a fascinating thing and i’m constantly surprised that there are really relatively few misunderstandings in sl, despite the international flavour. Perhaps it’s because we’re so routinely exposed to the language and idioms of other countries, or regions of the world, in sl that our familiarity and the context assists in the process of understanding. Maybe it’s because the circumstances under which we socialise provide a common ground – music and shared activities probably go a long way towards developing awareness. The community spirit helps too – i’ve often been in situations where people will explain why something is humorous and there’s often a real appreciation on both sides of the conversation that different cultures use different styles of language and have different triggers that get their giggleboxes going!

    Outside of sl, it becomes more difficult, especially for the writer on the web, as you’ll well understand. Writing for a global audience is quite a challenge – do you avoid colloquialisms and try to write in some sort of international, linguistically neutral dialect or be true to your own style and language? It’s a real minefield and, inevitably, someone will be offended, grasp completely the wrong meaning or maybe even have a good old laugh, when we’re trying to be deadly serious – but those are the very things that make communication such fun, don’t you think?

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