neljapäev, veebruar 04, 2010

communication breakdown

Our friend and business partner Tiina composed a letter to an American publishing company informing them of our decision not to reprint the entire appendix of a book we had translated into Estonian. The reason? Many of the sources were either inaccessible or irrelevant for Estonian readers.

Though Tin's English is strong -- it's one of the main languages in her home, along with Estonian and Swedish -- I was asked to edit this letter, just in case. I was glad I did. To put it bluntly, Tin was blunt. Too blunt. Absolutely rude. Tactless. Rather than trying to assuage the publishing house about our good intentions in cutting part of the book, she went to work on detailing exactly why we had absolutely no need to republish all that crap in their manuscript.

With some buttery, flowery, feel-good American language, I was able to smooth out the kinks in Tin's text to make it sound as polite and quasi-British as possible, cutting of course the obligatory insincerity that pollutes English discourse ("I'm terribly sorry"), and dressing it up in sunny, optimistic tones ("Let's work together to make this book a success"). Our relationship with our partners would remain cheerful but still smart and businesslike.

It wasn't really Tin's fault that the letter came out that way. It's just that if you communicate the way Estonians communicate in English, you can come off sounding like a rude bastard. If your newly renovated house is ugly, they won't tell you that it's different, they'll tell you that's ugly. If they don't like your food, they won't tell you that they're full, they'll tell you it stinks. Estonians are not liars. They'll tell you to your face what they think of you and not even feel the slightest need to polish it with niceties. This cultural idiosyncrasy, as you can imagine, might pose some troubles for Estonian diplomacy.

Such problems work in other ways though. Just as an Estonian might come off as blunt and tactless in English, an American might come off as abrasive and downright ridiculous in Estonian. It was recommended to me, for example, that for a certain media project I contact a university professor who I'll call Virve. "You should work with Virve," said one academic. "She's quite talented." "Oh, you should talk to Virve, she'll help you, she's really good," said another. Finally, even Epp gave it her blessing. "Talk to Virve. She's one of the best."

So I wrote a letter to Virve and said I was contacting her because her colleagues recommended her and said she was quite talented - päris andekas. I thought such flattery might automatically win her friendship. People are vain, right? They like to hear good things about themselves, right? It works in New York. My colleagues always tell me when someone says something good about my performance. But in Eesti?

"Päris andekas?" Virve was surprised. "Should I take this as a compliment or does it have anything to do with my age and gender? This is something we usually say to a school girl."

A school girl? Shit. I checked it out with Epp who confirmed that, in this context, telling someone they are talented, especially a man telling a woman she is talented, is rather patronizing. "Patronizing?" my body temperature dropped. "Oh no, what have I done? What have I done?" I felt like an idiot. Not only had I been patronizing to Virve -- who, surprise, was too busy to help me -- but my patronizing tone had perhaps even been laced with subtle sexism. And all because I told someone that they are talented! (Still ashamed, I'm rubbing my face even as I write this).

These are just the things that happen when multiple cultures collide. There's no stopping it. It's hard though to rectify some situations because some Estonians, particularly some male Estonians, are the opposite of open. There are infrequent displays of, "That's ok, bro, it's all water under the bridge." There's a paucity of self-deprecating jokes. In short, a lot of the Estonians I've met are convinced that they're just about perfect; it's pure coincidence that they happen to be surrounded by assholes. Nobody's perfect, though, not even these Estonians. Life is messy. People are messy. Even people with the best intentions make mistakes. Maybe honesty and openness in these situations are the best policies because not every letter can be edited by a well-meaning friend, nor every conversation monitored for correct usage of vocabulary.

61 kommentaari:

plasma-jack ütles ...

"päris andekas" means "quite talented".
"really talented" would be "väga andekas" or "tõsiselt/tõeliselt andekas".

Giustino ütles ...

Suur tänu.

Colm ütles ...

Nice post. I know exactly what you mean with this. My partner and I both had had to get used to the way interpresonal communication is conducted in our two countries. Eva came off as rude and cold in Ireland and I came off like a babbling pansy in Estonia. She has learned to flower-up her English for Ireland while I'll learned to strip off the fat of my talk and get straight to the point.

If course I am sure that I still have a lot to learn. It's nice to see that I have company in my struggles. *smile*

stockholm slender ütles ...

Quite the same in Finland - I have had to calm down upset Anglo-Saxons at bars as Finns who bump into other people as a rule don't apologize. They simply briefly gaze at you quite annoyedly. This is considered by some non-Finnougrics as almost tantamout to challenging to a fight. I can pretty much do the flowery non-informational, non-meaningful politeness in English, but it would sound ridiculous in Finnish. I have been so much under the influence of the language though that I can sometimes automatically say sorry when someone bumps into me which actually could be interpreted as criticism in Finland!

Rainer ütles ...

"päris andekas" means "quite talented".

That's just it - it doesn't!

"Päris andekas" means "kinda/sorta, surpisingly talanted". That's what pissed Virve off.

Doris ütles ...

yep, same here with the dutchies, only here there's the added catch that the Dutch think it's perfectly ok to discuss their personal lives with strangers - or to ask about a stranger's personal life. Starting with how many kids you have and ending with why did your wife/husband cheat on you... and following up with a story of their own infertility treatments... eek!

on the other hand, I never realised that [American] people actually use words that you normally only hear on Dr. Phil like "I approve" and "commitment". Whenever someone says something no-real-meaning-flowery like that I immediately think that they're lying or being a pompous ass.

with formal correspondence, I've learned that less is more. No need to go into details as that will just upset everyone. If needed all the details can be hashed out in follow-up correspondence ;)

Giustino ütles ...

I always thought päris was similar to üsna.

plasma-jack ütles ...

"päris andekas" means "quite talented".

That's just it - it doesn't!

"Päris andekas" means "kinda/sorta, surpisingly talanted".



Yeah, and that's the very same thing imho. As well as with "üsna". You sure we're both Estonians?

plasma-jack ütles ...

OK, then maybe "quite" has a better meaning in English than from what I thought. But "he's a quite nice person" is not really same as "very nice person" (although it's exactly the same in Estonian, if you catch my drift).

plasma-jack ütles ...

My English is really bad this time of year.

Martasmimi ütles ...

Even in New York people say sorry or excuse me if they bump into you.

Most here see this blunt "speak" as just plain rude and there is
no way to explain to them that its not...they just find it totally offensive.

Marilin ütles ...

One could compare this to Estonian traffic:
(Some) Estonians seem to expect, that everybody else driving around them has to carry the traffic like in North-Europe (politely and sedately).
But they themselves act behind the steering-wheel like South-Europeans (signaling, giving the middle finger etc.)

L ütles ...

There might be a difference between British and American "quite". As a Brit living in MIdwest explained to me: British "quite good" would mean "more or less alright" while Midwestern "quite good" is simply "very good". Estonian "päris/üsna hea" is more similar to the British "quite good", i.e. a little bit less good than "good".

Brüno ütles ...

Thank you for writing this. It reminds me to stop trying to get to cut my american co-workers short or try to summarize their points with two words or less.

I should learn to appreciate excessive verbiocity rather than browbeat it.

Inita ütles ...

By the way, you are too sensitive, Giustino. You made somebody scoff, not a big deal. You need to learn to "tuima panema" while in Estonia. Ask Epp what that means.

Evil Purc ütles ...

Well "päris" has different connotations depending on context. Päris also means "really", but if you say "päris andekas" directly to another person then in Estonian it can only connote (especially when a man says it to a woman) as "sort of talented", and yes, it would be like mocking somebody. It's interesting though that if you said "päris andekas" relating to a third person then it can also mean "really talented".

Well thank you for brightening up my day, I almost got stomach cramps when I tried to imagine the facial expression of a professor who gets called "päris andekas". =]

Giustino ütles ...

I don't think any of my friends would say "quite good" or "quite talented" without a hint of sarcasm. It seems like British English, which is mocked by Americans as being restrained and old fashioned. Would American kids really say "the film was quite good" or would they say "the movie was fucking awesome"?

I equated 'päris' with 'quite' and thought it to be a formal way to emphasize something, ie. very appropriate for an Estonian professor. I was wrong, but I had no idea it could be patronizing. I thought it was a nice thing to say.

By the way, hat tip to Led Zeppelin for the name of this blog post. The solo at 1.40 is päris hea.

Kaspar ütles ...

Justin, would an American student say to his professor: "I heard you're fucking awsome?" :)

Giustino ütles ...

Justin, would an American student say to his professor: "I heard you're fucking awsome?" :)

I'm sure it's happened once or twice.

Brüno ütles ...

I woud give my left nut to be able to rewind time and be there, sitting so close to Jimmy when he shreds his Strat with this solo. Amazing.

McMad ütles ...

American "niceness" and keep-smiling attitude is generally loathed all over Europe, nothing particularly Estonian about that.

tartuense ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
tartuense ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
tartuense ütles ...

"Justin, would an American student say to his professor: "I heard you're f****** awesome?" :)"

Just don't transpose the last two words :)
Another difference between Estonain and English, where word order is crucial.

Martasmimi ütles ...

McMad ütles...
American "niceness" and keep-smiling attitude is generally loathed all over Europe, nothing particularly Estonian about that.
********************************
...and the mostly North Eastern European, Russian and Asian "rudeness" is despised by most everyone here in New York
I'm heading off to a show on Broadway tomorrow evening and I will be thankful that the city will be "emptied" of the rude European holiday tourists who walk into you pushing and shoving and then give you that cold dead stare rather then a polite "excuse me or an I'm sorry".
There is just no excuse for bad manners and rudness no matter where your from.

Doris ütles ...

ah, but what is bad manners? I for one was astonished to see Americans in a fancy restaurant not eating with knife and fork *throughout the dinner*. I mean, I use mostly fork too, but at home where decent people can't see me not using the knife.

notsu ütles ...

Actually, I think that "talented" is even more problematic than "quite" in this context. Doesn't "you're talented" mean that "you have potential"? And isn't it a strange thing to say to an established professor who is supposed to have achieved something already?

notsu ütles ...

Well, cutlery habits are different in different countries anyway, I think <a href="http://vellovikerkaar.blogspot.com/2009/11/survivors.html>this</a> is a more extreme example.

notsu ütles ...

Damn, I still haven't mastered the fine art of posting links:
http://vellovikerkaar.blogspot.com/2009/11/survivors.html

Brüno ütles ...

Knife and fork issue. For years this bothered me, seeing high class, well-heeled, blue-blooded, Ivy league educated, world-traveled and otherwise all-around-supremely enlightened amercian upper-crust people eating with a fork like peasants and I always took exception to that and looked down on them until .... until, at one party some of them made a joke, that Europeans are "wolfing down their food with barbarian abandonment, not taking time to set down their knives and change hands to enjoy the taste ..."

Talk about getting a different perspective!

tartuense ütles ...

Actually, American niceness and smiles are a good thing. I learnt that when living in the US North Midwest. Much nicer to see someone give you a polite smile and hello, than a frumpled face from someone. It can actually make a person's day, not that Estonians know much about that anyway. I know, there's no need to go French and have all these convoluted constructions which just don't work out in the Estonian language, and honesty is actually welcomed and a positive thing, but having a positive disposition and being honest and direct, hey, best of both worlds.
Some traditions are just silly or stupid. What's the problem with eating using a fork if you can and picking the knife up when something needs to be cut, like a steak. Does one need a knife to cut boiled potatoes?! Come on. A knife isn't needed even to cut long pasta, enough said! Being a peasant because one eats potatoes with the peel on?! It's the best part of the potatoe, with most of the vitamins and minerals. Spuds, I love them all.
Indeed, in other circles it can be seen as downright rude and uneducated to not answer politely when asked or greeted in the street or in a shop, or to sulk. Actually, Americans can be very polite and formal.

tartuense ütles ...

Expanding on the pasta theme: the fancy way to eat spaghetti is with a fork and a spoon, swirling the spaghetti with the fork into the cove of the spoon, and then taking to the mouth. No knives in sight in that process.

Brüno ütles ...

and asian noodles you wrap around the chopsticks ... to add to the fancy part.

Andres ütles ...

Yeah, we've all seen how pasta is eaten in some movie. And come on, Estonians aren't that rude and impolite. That's just (artistic) exaggeration. Plenty of people say "I'm sorry" when they bump into other people. But it's pretty pointless when the person hardly noticed it, has already moved on 2 metres until you discovered what happened or you never established eye contact. Should I run after him and tell him/her I'm sorry? Come on, that's just ridiculous. It's not like you made her spill her coffee or something, you just accidently touched another person while either of you wasn't paying attention. Hardly anything to bitch and moan about.

Martasmimi ütles ...

tartuense ütles...
"Justin, would an American student say to his professor: "I heard you're f****** awesome?" :)"

Not if he or she was looking for some efin good grades

McMad ütles ...

Martasmimi,
Not only North East Europe. I live in the Netherlands. Americans are seen as plastic fakes here as well. No point to ask someone "Howya doin", when it doesnt matter to you the least bit how the person in question is actually doing.

Martasmimi ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
Inita ütles ...

Check out this communications breakdown ....
http://uudised.err.ee/index.php?06193527

Don't know whether to laugh or to cry at this.

It is even worse than Latvia's finance minister's "ämber" since Ligi made his incompetence known in his own language. Just imagine if he had to explain his points in English.

Jumal aita eestimaad.

Martin-Éric ütles ...

I noticed the same thing. Complimenting an Estonian woman is the last thing you'll wanna do, even if you mean well. Of course they are fabulously sexy and talented, they're Estonian! There's a mixture of arrogant feminine pride and a passive belief that Estonian women are all so goddamn perfect that putting any qualitative would be spoiling it or expressing irony.

Martasmimi ütles ...

McMad ütles...
Martasmimi,
Not only North East Europe. I live in the Netherlands. Americans are seen as plastic fakes here as well. No point to ask someone "Howya doin", when it doesn't matter to you the least bit how the person in question is actually doing.
*************************************
I have been to Amsterdam and my husband has been there several times, its a city that reminds me very much of New York. He, my husband once had an international rep. who worked for him from there and she visited us here many times.
She was so nice and very cheerful and seemed to like us quite a lot.
We took her out for dinner many times and her social manners were delightful.
She didn't woof down her food and neither did we .
I hope we passed that Euro test for warmth and sincerity and she didn't think of us as "plastic fakes."

She seemed not to be offended by our American table manners (my table manners were actually taught to me by German nuns in a private american school. They walked our dining hall during meals with pointers (sticks) so they could bring to our attention any potential "bad manners"
We never say or have said "Howya doin" .. perhaps a simple "so nice to meet you". Sounds like you watch too much TV or you might have encountered some yahoo's from our south or west, yes we have them but Europe has its fair share of rude and unpleasant people and you might just be one of them.
Get some sun ...perhaps you might become a bit more tolerant.

Boo! ütles ...

I don't see a future for this American vs. European bickering. I have a dream! Of white girls and black girls, of American and European girls -- all playing with each other. Amen.

Indrek ütles ...

If they don't like your food, they won't tell you that they're full, they'll tell you it stinks.

How do you tell someone that you genuinely are full without giving the impression that you didn't like the food?

McMad ütles ...

Martasmimi,
Oow, do i detect some sort of snobistic supremacy over the people from the South or West? :P
Lighten up, you Americuns take yourself far too seriously ;)

Brüno ütles ...

Here is something for Martasmimi ...

Do you agree?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_47eLGkA_I

catalina ütles ...

"If your newly renovated house is ugly, they won't tell you that it's different, they'll tell you that's ugly"

That's so surprising and I definitely would not agree...yes, Estonians are far from being "nice" people but during my 36 years I guess I've never met anyone who would say that your house is ugly or that your food stinks...the worst I've heard is "eks see ole maitse küsimus", "peaasi, et sulle endale meeldib", "pole väga viga". Sure, these words may sound like the ultimate insult when said properly. "Pole väga viga" is also suitable if you really like something but you are too shy (or too Estonian) to express extreme positive feelings.
Most Estonians try to avoid expressing their (negative) opinion directly and verbally, at least to the people they do not know very well.
By the way, are you familiar with studies about Estonians' auto- and heterostereotypes?

Liina ütles ...

I so agree with Catalina. Although being estonian, I would never say "your house is ugly" or "your food stinks" to anyone. Also none of my friends/acquitances behave like that. Where in the world have you met such rude people?

/feels a bit insulted/

Giustino ütles ...

For some reason, one of Epp's closest relatives came to mind while writing that part. She's a very honest person. You're right, though. I think she wouldn't say the food 'stinks' or the house is 'ugly.' She'd say the food is jama and the house is jama too.

Martasmimi ütles ...

McMad ütles...
Martasmimi,
Oow, do i detect some sort of snobistic supremacy over the people from the South or West? :P
Lighten up, you Americuns take yourself far too seriously ;)
****************************
No, we too have our share of crass jerks here in the New York area
but I believe that I was just responding to your serious "un-light" comment.

Boo! ütles ...

Well, I think we Estonians genuinely excel at unpleasantness. Towards each other. A sort of national self loathing that poisons everything that happens here.

I don't know why that is. Maybe it really is the national equivalent of being a rape victim, as has been recently suggested.

Whatever it is, though, we need to get over it. For survival's sake. If this shit continues, we'll soon be an even smaller nation consisting only of idiots, as everyone who has any brains will leave for somewhere where people are less unkind.

And the idiots will be here, "telling the truth" to each other, until they are finally put out of their misery by a foreign power, to the cheers of the rest of the world.

Martasmimi ütles ...

Brüno ütles...
Here is something for Martasmimi ...
Do you agree?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_47eLGkA_I

********************************
Superbowl Sunday:

Oh, com 'on you posted this hugely ego ed windbag's commentary on American football today, on Superbowl Sunday.
I don't care where your from you should be ashamed. : )

Football gives some in this country who have very little and have endured great personal hardships a reason to get out of bed each day.
I saw this movie several years ago only because my husband wanted to see it.
Another couple came along and my good girlfriend who knew or cared little about football commented after seeing it that this movie finally made her understand the reasons why some people live for this sport.

You too can be enlightened:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8kPRxIbplU

Brüno ütles ...

His windbaggy delivery is certainly off-putting, but the points he is making are solid. Look past the presentation.

Martasmimi ütles ...

Brüno ütles...
His windbaggy delivery is certainly off-putting, but the points he is making are solid. Look past the presentation.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
I did look past it after about 30 seconds.
What a great day for New Orleans..lots of happy people there. What a much needed day for that city!

Brüno ütles ...

It is so sad that you miss the point. What New Orleans needs is not a boost in sales of T-shirts and Big Gulp drinks and bad stadium food - what that city needs is new levies, end of corruption, jobs.

Willful ignorance is what will destroy America.

Everyone is free to ignore the truth at their own peril. Many people in New Orleans did just that before Katrina hit.

What is hitting America now is much bigger than Katrina.

Did you read what I wrote here this far? Wow. Thank you for not zoning out on me with the french fry dangling from your mouth ....

Martasmimi ütles ...

Brüno ütles...
It is so sad that you miss the point. What New Orleans needs is not a boost in sales of T-shirts and Big Gulp drinks and bad stadium food - what that city needs is new levies, end of corruption, jobs.
********************************
All of this is 100% true..perhaps New Orleans needed not to be rebuilt at all.
It sits in a bowl below sea level The re-routing of parts of the river may render it unsafe no matter how well the levies are re-constructed.
But today was a very great day for all of the people of New Orleans.
FYI I typed this with out a french fry in my mouth.... nice sterotype.

Inita ütles ...

Gotta use the stereotypes to slap people to wake up, sometimes. What else are they there for, right? Enjoy the snow day. It is beautiful right now and I just called in the office taking a day off. Gotta do my little part increasing the deficit and devaluing the dollar, you know. Before they take this job to China as well, and all I have is snow-days. :-)

Inga ütles ...

Justin - I think that you are a GREAT writer (nothing "üsna" or "päris" about it!).
Look at your blogs and all the comments - anyone that can stir up conversations and make people think and express their different opinions should be proud of it :-) I am really enjoying reading the posts as well as post-posting arguments...

三八 ütles ...

若對自己誠實,日積月累,就無法對別人不忠了。..............................

katarina ütles ...

I got quite used to the polite apologizing while living in States for a month.
While passing through Frankfurt airport on the way back no-one said sorry when they stuck their elbows in my ribs. That really hit me and I was prepared to land in Estonia.

Polite is much nicer than rude.

Wouldn't say "päris andekas" to a professor unless she is your friend or family. May be used to encourage a student.

Gerly Villemson ütles ...

Thanks for this posting. Been awhile since I last read something so good (Will have to come back reading this blog more often.). I only imagined the professor's face... Well, life happens. And actually it seems to me that, we Estonians, aren't just use to receive compliments, nor we don't unfortunately know how to give them to others either.

Interesting conversation in comments part here, too. Thank you, all.

Term Papers ütles ...

I'm actually glad to see all this stuff, to see that this world offers creativity and ideas other than what my lonesome small town provides.


Term papers

next ütles ...

I am an Estonian and I had no idea that "päris andekas" has sexist meaning or wouldn't be taken as compliment. But if I'm starting to think about it, it' just something informal and meant for a friend.